TRANSCRIPT: INTERVIEW WITH LYNDAL CURTIS, ABC24
TRANSCRIPTION: PROOF COPY E & OE
DATE: 12 APRIL 2012
TOPICS: Afghanistan; Army; Budget.
LYNDAL CURTIS: Stephen Smith, welcome to ABC News 24. You've just returned from Afghanistan. If I could deal quickly with a report that as you were preparing to leave Kandahar Air Base the airfield came under attack from rocket fire, was this anything unusual, or is it effectively just the cost of doing business?
STEPHEN SMITH: Well, it's effectively the cost of doing business in Kandahar. It wasn't aimed at the C-130 that I was in together with the Chief of the Defence Force and other officials. It wasn't near us, but the early warning system took effect and the standard precautions and procedures occurred at the airport. We were delayed by about half an hour. It's a risk at Kandahar, but there was no immediate risk or danger to our plane.
We were simply - as a number of other departing planes were - caught up in the incident, but it again showed the effectiveness of the early warning system and we have a comparable system at Tarin Kot for our own people.
LYNDAL CURTIS: Now we've spoken many times about the steady progress that you believe is being made in Afghanistan, did you see evidence of that on the ground, and what were the troops telling you when you spoke to them?
STEPHEN SMITH: Well, I've now been to Afghanistan on five separate occasions and this is the most confident that everyone I've spoken to has been, in terms of progress on transition, progress on security gains against the Taliban, but also progress on training and mentoring the Afghan National Army and the Afghan national and local police.
So everyone, whether it was our troops on the ground, whether it was our officers, whether it was International Security Assistance Force colleagues or the Afghan National Army leadership - Brigadier General Zafar, the commander of 4th Brigade in Uruzgan - or the Afghan provincial leaders, all were of the view that in Uruzgan and generally we had made substantial progress over the last two years, we had consolidated those gains and we were on track to transition to Afghan-led responsibility by 2014.
And that's why we're now starting to focus on those 2014 arrangements. Or, as I describe them, the post-2014 transition arrangements.
LYNDAL CURTIS: There are a couple of important NATO meetings coming up. There have been several recent incidents, which have stepped up the pressure on some countries to leave earlier, but would you caution against a rush to the exit door, given that a continued military presence may help push the Taliban to the negotiating table to try and find a political settlement?
STEPHEN SMITH: Well, the single most common mantra chant I hear from our NATO and International Security Assistance Force colleagues is 'in together, out together'; so there will be no rush to the door. What we're effecting is an orderly, staged transition to security responsibility for the Afghan security forces, and our analysis is that we're on track to do that by 2014, and in Uruzgan we believe we may get there earlier.
Yes, there are some important meetings coming up. Next week, Bob Carr and I will be with NATO and International Security Assistance Force Defence and Foreign Ministers in the run-up to the Chicago Leaders Summit in May, and there I think the focus will be, how does the international community resource the Afghan National Security Forces after 2014, and what will be the international community's post-2014 contribution on the ground?
As the transition occurs and Afghan Security Forces take responsibility, the trainers and the mentors will draw down, and the question I think for Australia and the rest of the international community is, what presence will there be after 2014?
In Australia's case we said we think that we can make a contribution so far as high level or niche training is concerned, artillery or officer training as some examples. Obviously development assistance and capacity building generally but also a possible role for Special Forces either training or actual capability and these are I think the important issues that the international community needs to grapple with in the run up to and at Chicago. Australia's been thinking about these issues for the last 12 months or so and the success of transition is reflected by the focus now on these issues.
LYNDAL CURTIS: In Australia the Chief of the Army has also been looking at what happens to the Australian Defence Force after the Australian military pulls out of Afghanistan, he said it will be dangerous and counterproductive to allow the Army to reduce in size, he says history has clearly demonstrated peace dividends invariably become peace liabilities when the military must restore its capabilities as it grapples with new operational challenges at the cost of significant blood and treasure. Is that a cautionary warning to governments not to see the area as right for savings when the commitment to Afghanistan is scaled back?
STEVEN SMITH: Well just on dangers first I do need to underline and make the point that Afghanistan will continue to be difficult and dangerous. There will be set backs, some of which we've seen recently in terms of the roadside bombs, the suicide bomb attacks and the like. So there will be setbacks but I'm more confident than I've ever been on a return from a trip to Afghanistan that we are on-track and that confidence is shared by all concerned.
I've sent the remarks by the Chief of Army and I agree with him. He makes the point that historically after Vietnam we downsized our Defence Force, Army in particular and then had to rebuild. We have affectively a service fighting force of about 60,000; 30,000 army, 15,000 Navy and Air Force and I agree with the Chief of Army that that's about right. That will fluctuate year to year. Indeed over the next 12 to 18 months we'll probably see a rise of 1000 or 2000, but our recruitment continues to be good, our retention continues to be good.
We do have some issues in certain skilled areas which are well known. But we believe that we can see the orderly transition and drawdown from Afghanistan without impacting on the number of our Army or Navy or Air Force and start to focus on in some respects the rebuilding of our capability in our own region with the arrival of our heavy amphibious Landing Helicopter Docks. We're going to move to a ship to shore capability and that's a very exciting prospect for Army and the Chief of Army and I are very enthusiastic of that.
LYNDAL CURTIS: So in the run up to budget given Defence's contribution to the last savings exercise last year given there's already a long term savings exercise, is Defence an area that would be exempt from further savings in this budget?
STEVEN SMITH: We'll make the usual caveat which is I'm not going to get involved in a budget discussion, but I can make two points. Firstly there's nothing that will emerge in the budget that will see an adverse impact on those military numbers that I've just spoken about and the Chief of Army has spoken about overnight.
Secondly, in Afghanistan I made a point which I've made before in Australia that whatever happens in terms of Defence's contribution to the budget and the budget surplus and there will be a contribution, I've made that point clear, nothing will occur which will have an adverse impact on our overseas operations, whether that's Afghanistan, whether that is our peace keeping and peace stabilisation efforts in East Timor and the Solomon Islands.
So we will continue to fully resource those operations and in the case of Afghanistan that obviously includes transition and the drawdown.
But Defence will make its contribution as it did last year. It's very important from an economic and national interest point of view that we return to surplus. But we will do that in an orderly way and the detail of that will obviously be seen on budget night.
LYNDAL CURTIS: Stephen Smith, thank you very much for your time.
STEVEN SMITH: Thanks Lyndal, thanks very much.