TRANSCRIPT: INTERVIEW WITH RAFAEL EPSTEIN ON 774 ABC MELBOURNE
TRANSCRIPTION: PROOF COPY E & OE
DATE: 17 April 2012
RAFAEL EPSTEIN: But what I do know, or what I believe is the Government's never been able to clearly say why we should be there.
So it's something I can put to David Feeney, who's the Junior Defence Minister. He's been very patient, waiting to have a word to us. Thank you for being there.
DAVID FEENEY: Thank you. My pleasure.
RAFAEL EPSTEIN: David...
SENATOR DAVID FEENEY: I had no trouble being patient, Raf, that was a searing interview with Tricia.
RAFAEL EPSTEIN: Yeah look it's - I'm impressed that she agreed to speak to us.
SENATOR DAVID FEENEY: Amazing woman.
RAFAEL EPSTEIN: I raise my previous reporting, not to blow my trumpet or Dan Oakes' the reporter who did a lot of that stuff, but it's never been clear to me that the Government has clarity about what is driving the timetable for withdrawal. So what is the real reason that troops are coming home earlier?
SENATOR DAVID FEENEY: Well there's no deceit or subterfuge in this. I think we've always strived to have an honest and transparent debate in the parliament and in the community about Afghanistan.
But we've also made another thing clear, and that is we will be working in Afghanistan and transitioning out of Afghanistan on a conditions basis rather than on a schedule that's driven by any other drivers, whether it be politics or public opinion or whatever. This is...
RAFAEL EPSTEIN: So why dismiss the idea - constantly the Government's dismissed the idea of any early withdrawal, and then all of a sudden we are having an early withdrawal. Why do that?
SENATOR DAVID FEENEY: I just take issue with your language. I wouldn't describe it as an early withdrawal. I mean today the Prime Minister has said is that the Government; the Australian Government will be taking to the Chicago conference in May when all of the leaders of the coalition and Afghanistan gather...
RAFAEL EPSTEIN: I mean I don't want to bog people down in the details but Stephen Smith specifically said in the interview last [indistinct] oh listen, way too early to be talking about this before Chicago.
So that's changed, this is a change. I don't understand why the Government didn't want to talk about the possibility of change.
SENATOR DAVID FEENEY: Well I think what we didn't want to do is be driven into a corner and lay down a timetable that was divorced from the reality of people in Afghanistan.
Our transition out of Afghanistanis going to be based entirely around what is best for the mission and best for that country. It's not going to be driven by politicians being dragged into scheduled commitments long before it's appropriate.
Our first responsibility is to the mission and to the people that this country sends in harm's way, and...
RAFAEL EPSTEIN: Sure.
SENATOR DAVID FEENEY: ...really I'm very comfortable with the fact that we have resisted making any commitments or any absurd promises, but rather we have stuck to our guns and said we will announce things as they are deemed to be appropriate and fitting for the situation. And today the Prime Minister has made an announcement about...
RAFAEL EPSTEIN: Sure.
SENATOR DAVID FEENEY: ...how she sees the future of Australia's commitment in Afghanistan and when our forces can start transitioning out...
RAFAEL EPSTEIN: Yes.
SENATOR DAVID FEENEY: ...and that's been driven really by one thing and one thing only, and that is what is appropriate on the ground.
RAFAEL EPSTEIN: Well I mean let's talk about...
SENATOR DAVID FEENEY: And that's about our people measuring the capability of the fourth Afghan national army.
RAFAEL EPSTEIN: I understand. I could take you through chapter and verse on the cast of characters in Uruzgan. Again I don't want to bore the listeners with that.
You've been to Uruzgan province...
SENATOR DAVID FEENEY: You can have that debate another time.
RAFAEL EPSTEIN: Yeah. You've been to Uruzgan province. Have you met the chief of police there or the governor?
SENATOR DAVID FEENEY: Matiullah Kahn, yes I'm familiar with Matiullah Khan.
