Stephen Smith MP
Minister for Defence
NATO/ISAF Defence Ministers’ Meeting
(check against delivery)
I have come to Brussels from Afghanistan where I met with President Karzai and his Ministers in Kabul and visited Australian forces in Uruzgan Province.
My discussions with Afghan, International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) and Australian colleagues in Kabul and Uruzgan focused on transition to Afghan led security responsibility, the international community’s post 2014 contribution to Afghanistan, preparations for the Presidential elections in Afghanistan in 2014 and recent developments in the peace and reconciliation process.
In October last year I said to this meeting that Australia was on track to transition to the 4th Brigade of the 205 Hero Corps of the Afghan National Army (ANA) in Uruzgan Province, over the following 12 to 18 months.
I now advise that on our latest analysis we are very confident that transition in Uruzgan will occur by the end of this year.
In October last year, Australian troops assumed the leadership of Combined Team – Uruzgan (CT-U), with responsibility for ISAF operations in Uruzgan Province.
CT-U was established following the withdrawal of the Dutch in August 2010, under United States (US) command and consisting of Australian, Singaporean, Slovakian and US personnel. The US had the leadership of CT-U from August 2010 to October 2012.
Australia's assumption of the leadership of the CT-U is part of the transition process through which security responsibility will be transferred from ISAF to the Afghan National Security Forces (ANSF) and will help ensure that transition in Uruzgan is effected in a seamless way.
Australia has been working on transition in Uruzgan with our CT-U partners – the United States, Singapore and Slovakia.
Australia assumed responsibility from former CT-U member Slovakia for the security at Multi-National Base Tarin Kot (MNB-TK) in October last year.
I thank Slovakia for its commitment and cooperation with Australia in Uruzgan.
On 8 February, Singapore Minister for Defence Dr Ng announced that the Singapore Armed Forces will conclude its deployment in Uruzgan Province by June this year in line with the transition of security responsibility in Uruzgan to the ANA 4th Brigade.
Singaporean personnel have contributed to the force protection of ISAF personnel through their contributions to intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance, imagery analysis and counter indirect fire.
They have also provided medical and surgical teams and military institutional trainers both in Uruzgan and Kabul.
I thank Singapore for its commitment and for its partnership in Uruzgan.
In Uruzgan Province, all four Infantry Kandaks of the 4th Brigade of the 205 Corps of the Afghan National Army (ANA) commenced independent operations late last year.
Australian troops are no longer conducting joint patrols with the ANA and have handed over control of joint forward operating bases and patrol bases to the 4th Brigade.
Australian troops have consolidated their presence at the Multi National Base Tarin Kot and have commenced planning for the complex task of redeploying Australian personnel and equipment and remediating buildings and facilities.
Independent operations for the 4th Brigade Infantry Kandaks do not mean the end of a role for the Australian Defence Force (ADF) in Uruzgan.
The ADF remains combat ready to assist Afghan Forces should the need arise. Importantly, Australian Special Forces continue to conduct partnered operations to disrupt the insurgency both in Uruzgan and in adjoining Districts and Provinces.
Australia believes that the good progress in Uruzgan broadly reflects the solid progress of transition across Afghanistan.
Australia welcomed President Karzai's announcement on 31 December last year of the fourth tranche of Districts and Provinces to undergo transition.
As we know, Afghan security forces have taken lead responsibility for security for 87 per cent of the Afghan population and for 23 of the 34 Afghan Provinces.
Australia also welcomed President Karzai and President Obama’s agreement to bring forward the transition milestone agreed to at the Chicago Summit. This will mean Afghan security forces will assume the lead for security operations across all of Afghanistan and ISAF will move into an advisor-support role.
More recently, Australia welcomed President Obama’s State of the Union address and the considered and careful drawdown of US troops and reaffirmation of theUnited States’ long-term, enduring commitment to Afghanistan.
In Chicago, we agreed to the post 2014 mission to train, advise and assist the Afghan National Security Forces after transition.
