Statement on Iraq and Afghanistan and Operations in the Middle East – 26 February 2015

Mr Deputy Speaker, I rise today to update the Parliament and the Australian people about Australia’s missions in Iraq and Afghanistan.

IRAQ – OVERVIEW

Last month the Prime Minister and I visited Iraq and the Middle East Region.

This was my first opportunity as Minister for Defence to visit our Australian Defence Force personnel deployed on operations, and I was deeply impressed by their professionalism in carrying out what is often extremely dangerous work in the service of our country.

In Baghdad, I accompanied the Prime Minister to a meeting with Iraqi Prime Minister Al-Abadi, and reinforced Australia’s commitment to support Iraq as it confronts Daesh.

Prime Minister Al-Abadi reiterated his support for Australia’s military contribution, and expressed Iraq’s gratitude for our assistance.

The Iraqi Government has asked for our help and we are working with the Iraqi Government to ensure that it is able to keep its people safe, reclaim its territory, and combat the Daesh threat.

But this isn’t just about helping Iraq.

It’s also about protecting our people and our interests at home. Recent events in Australia, Canada, France, Denmark, Nigeria, Pakistan, Egypt and Libya demonstrate the global nature of the threat of terrorism.

We cannot allow violent extremism to spread to our shores. Nor can we afford to let it spread to our region.

IRAQ – ADF OPERATIONS UPDATE

Yesterday the Chief of Joint Operations, Vice Admiral David Johnston and key operations staff of Headquarters Joint Operations Command provided me with an overview of Defence operations in the Middle East during a tour of the Air Operations Centre and Joint Coordination Centre.

In September last year, the Prime Minister announced, following requests from both Iraq and the United States, that Australia would deploy around 600 personnel to the Middle East – including an Air Task Group and Australian Special Forces – to support the international coalition against Daesh.

AIR TASK GROUP

On the 1st of October 2014 the Australian Defence Force deployed under Operation OKRA and commenced operational flying over Iraq in support of coalition air operations.

On the evening of 5 October, Australian aircraft flew their first armed combat missions over Iraq.

And on 8 October, Australian aircraft conducted their first airstrikes against Daesh targets.

As of 20 February, the Air Task Group had completed the following missions:

  • F/A-18 Super Hornet aircraft had completed 167 missions, releasing 205 weapons;
  • the KC-30A air-to-air refuelling aircraft had conducted 156 missions, offloading more than 6 million kilograms of fuel to Australian and coalition aircraft;
  • the E-7A Wedgetail airborne early warning and control aircraft had conducted 71 command and control missions;
  • C-130J Hercules aircraft had conducted six humanitarian aid drops to persecuted minorities in Iraq, including the provision of food and water to minorities on Mount Sinjar in August 2014; and
  • a combination of C-130J Hercules and C-17 Globemaster aircraft conducted six delivery missions providing 213 tonnes of ammunition and weapons to Kurdish Pehsmerga forces to assist them to fight Daesh.

SPECIAL OPERATIONS TASK GROUP

In late 2014, the Special Operations Task Group commenced its Advise and Assist mission in support of the Iraqi Counter‑Terrorism Service at the Baghdad Diplomatic Security Centre and another location in Iraq.

As part of this mission, Australian Special Forces advisers have delivered training in urban combat, close quarter battle skills, countering improvised explosive devices, counter-sniping, medical skills, counter terrorism operations planning, and command and control.

As at 20 February, the Special Operations Task Group had trained 46 students in combat-casualty care in the Iraq Counter-Terrorism Service, while 220 Iraqi personnel had received explosive hazards awareness training.

Our support is raising the capability of the Iraqi Counter-Terrorism Service to a level where it will be more effective in targeting Daesh command and control, leadership, resupply and logistics.

We are engaged in a difficult mission that will remain difficult for some time.

But with our allies and partners, we are making a real difference.

Coalition air strikes have helped stop Daesh’s momentum. And to date, Iraqi and Kurdish forces have reclaimed approximately 700 square kilometres of Daesh-controlled Iraqi territory.

BUILDING PARTNER CAPACITY

The Prime Minister has said that Australia is committed to doing what it can to make the world a safer place and to make Australia a safer country.

Since our visit to Baghdad in January, the Government has continued discussion with the Iraqi government and our coalition partners, especially the United States, about what more we can do to help the Iraqis to defeat Daesh and roll back its gains.

We are considering a contribution to the coalition ‘Building Partner Capacity’ mission.

On Friday the Prime Minister will have a discussion with New Zealand Prime Minister John Key about the nature of our possible contribution.

Australia welcomes New Zealand’s announcement that it will send Defence personnel to Iraq to train the Iraqi Security Forces.

The capacity building mission is critical to countering Daesh in Iraq, and will help Iraq take responsibility for its own security.