RAFAEL EPSTEIN: Right. So Matiullah Khan. I mean I've done lots of stuff on him. At least $50 million or $60 million of contracts he's earned, he's chased the governor out of the province, the governor that Julia Gillard was seeking - or at least she was seeking a technocrat governor...
SENATOR DAVID FEENEY: Well he...
RAFAEL EPSTEIN: Who are we - well she did.
SENATOR DAVID FEENEY: Well...
RAFAEL EPSTEIN: I've seen the notes from the meeting. She was asking for a technocrat governor and that governor was too scared and he left.
SENATOR DAVID FEENEY: Well the governor is still there, Raf. No - well the governor is there...
RAFAEL EPSTEIN: Governor Sherzad is still there?
SENATOR DAVID FEENEY: He is still there and I would even go so far as to say that his authority over the provincial government has never been stronger. But if you're trying to make the point that there are characters in the Afghan government who are not lily white, if you're trying to make the point that from 2001 various warlords sided against the Taliban, then your point is right. And I'm not going to pretend to you or to your listeners that every Afghan on the side of the Karzai government is a candidate for a Nobel prize. There are obviously a lot of facts on the ground, there are a lot of people on both sides - and as General Cantwell said onFour Corners...
RAFAEL EPSTEIN: Yeah.
SENATOR DAVID FEENEY: ...there are a lot of people in senior positions who have blood on their hands...
RAFAEL EPSTEIN: Yes.
SENATOR DAVID FEENEY: ...and that is the history of a country, Afghanistan, that's been at war for 30 years.
RAFAEL EPSTEIN: Look I know there are callers who think that this decision is about politics. I suppose I would put to you that if you're not - if the Government isn't more honest about how difficult it is to handover to anyone capable of not being corrupt and capable of actually delivering a government. If you're not able to explain more clearly and accept that it's a corrupt, dishonest system there it's much harder to then people believe this isn't - we're not just pulling out for...
SENATOR DAVID FEENEY: Well I don't think we've ever created any false expectations about the Afghan government or the government we'll be leaving behind. I certainly believe that there has been enormous progress in Afghanistan; I note the education figures that people often talk about. Over the last 10 years the average life expectancy of Afghans has gone from 43 to 48 years of age.
But obviously there's enormous work to do, and we are not going to be leaving behind us a pristine Jeffersonian democracy and we're not going to pretend for a moment that we are.
RAFAEL EPSTEIN: How confident are you - one of the people who' we've spoken to on this program, one of the researchers there thinks that Uruzgan could be run over by the Taliban within two weeks of the Australians leaving, How confident are you that whatever you leave there won't just disintegrate?
SENATOR DAVID FEENEY: Well obviously we wouldn't be leaving if we thought that was a prospect. I mean the whole timetable that the Prime Minister has foreshadowed today is all about Australia leaving when its training of the fourth Afghan national army's brigade has reached a point that can defend itself and manage the security of the region where it has the security lead...
RAFAEL EPSTEIN: Look, simple question on that. They can't defend themselves without things in the air like attack helicopters and sophisticated artillery. They're not going to have artillery and attack helicopters within 18 months, how can we leave if they don't have air support there from the Americans? I mean we might be leaving, the Americans are going to have to stay there and give them the real back up they need, aren't they?
SENATOR DAVID FEENEY: Well I guess the first point I'd make is that over the course of the last decade The Taliban have been enormously degraded as a political and military force. I mean they've essentially transitioned from being the government of the country to being country insurgencies, and now being something more akin to being a band of urban terrorists. As their capabilities have degraded the Afghan national army and police capabilities have improved. But we are leaving behind a force that we believe can continue to manage a counter-insurgency campaign. The Prime Minister has made clear that reconciliation between the various factions is desirable, but it is not a precondition for the transition.
RAFAEL EPSTEIN: It's going to be interesting to see what people make of it. Thank you for taking the time.
SENATOR DAVID FEENEY: A pleasure, Raf. Thank you.
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