TRANSCRIPT: INTERVIEW ON THE WORLD, ABC 24
TRANSCRIPTION: PROOF COPY E & OE
DATE: 8 JUNE 2011
TOPICS: Afghanistan and loss of Sapper Rowan Robinson
SCOTT BEVAN: Well Defence Minister Stephen Smith is in Brussels for meetings with his counterparts from member countries of NATO and the International Security Assistance Force to discuss Afghanistan and the progress there.
I spoke with him a short time ago and began by asking him about the significance of the mission on which Sapper Rowan Robinson was killed.
STEVEN SMITH: Well it is a significant mission. I'm not proposing to go into more detail than that which the Chief of the Defence Force has.
Of course we've now - Defence, after consultation with the family have now made available his name. So if I can take this, my first opportunity of expressing my condolences to Sapper Robinson's family, it's another terrible tragedy, it's our fourth fatality in the space of two weeks and our sixth this year.
But it was a very important operation that our special forces were doing in partnership with the Afghan National Army; taking out of play materials which can contribute to the IED threat which is in very many respects our most significant threat in Uruzgan.
SCOTT BEVAN: Now you're in Brussels talking with other defence ministers about progress in Afghanistan. A number of those representatives have made it clear to their people when their forces will be leaving.
When are you going to make it explicit to the Australian people when our forces will pull out?
STEPHEN SMITH: Well we have made it explicit. We believe we're on track to complete our mentoring and training roles so far as the Afghan National Amy is concerned in Uruzgan province by the time table set by the international community and also by President Karzai which is before the end of 2014.
But we believe we're making considerable progress not just in terms of security on the ground but also in mentoring and training, making the transition to the Afghan National Army 4th Brigade in Uruzgan but as the Prime Minister, the Chief of the Defence Force and I have been saying for some weeks now, we have had to steel ourselves for this current fighting season, steel ourselves for terrible and tragic fatalities and also steal ourselves for more to come.
We've got on average 1550 Australian Defence Force personnel in Afghanistan and we're not proposing to disturb that until such time as our training mission is complete and we believe we're on track for that.
SCOTT BEVAN: Minister, so much has changed even since last year's Federal Parliamentary debate about Afghanistan, including the death of Osama bin Laden in Pakistan, and an apparently growing impatience by the Karzai Government with foreign forces.
Now on top of that there's the continuing casualties of young Australians there, testing the public's resolve in being in Afghanistan, how do you continue to clarify for the Australian public what we're still doing there and why should the public accept that?
STEPHEN SMITH: Well there are a range of reasons and the Prime Minister accept - I accept that at a time of fatalities - and as I say we've had four tragedies in the space of less than two weeks - at a time of fatalities the Australian community is perfectly entitled to ask the question why? But the Government very strongly continues to believe that it's in our national interests to be in Afghanistan.
We're there not just by ourselves or with the United States our alliance partner, we're there as part of a 48 countries-strong International Security Assistance Force that has continually been supported by a United Nations mandate and I believe that's - that's important.
But we don't want to see the Afghanistan/Pakistan border area again become a breeding ground or a hot bed of terrorism which we know has caused considerable damage in the course of - of their attacks in which Australians have suffered, whether it's Bali, whether it's the United States, whether it's Europe.
We continue to be very strongly of that view and off the back of fatalities which as I said in recent days reverberates through the Australian community, the Australian community's entitled to ask the question but we continue to believe it's in our interest, our long term national security interest to complete our task.
We don't want to be in Afghanistan forever and one of the difficulties and a point I've made in the parliamentary debate and subsequently is we now have what we believe is the correct military and political strategy so far as Afghanistan is concerned and the resources and personnel on the ground to deliver it.
It is a fact that we are five or six or seven years too late so far as international [indistinct] is concerned and that is one of the things which adds to pressure on the political will to see the job through.
SCOTT BEVAN: Now you mentioned the Australian Government still believes in our mission in Afghanistan. Do you believe the Australian public still believes in what the Government is doing with this mission?
STEPHEN SMITH: Well in the snap shot of the terrible couple of weeks we've had, I've seen reference to published opinion polls which suggests that Australians don't support the effort.
Frankly given the tragic circumstances we've had in the last days and weeks that doesn't surprise me at all but the Government has to take a longer term view and the parliament has to take a longer term view and the view of the government and the overwhelming view of the parliament is that it continues to be in our interests to make a contribution against international terrorism in the Afghanistan/Pakistan border area.
We don't want to be there forever, we've made that clear and that's why we strongly support the transition to Afghan-led responsibility and that's why together with the Chief of the Defence Force designate, General Hurley, that's why again he and I are here in Brussels, speaking with our NATO and International Security Assistance Force colleagues making our own assessments and judgements, calling our assessments and judgements, to make sure that we continue to be on track for that transiting and a handover to Afghan security forces in the course of 2014.
SCOTT BEVAN: Defence Minister Stephen Smith in Brussels, thank you for your time tonight.
STEPHEN SMITH: Thank you Scott, thanks very much.