TOPICS: Afghanistan insurgents; Passing of Sergeant Wood.
ASHLEIGH GILLON: Stephen Smith, today the West Australian reports that Australian forces have killed about 1500 insurgents in Afghanistan in the past 12 months. Is that right?
STEPHEN SMITH: Well I'm not going to be drawn on the number of Taliban that we've either killed or removed from the battleground, largely because I don't believe that is a correct way to try and measure our success. The way to measure our success is not by comparing a fatality list and we've now had 24 fatalities. We regard that as a national tragedy and a tragedy for all of the families concerned.
The measure of our success in Uruzgan province have - has to be the way in which we've taken ground and held ground and been able to hand over the security arrangements to the Afghanistan army or the Afghanistan police. Over the last 12 to 18 months we have made substantial progress on that front. That's a much better measure of success in Uruzgan province and in Afghanistan generally.
ASHLEIGH GILLON: Still though, it sounds like a big number. Is it in the right ball park?
STEPHEN SMITH: Well there is no doubt that our forces have been very successful. I often make the point we are the tenth largest contributor. We're the largest non-NATO contributor of 150 contribution, but we are the third largest Special Forces contributor after the United States and the United Kingdom and we are held in very high regard by the government of Afghanistan and by our International Security Assistance Force partners, in particular the United States, but also including the United Kingdom for the effectiveness of our Special Forces operations, which of course is not just the SAS from my own state but also our commandos.
ASHLEIGH GILLON: But what's wrong with being transparent about those numbers? It would give morale a boost wouldn't it, within the Defence Force.
STEPHEN SMITH: Well, what gives Defence morale a boost is when we take ground, hold ground and are able to transfer responsibility. When I was most recently in Uruzgan province and spoke to a number of our young soldiers at one of our forward posts. I said you've been here for six or seven months, what's been the change that you've noticed most? To which the response was, the locals are friendlier. In other words they'd brought a security change to the local area and that had enabled the locals to return to a much more normal lifestyle. That's the true measure, not a count or a score.
ASHLEIGH GILLON: How are insurgents generally killed - the majority? Is it through ground combat or is it more air strikes where we do have the most fatalities?
STEPHEN SMITH: Well in Uruzgan province, most of the operations are ground operations. There is of course air support from time to time, what we describe as the enabling platforms, whether that's helicopters or whether that's air strike. But as we've seen with our own terrible tragedy yesterday, with Sergeant Wood, that was a foot patrol and the vast bulk of our fatalities have been as a result of IEDs, so the home made bombs, the booby traps, or engaging - engaging with the insurgency either in small arms or machine gun fire.
So we do a lot of work on the ground for the purpose of taking it, wresting it from the Taliban and then seeking to hold it and transfer responsibility, to return Afghanistan to a much more normal environment. That is our objective overall in Uruzgan and Afghanistan, the transition security responsibility to enable the Afghan security forces and the Afghan institutions to do it themselves.
ASHLEIGH GILLON: Two other Australian soldiers were wounded in that incident that killed Sergeant Woods, also three others were wounded in a separate incident just hours earlier. What's the latest on their condition?
STEPHEN SMITH: Well the three who were injured in the separate incident were always regarded as satisfactory. So their injuries were not life threatening so they're satisfactory with a good expectation of returning to work. The two were injured in the IED explosion that tragically killed Sergeant Wood, were either very seriously or seriously injured or ill. They have made a good recovery and my most recent advice this morning, which I'm very pleased about, that they're both now listed as satisfactory and stable; So that's very good news. They're currently being cared for in an International Security Assistance Force medical facility in Afghanistan. So they're now listed as satisfactory. That's a great relief to us and a great relief to their families.
ASHLEIGH GILLON: Changing tack completely. Today's Daily Telegraph, I'll just show our viewers here, it has a photograph of Kevin Rudd the Foreign Minister. It says Rudd the rocket man and it points out that he has racked up enough international air miles to get to the moon. He's been to 43 countries in just eight months. You didn't find the need to travel that much when you were foreign minister did you?
STEPHEN SMITH: Well two things. Firstly, I've already been embarrassed this morning because I was asked a question on another interview about a story in the West Australian and I haven't read the West Australian, which was a terrible admission for me. It's also the first time I've seen the Daily Telegraph. It's a very flattering photo of Kevin. There's a very simple answer. He's the Foreign Minister. Foreign ministers travel. I travelled, Alex Downer travelled and again-
ASHLEIGH GILLON: Not as much as Kevin Rudd is though.
STEPHEN SMITH: -it's not. Well again, it's not so much the quantity, it's the quality of the work and Kevin is doing a terrific quality job for Australia, representing our interests. Foreign ministers travel all the time. There are peaks and troughs. And I've often seen criticism of foreign ministers who have travelled. Well that to me is a misnomer. It's his job.
ASHLEIGH GILLON: Yesterday we saw your colleague, Anthony Albanese. He had a crack at the Daily Telegraph and in particular the new editor of the paper, saying that it had been running false stories about him. He suggested that the paper was now running an anti-government stance. Are you worried about that?
STEPHEN SMITH: What I am concerned about is the need to ensure that whether it's newspaper, whether it's electronic media, that the stories that are accurate and fair. Anthony or ‘Albo’ as everyone calls him - his great complaint is that there have been two separate front page stories in a row in his hometown newspaper, the Daily Telegraph, which are erroneously and - erroneously based and factually wrong.
He's entitled to robustly make that point as he has in public and in private. In some respects it's easier when you're dealing electronically because you and I have a conversation. You can put a point of view, I can respond. But when you're fitted up in print, it does an enormous amount of damage and people are perfectly entitled, whether they are a member of parliament or whether it's the chief executive officer of a bank, to make the point that from time to time newspapers make mistakes, they get things wrong and they need to be held to account. Anthony is holding the Daily Telegraph to account as he should.
ASHLEIGH GILLON: But are you worried that it's a wider problem, that the paper is taking an anti-government stance?
STEPHEN SMITH: Well I - I've often made this point, if it first you think it's a conspiracy, 99.9 per cent of occasions, it's a stuff up. The Daily Telegraph has got it wrong. They're being held to account. In my experience with newspapers, when you have a complaint it's because a factual error has been made.
I have to say as a general proposition, rarely do I see the same prominence given to any factual correction by the newspaper concerned. I haven't for example, as I've acknowledged, read the Daily Telegraph but I can tell from the front page that there's nothing there indicating the factual errors that the Daily Telegraph has made with respect to the story about Anthony and infrastructure in Sydney.
ASHLEIGH GILLON: Minister, thanks for your time.
STEPHEN SMITH: Thank you. Thanks very much.