AFGHANISTAN – OVERVIEW

Australia remains committed to the mission in Afghanistan, a decade or more since the 9/11 terrorist attacks in the United States and 2002 and 2005 attacks in Bali.

This mission has been the longest military commitment in Australian history, involving all elements of the Australian Defence Force – some 33,000 deployed personnel since 2001.

The ADF commitment began as part of the International Coalition Against Terrorism, formed by the United States and its allies in 2001.

From 2005, Australia contributed to the NATO-led International Security Assistance Force (ISAF), as international efforts shifted from combat operations, to reconstruction and security sector reform.

In 2013, Australia completed its mission in Uruzgan, and handed over control to the Afghan National Security Forces.

And the end of 2014 marked yet another milestone, with the conclusion of Operation SLIPPER, Australia’s military contribution to the ISAF mission.

Sadly, these commitments have come at a cost.

41 ADF personnel have been killed in Afghanistan, and another 261 wounded, and those others who have been subsequently affected by their Afghanistan deployments.

We have not forgotten the sacrifices of these personnel, nor the sorrow their families face.

Nor have we forgotten the reasons we must finish the job well.

It is strongly in Australia’s interest to prevent Afghanistan from again becoming a safe haven for al Qaeda and other international extremist groups.

And so, in 2015 Australia remains committed to international efforts to support Afghanistan’s security, governance and development.

AFGHAN PROGRESS

Following more than a decade of ADF commitment in Afghanistan, Afghan capacity and institutions continue to make encouraging gains.

The Afghan National Security Forces have now assumed full responsibility for securing the Afghan people, and continue to demonstrate their ability to plan and conduct independent operations.

Last year, they demonstrated their increasing confidence and capability in providing security for Afghan elections.

They are providing security for the Afghan people, fighting their own battles with tenacity and holding ISAF gains.

At the political level, historic progress was made in 2014 with the peaceful transition of power to the Afghan National Unity Government. However, challenges remain and Afghan security forces will again be tested in 2015.

RESOLUTE SUPPORT MISSION

The international community has now opened a new chapter in its relations with Afghanistan, with the establishment of the new NATO-led Resolute Support Mission, which began on 1 January 2015 and is planned to conclude on 31 December 2016.

The Resolute Support Mission marks the end of coalition combat operations, with its focus on training, advising and assisting the Afghan Security Institutions and Afghan National Security Forces.

Australia’s commitment to the Resolute Support Mission is about 400 Australian Defence Force personnel, deployed under Operation HIGHROAD.

Through a variety of roles, ADF personnel are continuing to make an important and significant contribution to building Afghan capacity.

At the Afghan National Army Officer Academy in Kabul, ADF trainers and mentors are developing the future leadership of the Afghan National Security Forces.

Other ADF personnel support our commitment through critical force protection, medical and intelligence roles, embedding within a range of Headquarters, and as military police.

FUTURE COMMITMENT TO AFGHANISTAN

Decisions about the drawdown of ADF personnel in 2015 and 2016 still need to be made, and will be largely shaped by Afghan progress, as well as the plans of NATO and the United States as these develop.

Central to these decisions will be Australia’s interest in making a constructive contribution to international efforts, and the importance of cementing the progress we have made in Afghanistan over the course of more than a decade.

We will work closely with our Afghan and international partners to see how Australia can contribute to the next phases of the Resolute Support Mission.

WELCOME HOME PARADE

On 1 March 2014, Prime Minister Tony Abbott announced that Australia will have an Anzac Day style National Commemoration for the completion of Operation SLIPPER.

This event will give all Australians an opportunity to recognise the commitment and sacrifice of our personnel deployed as part of Australia’s commitment to combat terrorism across Afghanistan and the Middle East.

The event will include not only Australian Defence Force members, but also Australian Federal Police and civilian employees from the Department of Defence, Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade, and other government agencies. Marching alongside will be a number of Afghans who were formerly employed with Australia’s mission.

I would encourage all to attend this activity, which will be held in each state and territory capital city and Townsville on Saturday, 21 March 2015.

MARITIME AND PEACEKEEPING OPERATIONS

Beyond our engagement in Afghanistan and Iraq, the ADF is supporting vital work in maritime security and peacekeeping operations in the Middle East and around the world.

For more than two decades, Australia has committed a Major Fleet Unit to maritime security off the Horn of Africa.

This commitment, currently under the US-led Combined Maritime Force (CMF), promotes maritime security, stability and prosperity in the Middle East Region.

An enhanced security environment ensures Australia’s safe and open access to the region while fostering trade and commerce.

CONCLUSION

Our ongoing commitments to Iraq and Afghanistan and elsewhere in the Middle East are important for Australia’s national security.

It is important to remember that these missions involve risk to our Australian Defence Force personnel.

These are difficult and demanding jobs.

Australians should be proud of the important work they are doing in our name, and our thoughts are with them.

(ENDS)