Leaders agree: we're not leaving Afghanistan yet
Australian Leaders' opening remarks on Afghanistan
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Prime Minister Julia Gillard says Australia will remain involved in efforts to restore peace and stability to war-torn Afghanistan for much of this decade.
Ms Gillard and Opposition Leader Tony Abbott have opened the first ever Parliamentary debate on the war by reiterating their bipartisan support for the commitment as vital to combating the terrorist threat.
Ms Gillard was briefly heckled by onlookers in the public gallery as she delivered her speech, and warned there will still be many hard days ahead in the fight, but said Australia would not be leaving until the task of training Afghan troops was completed.
"Australia will not abandon Afghanistan, we must be very realistic about the future," she said.
"Transition will take some years, we will be engaged through this decade at least.
"The Australian people are entitled to know what we are trying to achieve and when our troops can come home.
"The international community will remain engaged in Afghanistan beyond 2014, and Australia will remain engaged.
"There will still be a need for Australians in a supporting role. There will still be a role for training and other defence cooperation."
Mr Abbott agreed, saying if Australia left it would effectively be an insult to the families of soldiers who have been killed in the conflict.
"A premature end to our involvement would tell the Americans and the British that Australia is an unreliable ally and fair-weather friend," he said.
"It would tell the Afghan people that our commitment to human rights is more rhetorical than real and certainly doesn't extend to protecting them where we can.
"It would announce to the world that very little, certainly not the protection of the weak or the promotion of what's right, is worth a significant price in Australian lives."
And he said it was hard to see the moral difference between the war in Afghanistan and Australia's involvement in restoring peace in East Timor.
"We shouldn't forget that the military expedition to East Timor was to stop defenceless people from being brutalised," he said.
Ms Gillard reminded Parliament of the Australians killed around the world in terrorist attacks and said Australia must be part of efforts to stop Afghanistan again becoming a training ground for terrorists.
"If the insurgency in Afghanistan were to succeed, if the international community were to withdraw, then Afghanistan could once again become a safe haven for terrorists," she said.
"Al Qaeda's ability to recruit, indoctrinate, train, plan, finance and conspire to kill would be far greater than it is today, and the propaganda victory for terrorists worldwide would be enormous."
Ms Gillard says Australia's involvement in the war is making a significant difference in Afghanistan and in recent meetings overseas she emphasised this to ISAF commander General David Petraeus and NATO secretary-general Anders Fogh Rasmussen.
And she sought to assure Australians that every effort was being taken to ensure the safety of Australian troops.
"I give you my firm assurance that this government will listen to the professional advice and provide every necessary protection and support for our soldiers and civilians in Afghanistan," she said.
Australia has about 1,550 troops stationed in the Uruzgan province of Afghanistan and 21 Australian troops have died in the war since 2001.
Earlier this month the Coalition appeared to call for more soldiers and equipment to be sent to Afghanistan after an email from a disgruntled solider raised concerns there was not enough support.
But Mr Abbott says that is no longer the Coalition's position.
"After assurances from senior commanders on the spot, the Opposition accepts that our troops have sufficient artillery, attack helicopter, fighter-bomber, and light armoured vehicle support," he said.
However, he said the current commitment should be regarded as an average and not a limit that can never be exceeded.
Debate will continue tomorrow with dozens of MPs expected to voice their opinion on the war.
Independent MP Andrew Wilkie and Greens MP Adam Bandt are also due to voice their opposition to Australia's commitment.
MPs from both sides have been encouraged to speak out but Mr Abbott today warned his colleagues not to try to "score political points".
Liberal backbencher Mal Washer has already called for the troops to come home.
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