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'We promised our soldiers that we'd tell their story.'

Australian soldiers in East Timor. Photo from the ABC.

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.

Sapper James Thomas Martin, 21, Private Robert Poate, 23, and Lance Corporal Stjepan Milosevic, 40 were killed in Afghanistan last week.

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.

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Under the leadership first of General Cosgrove and later, successive waves of Australian troops and commanders, the East Timorese have set about creating a new country.  Stage 1 was stabilisation of security and relations with Indonesia.  Remarkably, the East Timorese Indonesian relationship has become a strength. This speaks volumes for both the Timorese leadership and for Indonesian President Susilo Bambang Yudiyono.

Australian troops.

Stage 2 of East Timor’s journey has been consolidation of the police, the military, and the bureaucracy.  Australia has been the driving international force in Stages 1 and 2. Australian troops are teaching Timorese soldiers to weld, operate diggers, build bridges and to be a critical part of nation building rather than just to be a security force. Australian Federal Police are training both officers and recruits in the Timorese National Police force in everything from basic policing to advanced investigation techniques.

It is now time for Stage 3, for East Timor to assume full control of its own security and to embark on its full economic development.  And so Australian troops will later this year start drawing down from East Timor with, in their words, a sense that “the job is done”.

There will of course be huge difficulties and inevitable set backs for East Timor in the years to come, but it is a vastly different State today than it was in 1999. Just as importantly, the odds were that it would become a failed State.  Instead, it is an emerging State.  And Australia should not only take credit for helping to bring forward the plebiscite in East Timor which lead to independence, but should reflect on the extraordinary contribution of our armed forces in helping East Timor create a real future for itself.

Looking forward, in less than two years we will have essentially drawn down our forward deployments from each of the Timor, Afghanistan and Solomon Island theatres. It is entirely right to review the costs to Australia, particularly in regards to the loss of our finest.

Each Australian has the right and indeed the duty to weigh this heavy cost, but we pledged to the Australian soldiers to tell their story, and to pass back the message which they gave to us, which was, very simply, “We believe in what we are doing and we want to finish the job, whether it is here in Timor or in Afghanistan.”

Greg Hunt MP and Senator David Bushby

Hon Greg Hunt MP and Senator David Bushby have just returned from deployment in East Timor where they were embedded with Australian forces.

If you could send a message to our troops, deployed around the world, what would it be?

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