Stephen Smith MP
Minister for Defence
TRANSCRIPTION: PROOF COPY E & OE
DATE: 19 OCTOBER 2010
FRAN KELLY: The Federal Parliament begins a debate on Afghanistan today. Nearly a decade on from the original deployment, MPs on all sides will have their say on whether Australian forces should stay the course or be withdrawn.
In a moment Greens leader Bob Brown who leads the charge for a troop pull out. But first Defence Minister Stephen Smith joins us in the Parliament House studio. Minister good morning.
STEPHEN SMITH: Good morning Fran.
FRAN KELLY: Minister, do you ever put the two words Afghanistan and victory in the same sentence?
STEPHEN SMITH: I put the words Afghanistan and completing our mission together. I think it is important to understand precisely what we are seeking to achieve in Afghanistan. Afghanistan was once a hot bed of international terrorism for al-Qaeda. It is still at risk of becoming that again. So our mission is to prevent Afghanistan from becoming a breeding ground for international terrorism which is a risk toAustralia and Australians.
To do that we've got to put the Afghan security services, the army, the police in the position to run their own affairs, run their own security arrangements, to take care of security. And that's why our mission inUruzgan Province is a training mission and, of course, we're part of a 47 nation coalition in that respect.
FRAN KELLY: Alexander Downer was the Foreign Minister when we committed to Afghanistan in the first place and he says in an article in The Spectator magazine, we've already achieved our initial mission getting rid of al-Qaeda in Afghanistan.
STEPHEN SMITH: Well it is the case that we have seriously undermined al-Qaeda but it is not the case that Afghanistan is free from becoming a breeding ground either for al-Qaeda or for the Haqqani Network or for other terrorist groups and again becoming a threat internationally.
So if we were to leave tomorrow, which is the argument of some, my grave fear is that that risk would emerge very quickly.
We can't be there forever, we don't want to be there forever, but we can't leave tomorrow. So what is our way forward? Our way forward is to do what we've been doing, which is to try and train and mentor the Afghan National Army in Uruzgan Province, the Afghan National Police in UruzganProvince to take care of their own security arrangements, to prevent that from occurring. And that is replicated by the United Nations' mandated International Security Assistance Force throughoutAfghanistan itself.
FRAN KELLY: So it's fair to say that our mission has changed or morphed since we've been there, that as Alexander Downer again says in that article says; victory is impossible. At one point we were thinking of something else, not training the security forces.
STEPHEN SMITH: Look I think a couple of things. I think in future years when people look back they'll see a couple of things which are very clear. One was we were there initially, not just Australiabut the United States and others and then we either left or reduced the resources, distracted by Iraq. That was a mistake.
Secondly, when we came back in 2005-2006 I think it is the case and it took us too long to actually define and focus on what was realistic, what was achievable and what was actually required.
We've seen in recent times, literally in the last 18 months, two years the Riedel Review, the McChrystal Review, the Obama Review and a series of significant international conferences; the Hague, London and Kabul itself and looking forward to Lisbon.
I think we've now got a defined international strategy which will work, it's not just a military strategy, it's a military and political strategy. It's got to put the capacity in the hands of the Afghans to run their own affairs, particularly so far as security's concerned.
But it also means at some stage it has to be a political rapprochement, which is why Australia has been strongly supporting the notions of reconciliation and reintegration. I think it took us too long and when I say us, I mean the international community generally, too long to really get down to define what we had to achieve, what risks we were trying to offset or stare down. I think we've now got that strategy.
The problem is, of course, that it's taken us nine and half years to get there and that's why political will and the patience of domestic constituencies is now an issue not just in the United States and Europe but also here, which is why the debate is a good thing.
FRAN KELLY: So nine and half years to develop the strategy or refine the strategy and really no wonder that most Australians probably haven't kept up with these changes in mission. Do you think that most Australians would be aware that we're in a war that can't be won in any conventional sense, that that's not the aim?
STEPHEN SMITH: I don't use that terminology but…
FRAN KELLY: No but most Australians - well we call it a war, you see, that's the problem isn't it? A war suggests victors and losers.
STEPHEN SMITH: Well in the old style analysis of war if you like, the experience of very many Australians, World War One, World War Two, that's right.
But I define it differently. We need to put Afghanistan, particularly their security forces, in a position of managing their own affairs. We can only do that not by staying forever but by training them. To leave them in a position where there is political stability. Of course, at some stage there has to be some form of political reconciliation with those members of the Taliban who want to renounce violence, who want to accept the Afghanistan Constitution and who want to live in peace with others. That won't be the case with all of them, with hardcore terrorists. But these things are now being progressed in a methodical way.
