TRANSCRIPT: DOORSTOP – CHICAGO
TRANSCRIPTION: Proof copy and E & OE
DATE: 20 May 2012
STEPHEN SMITH: Thanks very much for turning up. I just wanted to make some remarks about an incident overnight in Uruzgan Province. You may have seen from wire reports that yesterday afternoon about five o'clock local time a suicide bomber came into contact with an International Security Assistance Force operation. The details will be provided formally by ISAF, the International Security Assistance Force and, because it was an ISAF operation, those details will be provided and ISAF are handling the notification to families.
So I'm limited in what I can say but I just wanted to assure people and make the point that I can confirm that no Australian personnel were involved, no Australians either military or civilians were killed or wounded in this suicide bomb attack.
Other than expressing our condolences to the families of those concerned, in addition to two fatalities there are a number of wounded, both military personnel and civilians, but my advice which, of course, will be a matter of great relief to Australians is that no Australian individuals are involved and ISAF, through General Allen, in due course will release the full details.
JOURNALIST: Was this likely to be an attempt to send a message or intimidate the international community here?
STEPHEN SMITH: I've been saying for some time that because we've made up such ground on the security front in Uruzgan in particular and Afghanistan generally, the Taliban would resort to high profile propaganda motivated attacks: suicide bombs, use of children and also assassination attempts and, regrettably, of course, they have been successful on that front in recent times.
It may be a coincidence that the international community is meeting in Chicago for this very important summit. But equally it would not surprise if the Taliban were orchestrating their efforts to coincide with this summit.
But we have to continue to steel ourselves for these types of attacks, whether it's the Taliban using children as suicide bombers, whether it's assassination attempts, but what that does underline and reflect the ongoing inability on the part of the Taliban to make up the ground that has been taken from them over the last two years.
The other point, of course, that needs to be made is that we are now moving into directly what we refer to as the northern fighting season, the end of the winter, the end of the poppy harvest, so we're now moving to that time of year where traditionally there has been greater engagement by the Taliban of the International Security Assistance Force.
JOURNALIST: Nonetheless, does this say the Taliban have a greater strength in that period?
STEPHEN SMITH: No, to me, and I've made this point before, it underlines the fact that over the last 18 months to two years in Uruzgan in particularly but in Afghanistan generally both Australian forces and the International Security Assistance Forces have made up substantial ground. The Taliban have not been able to take that ground back from us over the last 18 month to two years and for more than 12 months I've been saying, as a consequence of that, you will see the Taliban resort to the high profile propaganda motivated attacks and that's been the basis and the motivation for the two attacks we've seen in recent times in Kabul, for example, using vacant construction sites as a base for attacks.
This is now part of the modus operandi but to me it as much reinforces the fact that we have made up considerable ground, that we see these attacks ongoing.
The two significant improvements in Afghanistan and Uruzgan over the last two years have been firstly making up that security ground and secondly the success we've been having in terms of training and mentoring the Afghanistan National Security Forces, in our case in Uruzgan Province, the 4th Brigade of the Afghan National Army but more generally the Afghan National Security Forces including the local and national Police.
JOURNALIST: Isn't there an irony that the international community is here talking about how to end the military phase and what happens afterwards and most countries seem to accept that that involves bringing the Taliban to the table. At the same time the Taliban are presumably involved in this, and undermining the political process that's being advocated.
STEPHEN SMITH: Again, Australia's been saying for a number of years, really commencing at the London conference on Afghanistan, that we would not see an enduring settlement in Afghanistan through military or combat means alone, there also had to be efforts at the political level, to effect a political settlement, a political solution which involves elements and notions of reconciliation but also reintegration and we've seen the early stages of both of those.
It's also the reality that the Taliban would never come to the table whilst they believe that they could dominate in a combat or military sense. So, in some respects, the two things go hand in glove. You won't see the Taliban coming to the table until you saw the Taliban momentum stalled, reversed and then the International Security Assistance Forces have the combat or security momentum and that's what has occurred.
We've seen the early signs of outreach, we've seen the early contacts, whether it's been direct contact between the Afghanistan Government and the Taliban or through the Qatar office of the Taliban. These are, as everyone acknowledges, at an early stage but at some point in the cycle it is important, it is, in my view, essential that the Government of Afghanistan and those members of the Taliban who want to lay down their arms, who want to abide by the Afghan constitution seek to effect some form of political settlement. That is also one of the lessons of history, of ending an insurgency.
JOURNALIST: Would this weekend's meetings here at least be able to confirm or otherwise with the Australian how long you're likely to be in there, how long will Australia be there?
STEPHEN SMITH: Well, the Prime Minister-
JOURNALIST: How long we will continue to pay-
STEPHEN SMITH: The Prime Minister and I have made it clear that the answer to that question is firstly we are committed to Afghanistan until the end of 2014 when transition will be effected. We, in Uruzgan Province, have been included in the third tranche of transition and that will see us potentially transitioning in Uruzgan Province over the next 12 to 18 months.
We'll take it step by step but, as the Prime Minister and I have been saying for some months, we are on track to effect transition in Uruzgan Province by 2014 and perhaps earlier.
We've also made it clear that Afghanistan, the security forces in Afghanistan and the Afghan institutions generally will continue to need the assistance of the international community after the end of 2014 and that's why at this conference you see two things occurring.
Firstly, the international community indicating that it's prepared to resource the Afghan National Security Forces in an ongoing way and we have indicated a $100 million contribution for that, starting in 2015 for an initial three-year period.
But, secondly, the international community starting to have a conversation about what will be the post-2014 presence in Afghanistan and, in our case, we've said that we're prepared to continue with advisors, with some specialised or niche or institutional training, like artillery schools or officer training, but also, under the right mandate, potential for Special Forces.
It's clear there will be a need for further ongoing assistance to the Afghan institutions and National Security Forces and it's also clear that the international community needs to show to the people of Afghanistan and the region that the international community is not walking away and that's why you'll see, very shortly, the Prime Minister and President Karzai sign a long term strategic partnership between Australia and Afghanistan. It's why you've seen the United States do that. It's why you've seen NATO do that. It's why you see other countries doing that, whether it's the United Kingdom, Italy or Germany and I'm now being told that if I don't leave shortly I'm going to miss the next bilateral.
JOURNALIST: But why leave the Special Forces there - why leave the [indistinct] sorry, just to clarify, you said no Australians have been killed or wounded and there's no Australian involvement.
STEPHEN SMITH: There was no Australian involvement in the operation. It was an ISAF operation. As a consequence the details will be provided by ISAF. I simply wanted to confirm, because there was concern expressed, that no Australian personnel have been involved or caught up in the operation, no Australian personnel, military or civilian, killed or wounded. So in that respect it's a relief but obviously our thoughts are with the families of those who have been killed and wounded.
JOURNALIST: Why leave the Special Forces there for longer?
STEPHEN SMITH: Because we are of the view that the Afghan security forces will need after 2014 some ongoing assistance. We've made it clear that under the appropriate mandate, under the right mandate, we would be prepared to make a contribution of Special Forces, either for counter-terrorism purposes or for training purposes.
That is part of our analysis and I think it's an analysis shared by the international community generally that the Afghan Security Forces will need some ongoing assistance after 2014 and we are prepared to contemplate that because we think it would be wrong, after all of the effort, all of the commitment that Australia has made, to run the risk of Afghanistan again returning to a breeding ground for international terrorism.
So we want to make sure that the job is done up until 2014 but we also want to make sure that the Afghan institutions get that ongoing support from the international community.
Thanks very much. Thanks.