by GREG HUNT AND DAVID BUSHBY
When news of the Afghanistan tragedies hit, we were with Australian soldiers at a small military training facility for East Timorese soldiers near Dili. All of the Australians were on deployment to help develop skills within the Timorese army. Some had seen service in the Solomons, some in the Middle East, some in Sudan and some had just returned from Afghanistan.
A senior enlisted soldier who had just been cross posted from Afghanistan to Timor fixed us with his gaze and said very simply: “We know the risks. We choose to do this work. And we do it because we believe in it.”
Throughout the day, both enlisted soldiers and officers quietly sought us out not just to express their sadness at the loss of these fine men, who were known directly to some of those in Timor, and intuitively by all, but also to send a clear message through us : Tell the folk back home that we believe in what we are doing both here in Timor, as do those in Afghanistan.
The universal view, expressed one on one, was that while the work in Timor, the Solomons, the Middle East and Afghanistan carried with it real risks, most clearly in Afghanistan, Australia was making a profound difference to both internal and external security. However imperfect, this transformation not only contributes to international security but also provides the platform for real human development. In short, without this security, there is no real chance for girls in Afghanistan to receive schooling which is so critical for the future development and opportunities.
In particular, in East Timor and Afghanistan, soldiers and Federal Police have been working with their counterparts on both personal and professional leadership with regards to prevention and response to widespread problems of domestic violence. This is a critical part of the transformation process for women in both countries.
Beyond that, there have been significant improvements in infant mortality rates in East Timor and Afghanistan and basic economic development in the Solomons.
It was this combination of the most intense understanding of risk, coupled with a profound commitment to the broader task, which characterised the Australian forces in East Timor and through them in Afghanistan.
As we review the more than 10 years Australia has been in East Timor, and the ongoing aid commitment into the future, it is worth understanding what has been achieved.
When Australian forces first entered East Timor in 1999, after the chaos and bloodshed which followed the 30 August plebiscite on Independence that year, security had collapsed, relations with Indonesia were war like, the entire national record system for land and policing had been torched and there was simply no national infrastructure. There was every prospect of Timor becoming a failed State on our own doorstep, with all of the human and security implications which that would bring.