FRAN KELLY: Where are we at with negotiations with the Taliban? I mean where - how far has that progressed?
STEPHEN SMITH: Firstly, at the London Conference last year I made it very clear that Australiastrongly supported reintegration and reconciliation efforts.
Indeed we indicated we would contribute over $25 million over a period of time to support those efforts and $6 million of that is already being utilised. In the first instance those discussions have to be effected by the Afghan Government itself and, as you would have seen from reports and suggestions in a very preliminary way, those things are occurring.
In the end there has to be some form of political reintegration, some form of political reconciliation so that Afghanistan is stable, not just for Afghanistan itself but also for its region.
The other key factor, of course, which has implications not just for Australians in Uruzgan but more generally, is Pakistan. And the truth is Australia was one of the first countries to realise we had a significant problem not just in the Afghanistan-Pakistan border area, but an existential threat to Pakistan itself, which is why over the last three years we've considerably enhanced our engagement with Pakistan and being together with the US and the United Kingdom at the forefront of efforts to draw the Pakistan problem to the international community's intention.
FRAN KELLY: Though one of the problems is as we engage with Pakistan, there's also plenty of evidence to suggest that Pakistan is still engaging with if not just the Taliban then al-Qaeda too.
STEPHEN SMITH: There is no doubt that Pakistan has improved considerably. Both the Pakistan Government and security forces have improved considerably its efforts but there is a long way forPakistan to go.
FRAN KELLY: I think one thing - well a couple of things; people will want to hear about an exit plan in this debate, as part of this debate. How close are we to withdrawal? Does that two to four year timeline still hold?
STEPHEN SMITH: I don't talk in terms of a defined time. We are saying that to complete our mission…
FRAN KELLY: Because it's dangerous to do that?
STEPHEN SMITH: I think that if you put a particular time on it then you miss the point. The point is we want to put the Afghan security forces in a position to manage their own affairs. That's, to use the jargon, conditions or metric based. We think that we can do that in Uruzgan Province on a two to four year timetable.
The international community at the Afghanistan Conference in Kabul itself believes that it can be done on a 2014 timetable and the NATO ISAF Lisbon Summit in November of this year will set out the roadmap for that. So two to four years in our view is realistic. That's the advice we have from the CDF and we think we can make that.
FRAN KELLY: And so for people listening to this - to this debate over the next two weeks acutely, will they get some clear benchmarks to - that describe as you just say there, our task is to allow - get the Afghan people to a point in the Uruzgan province where they can manage their own affairs. What would that look like? Will you spell out clear and measurable objectives?
STEPHEN SMITH: Well that will be the objective of the Lisbon Conference. I think we have to, I think Peter Gration has made the very good point today that you can't…
FRAN KELLY: But forget the Lisbon Conference, what about the Australian Government? Presumably you and the Defence Force are looking at clear and measurable objectives?
STEPHEN SMITH: We have to be able to measure the capacity of the Afghan National Army and the police force. It can't be an entirely subjective thing. And we've done a lot of work on that in the past, we continue to do so and we'll provide the benefit of our own analysis to the Lisbon Conference in November. But it's something which has to be done objectively.
FRAN KELLY: So we still don't have them? The Australian Government and our Defence Force still don't have a clear set of national objectives for…
STEPHEN SMITH: Well, no that's not right. The national objective is very clear. It is to put the Afghan security forces, the Afghan National Army and the Afghan National Police in a position of managing their security. That's why the entire focus, effectively, of our effort is on training. That's been the case for the last couple of years.
As I said earlier, one of the mistakes that has been made was firstly leaving Afghanistan effectively in 2002 and then when the international community re-focused in 2005, 2006 after the Iraq distraction, taking too long to focus on these objectives. We now have a very good focus. The key now is implementing those objectives effectively in a reasonable timetable.
FRAN KELLY: And just very briefly, when we do a cost-benefit analysis of this war at the end, will it be worth it not just in dollars but in lives lost, 21 Australians soldiers, thousands of Afghan civilians including children?
STEPHEN SMITH: We continue to have a very significant threat from international terrorism, not just in Afghanistan but elsewhere. Regrettably that will be a feature of life for Australia and the rest of the world for a long time to come. Staring down international terrorism is unambiguously in our national interest and that's what we're doing in Afghanistan.
FRAN KELLY: Stephen Smith, thank you very much for joining us.
STEPHEN SMITH: Thanks Fran, thanks very much.
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