TRANSCRIPT: INTERVIEW WITH DAVID SPEERS, PM AGENDA, SKY NEWS
TRANSCRIPTION: PROOF COPY E & OE
DATE: 9 JUNE 2011
TOPICS: Afghanistan, progress and withdrawal of troops
DAVID SPEERS: Minister, thank you for your time. I want to start by asking you to give us some examples or evidence of the progress that you and Defence Force Chief Angus Houston keep telling us we are making in Afghanistan. What can you point to?
STEPHEN SMITH: Well, in Uruzgan itself, of course, it's the way in which we have expanded the area that we cover. We now have substantially more forward patrol and operating bases and, most importantly, many of these are now manned by the Afghan National Army or by the Afghan National local police, either by themselves or in partnership with us.
So, in Uruzgan, if you like, the footprint is substantially larger now than it was eighteen months to two years ago [indistinct] getting out into the so-called green zone where historically the insurgency or the Taliban have occupied.
So, it's covering territory, it is taking hold of territory and stabilising that and then allowing the locals to conduct their lives in an orderly way.
DAVID SPEERS: The US drawdown is due to begin from next month. President Obama is yet to announce exactly how significant a drawdown it will be, but do you think this will have any impact on Australian forces where we operate in Uruzgan?
STEPHEN SMITH: No. I spoke to Secretary Gates yesterday as part of my round of talks here, and today I'll speak with General Petraeus and NATO Secretary General Rasmussen.
The US administration is working through the so-called drawdown. My own judgement on the basis of the conversations I've had here is that, firstly, in the context of a 30,000 to 40,000 troop surge 12 to 18 months ago, it will be modest. Secondly, I don't believe it will have any consequences for the job we're doing in Uruzgan which, following the departure of the Dutch back in August last year, we now do under the name of Combined Team Uruzgan, effectively doing that in partnership with the United States.
So, we are very confident that it will be a sensible drawdown. It will reflect the fact that we have made substantial progress throughout Afghanistan. It will also reflect the fact that there's been a transfer of responsibility, a transition to Afghan security forces and in Uruzgan we don't believe it will have any impact whatsoever. There again I say we've been making ground - taking ground from the Taliban. But we have, as I've said repeatedly in recent weeks, been stealing ourselves for the Taliban to fight back, and tragically they have in recent times with our own terrible fatalities.
DAVID SPEERS: Well indeed they have. However modest the US drawdown may be initially, clearly it's the beginning of a drawdown process. We also know Canada is preparing to bring home its 2800 troops. The Dutch already have. Is Australia still committed to the current timeframe of remaining with our presence in Uruzgan until 2014?
STEPHEN SMITH: Absolutely. We're committed to doing our job which is to train and mentor the Afghan National Army, the 4th Brigade of the Afghan National Army in Uruzgan and we believe we're on track to finish our job by the end of 2014.
In terms of drawdown I think it's very important to understand two things. Eighteen months to two years ago we saw, effectively, a 30,000 or 40,000 surge by United States and NATO forces. Over that same period, under-appreciated, we've all seen an increase in the Afghan National Security Forces of some 70,000 to 80,000 both police and army. We now have Afghan National Security Forces of about 300,000. The majority is army; it's about 170,000, army and the rest, police.
But that has been a substantial increase in trained Afghan National Security Forces. And that, together with the surge and the ground that we've taken and the progress that we've made, enables for example the United States to look at its drawdown. As President Obama said at the time of the surge, that was always going to be conditions-based.
So far as-
DAVID SPEERS: I wanted to ask you-
STEPHEN SMITH: -the Dutch-
DAVID SPEERS: Sorry, we are short on time, Minister, but I just wanted to ask you a couple of quick ones. About the high rotation that Australian forces are facing there, the latest soldier we lost there, Rowan Robinson, this week was on his second rotation. We know that Sergeant Brett Wood, who died a couple of weeks ago, was on his third. Is it fair to place such a heavy burden on such a small group of young Australians to do that heavy lifting in Afghanistan?
STEPHEN SMITH: Well I've, together with the Chief of the Defence Force, had a careful look at what occurs so far as rotations and number of deployments. The first point I have to make is that we are not short of volunteers. You need to understand that our troops we're putting into the field, whether it's our Special Forces or whether it's our training and Mentoring Task Force; very many aren't just content to do one rotation, they volunteer for more. But the Army and the Defence Force pay very careful attention to the number of rotations and the length of rotations.
But, it essentially reflects the professionalism of the Australian Army and Defence Force. Our young soldiers, once they've served in Afghanistan, want to do it again because they're doing a quality job, whether it's Special Forces or whether it's an officer embedded into International Security Assistance Force and they want to continue doing that good job and getting that experience.
DAVID SPEERS: And just a final question, Minister. A two year investigation by the US Senate Foreign Relations Committee says that foreign aid in Afghanistan could be doing more harm than good, that it's contributing to a dependency and corruption in Afghanistan. In particular it says that the sort of projects that are being paid for - schools, hospitals, clinics - and these are the sort of things Australian aid money is going to as well, can not be maintained by the Afghan government once we go. Are you concerned about this and are you going to be ordering a review of how Australia's aid money is being spent and how effective it is?
STEPHEN SMITH: A number of points there. We know that getting development assistance or aid into Afghanistan historically has been very difficult because we've essentially been trying to do that.
We also know that we won't be successful in Afghanistan just by transferring security responsibility to the Afghan National Army and Police. We also have to build their institutions, build their civil capacity and in the end, we've also got to see a political settlement so far as Afghanistan is concerned, both a civilian strategy and a military strategy is essential.
There are always difficulties in developing countries, making sure that you are effective and efficient with what you do so far as development assistance is concerned. You can always do better. That's compounded by the fact that you are essentially doing it in a war zone. But we have to continue to try and build the institutions of Afghan society, build their capacity and it's also absolutely essential that the people of Afghanistan see that the Afghan government, both central and provincial, can deliver much needed services so that they have a different opportunity than just following the Taliban.
So, yes, there are always issues with development assistance; we can always do better. Our own development assistance is under constant review. But we've been very pleased with the way in which, through our Defence Force personnel, our engineers and our construction teams, we've been able to build roads and bridges to clear both lines of transport and economic development so far as Uruzgan Province is concerned.
DAVID SPEERS: Defence Minister Stephen Smith, talking to us from the NATO meeting in Brussels a little earlier.