TRANSCRIPT: INTERVIEW WITH MICHAEL ROWLAND, ABC NEWS BREAKFAST
TRANSCRIPTION: PROOF COPY E & OE
DATE: 9 JUNE 2011
TOPICS: Progress in Afghanistan and troop withdrawals.
MICHAEL ROWLAND: Minister, good morning. What's the mood amongst NATO defence ministers about the ongoing military operation in Afghanistan?
STEPHEN SMITH: Well, the analysis, on the basis of the discussions I've had today, although we have our formal conversation tomorrow, both NATO and the International Security Assistance Force defence ministers formally meeting tomorrow, is one that we believe we've made progress.
Yes, it continues to be difficult and, in the context of Australia having suffered four terrible fatalities in the course of the last couple of weeks and six fatalities in the course of this year, we know that it's tough and we know those fatalities have reverberated through the Australian community but every defence ministerial colleague that I speak to or NATO or ISAF official that I speak to believes that we have made up ground and that we are making substantial progress and that's Australia's analysis.
MICHAEL ROWLAND: I know you and the Prime Minister have, over the last few days, insisted Australia does have to stay the course in Afghanistan in the wake of yet another Australian death there but, as you'd always also know there is vigorous debate in Washington about the speed and scale of the proposed US drawdown which is going to start in July. A lot of senior White House advisors are pushing Barack Obama to speed up the withdrawal of US troops on the back of the killing of Osama bin Laden and various other factors. Don't those arguments carry some weight?
STEPHEN SMITH: There's never been anything inconsistent with a drawdown with a commitment to see the course. When President Obama announced effectively a 30,000 increase of the US troop complement nearly two years ago, that was matched by NATO countries so we saw a 40,000 increase. President Obama said at the time that on the basis of conditions on the ground at the time he wanted to see a drawdown.
So the United States administration has not come to its conclusion yet. That's clear from my discussions here with Secretary Gates that I had today. So we should wait and see what the outcome of that is but importantly from our perspective we don't believe that any US drawdown will see any adverse implications for our mission in Uruzgan and my own instinct is that the drawdown in the first instance will be modest rather than large because Secretary Gates believes that we've made real progress on the combat or security front over the last 18 months and that's very much, I think, a shared analysis, not just from Australia but from other NATO and ISAF defence ministers and countries.
MICHAEL ROWLAND: Secretary Gates has been pushing for that and he also says at some stage, in the perhaps not too distant future, the strategy in Afghanistan will switch from counter-insurgency to a much more targeted counter-terrorism focus operation. Do you see that happening any time soon?
STEPHEN SMITH: Well, I do see, as we make progress, the allocation of resources and the tactics will change. I think a couple of things. Firstly, we know that the Special Forces operation has been very effective in denuding the capacity of the Taliban, not just in Uruzgan but throughout Afghanistan generally. That's the first point.
Secondly, everyone appreciates the surge that occurred nearly two years ago of 40,000 NATO or ISAF troops, as I've referred to, but underappreciated is the effect of what I describe as the Afghan surge. Over the same period of time we've seen an additional 70,000 to 80,000 Afghan security forces come on stream. We now see nearly 300,000 Afghan security forces, either army which is the majority or local and national police and, as we've taken ground and as we've trained and mentored the Afghan national security forces, it's freed up people and US and other forces for other roles, particularly for institutional or niche training: artillery, command, headquarters and the like.
So the allocation of resources and the roles change but one of the sure signs that we're making progress is that we are seeing some very early interest now in notions of reconciliation and reintegration and political rapprochement.
In the end we need to have a political resolution to Afghans' difficulties but the only time that people will come to the political table is when they've formed the conclusion that they can't win by military means alone and we may well be getting to the beginning of that process.
MICHAEL ROWLAND: As well as the challenges on the battlefield, coalition forces are also, as you know, trying to win the hearts and minds of ordinary Afghanis. You'd be aware that over the last 24 hours there's been a scathing report released in the US Congress essentially saying the $19 billion worth of aid the US has provided to Afghanistan over the past decade has counted for nothing essentially in not improving the real situation faced by many local Afghanis. Would you be distressed if that was the case?
STEPHEN SMITH: We do know - I haven't seen that report - having been on the road for a few days - so I can't comment on the detail of that but we do know that to be successful in Afghanistan we have to train and mentor the Afghan National Army and police, their security forces, to be able to take responsibility for security matters.
At the same time we know that we have to help build the Afghan institutions. We can only do that by development assistance and by lending support on the capacity building front.
We also know that it's absolutely important if you're in a counter-insurgency battle to, as you put it, win the hearts and minds of the local community and in Uruzgan Province we know in recent times, as we have secured more ground and made the security circumstances better, it's also provided for a better way of life for the local Uruzgan people.
On my last visit to Afghanistan I went to one of our forward operating bases and spoke to some of our young soldiers who'd been there for six or seven months and I asked them what was the difference between when they first arrived and circumstances then, some six or seven months later, and their anecdotal response was that the locals were much friendlier.
Now, whilst that's anecdotal it does make the point that as circumstances improve for the local population they do see that there is a different way of life and a different opportunity for them rather than ongoing conflict and ongoing war. So it's important that we make our contribution not just on the security front but also on the political front and also on the development assistance, capacity building and institution front and we're doing all of those things.
Having said that, we know that on the development assistance front it has not been easy in Afghanistan and it continues to be a challenge to build the capacity of those state institutions.
MICHAEL ROWLAND: Okay, Stephen Smith in Brussels. Thank you very much for your time this morning.
STEPHEN SMITH: Thanks, Michael. Thanks very much.