At our last Ministerial meeting in October 2012 we agreed to commence planning for that post 2014 train, advise and assist mission.
We should be clear that this is not an extension of the current ISAF mission but a smaller, different mission focused on supporting Afghanistan as its assumes full responsibility for its own security.
That planning must now quickly commence so that Afghanistan can be assured of the long term support of the international community through the transition process and beyond.
Australia expects that as a contributor it will participate fully in this planning and decision making process.
Likewise we need to finalise expeditiously the legal mandate and bilateral security arrangements to support the post 2014 role and presence.
The Afghan-United States Bilateral Security Agreement lies at the heart of these arrangements and its early conclusion is a necessary pre-condition to any post 2014 commitment.
Post-2014, Australia is prepared to contribute to the train, advise and assist mission by providing embedded Headquarters staff, advisors at the Corps level and trainers at the ANA Officer Academy in Kabul with our British and New Zealand colleagues.
Under an appropriate mandate, we are prepared to make a Special Forces contribution, either for training or for counter terrorism purposes.
History has demonstrated that sustainment is key to an effective Afghan National Security Forces (ANSF).
In Chicago, we agreed it was essential for the international community to commit funds to the post 2014 sustainment of the ANSF.
Australia, as a major NATO partner, will contribute US$100 million per year for three years from 2015 as part of international efforts to sustain and support the Afghan security forces.
Australia welcomes progress on the detail of plans for a NATO funding mechanism for ANA sustainment.
This work needs to be undertaken collaboratively with Afghan authorities and build on the Afghan National Army Trust Fund experience, to which Australia has contributed USD$200 million.
Importantly, the future funding mechanism needs to adopt internationally accepted standards of transparency and accountability to ensure the fund retains the confidence of the international community.
Finalising the arrangements for our post 2014 military support will complement the political support to Afghanistan's future embodied in the long term strategic partnerships which Australia, the United States, United Kingdom, France and Italy, as well as India and NATO itself have signed with Afghanistan.
The international community's long term political, military and financial commitment to Afghanistan sends a very clear message to the insurgency and its leadership of the international community’s abiding commitment to Afghanistan.
It sends an all important message to Afghanistan's neighbours of the importance of regional support for peace and stability.
It also sends an important message to the Afghan people of confidence in their future.
This year Australia’s focus will be threefold.
Firstly, Australian personnel will continue to advise the 4th Brigade of the 205 Corps of the ANA to enable complete transition by the end of this year.
Secondly, Australian troops will focus on the complex task of redeploying Australian personnel and equipment to Australia and remediating buildings and facilities.
Finally, Australia will determine our post 2014 contribution to Afghanistan.
It will take until the middle of this year before Australia can be precise about its own drawdown of troops following the transition to Afghan led security in Uruzgan Provinceat the end of this year.
What we do know with confidence is that transition will be complete in Uruzgan by the end of this year and that will see Australian troops start to come home.
With the challenge of security transition in Afghanistan will come the challenge of making sure we look after our returning service men and women.
The care of wounded, injured and ill current and former military personnel will rightly be a high priority and focus for the Australian Government and the Australian community.
In that context I acknowledge the excellent work of the Landstuhl Regional Medical Center and Fisher House in southern Germany which I had the opportunity to visit on the way to Brussels.
Landstuhl has provided care and treatment forAustralia and other ISAF personnel medically evacuated from Afghanistan.
Fisher House, co-located with the Landstuhl health facility, has provided crucial support to the families of evacuated Australian and ISAF troops.
In closing, I acknowledge the outstanding contribution made by General John Allen as Commander International Security Assistance Force (COMISAF) in Afghanistan at a crucial time for Afghanistan and the international community.
Australia looks forward to working with General Joe Dunford as we continue to make progress on transition to Afghan led security responsibility.
Finally I acknowledge the US Secretary of Defence Leon Panetta and his robust global leadership and public service for almost 50 years. He has helped ensure the safety and security of the citizens of the United States and the international community generally.