TOPICS: Comments made by Mr Abbott during a visit to Afghanistan; Australia’s troop commitment in Afghanistan
TONY EASTLEY: Fairfax newspapers are reporting this morning that Defence Force Chiefs are drawing up plans to reduce Australia's troop commitment to Afghanistan this year. The report says the United States' overall commander in Afghanistan, Colonel Jim Creighton, has reportedly argued against a reduction, urging Australia's Defence Chiefs to reconsider.
To discuss those reports we're joined in our Canberra studio by the Defence Minister Stephen Smith. He's with Sabra Lane.
SABRA LANE: Mr Smith, welcome to AM.
STEPHEN SMITH: Pleasure.
SABRA LANE: First, can I ask you about Tony Abbott's comments? What did you think of those comments?
STEPHEN SMITH: When we're dealing with difficult and tragic circumstances we all express ourselves differently. I think when we deal with deaths in Afghanistan we have to bear uppermost in mind that this is a blow to the nation, a blow to the Defence Force, but it's a tragic loss for the family.
I don't believe that anything that Mr Abbott said, he intended to cause offence and he's made that clear. He's spoken to the widow of Jared MacKinney - that's an appropriate thing to do. And as Mr Abbott has just said himself the Australian public will make their own decision, their own judgement, their own view about the circumstances which have led to this.
But we all express ourselves differently. We always have to bear in mind that we're dealing with complex and difficult circumstances. And these discussions will not just be a reminder to Jared MacKinney's family but to 21 other families including the family of Richard Atkinson who the Parliament gave a moving Condolence Motion to yesterday.
SABRA LANE: Mr Abbott's reaction, once the footage was shown to him yesterday, that ensuing silence, some of his colleagues say that was his Mark Latham moment; others are saying that he was gobsmacked because he considered it an ambush. What do you think?
STEPHEN SMITH: Well, I'm not proposing to be drawn into a running commentary on this matter.
One of the things I've tried very hard to do as Minister for Defence is to deal with these issues very squarely as national security issues which are in the national interest, and not get involved in, if you like, party political commentary.
The circumstances of Jared MacKinney's death were controversial at the time. The Chief of the Defence Force and the Chief of Army and I have made sure all of the suggestions that were made at the time about lack of resources would be exhaustively examined in the course of the official inquiry - that is currently underway.
The substance of what Major General Cantwell and Colonel Creighton were saying in the reported remarks were that they didn't believe that there was a lack of resources, but in the terrible and difficult circumstances of the fog of war often bad things happen.
SABRA LANE: To this report about plans being drawn up to reduce Australia's troop numbers in Afghanistan, are those plans being drawn up?
STEPHEN SMITH: I have to say that this report this morning in some of our newspapers came very much as a surprise to me, and it came as a surprise to the Chief of the Defence Force. I spoke to him this morning, as I often do early in the morning.
Our contribution and commitment to Afghanistan is quite clear. We've got on average 1550 Defence Force personnel there, about 700 of those are involved in mentoring and training. We believe we're on track for our mentoring and training mission to be successful over the next two to four years. But we certainly don't see any drawn-down over the next immediate period - 12 months to two years.
We're on track to meet, we think, the international community's aspiration of a transition to Afghan-led security by 2014.
So frankly this report, which is splashed in a couple of newspapers, was a surprise, and we don't see any basis for it.
SABRA LANE: So did you ask the Chief of the Defence Force, Angus Houston, whether he was drawing up plans that you weren't aware of?
STEPHEN SMITH: Well it was a surprise to him, as it was a surprise to me. The consistent advice that the Government has had from the Chief of the Defence Force is that our commitment in Afghanistan, on average 1550 troops or personnel, is the right allocation of resources to meet our mission in Afghanistan, in particular and including our training role.
We need to transition to Afghan-led security leadership so that we can put the Afghan Security Forces, Army and Police Force in a position to manage their own affairs so that we can transition out of Afghanistan. That is the international community's aspiration reflected by, most recently, the International Security Assistance Force Summit in Lisbon, which the Prime Minister and I attended.
SABRA LANE: The NATO commanders have talked about transferring control of particular areas to local Afghan commanders, possibly starting this year around Uruzgan, the area that Australian troops are operating in. Could it be one of the first areas handed over?
STEPHEN SMITH: At the Lisbon Summit we agreed that we needed to have a transition plan to give the Afghan people, the Afghan nation, the Afghan Security Forces the capacity to do that. And in the course of this year we will look at the detail of those transition plans, including as early as March of this year when NATO and ISAF Defence Ministers will meet in Brussels.
But we've always made the point, as the secretary-general of NATO has, that we can only make the transition on what we call a conditions-based arrangement. We can only transition when the Afghan forces are in a capacity to take on that leadership role.
Now, that will vary in terms of time of transition, province by province and indeed location by location. We don't expect to see a transition in Uruzgan Province other than within our two to four-year timetable.
Other provinces will transition to Afghan security responsibility earlier than that. And some transition will occur as early as this year. But it can only be conditions-based. It can only be done when the Afghan National Army and Police Force are in a position and have the capacity to do it themselves, because we don't want to lose the gains that we have made in recent times, and those gains, as we all know, have been at the cost of 22 Australian lives.
SABRA LANE: This talk is happening on the back of Defence needing to find savings, $20 billion over 10 years. It's been called upon recently with all these natural disasters. Do you need to find extra money?
STEPHEN SMITH: Our operations in Afghanistan, our operations in the Solomon Islands, our operations in East Timor or indeed our contribution in Sudan are not determined on the basis of money; they're determine on the basis of pursuing our national interest, making sure that our troops, wherever they are, are adequately and appropriately resourced.
Yes, we have a big Strategic Reform Program, but that will not be allowed to, and will not cut into the allocation of our resources and the decisions that we make about providing contributions to peacekeeping arrangements or Afghanistan, staring down international terrorism. So those two issues are separate.
We remain very confident that we are appropriately and adequately resourcing our troops in Afghanistan to do the job that they have been charged to do. And as a country that makes the tenth-largest contribution to ISAF in Afghanistan, it's a significant contribution from us.
SABRA LANE: Mr Smith, thanks for your time.
STEPHEN SMITH: Thank you, thanks very much.