TRANSCRIPT: DOORSTOP INTERVIEW, FORWARD OPERATING BASE WALI, MIRABAD VALLEY
TRANSCRIPTION: PROOF COPY E & OE
TOPICS: Progress in Afghanistan; women in combat.
JOURNALIST: So Minister, your first trip to Wali? What have you seen and what have you heard?
STEPHEN SMITH: Well the first thing that I've done sit down with a couple of our troops and just get their impressions as to how it’s going.
In very many respects, the most important thing that I can do while I'm here is to thank our troops, thank our Diggers for the great work that they do. It continues to be difficult, it continues to be dangerous.
We've lost 29 soldiers in Afghanistan since we started and we have had 199 soldiers wounded, so it is very difficult and dangerous work. But just getting the impression on the ground is always very helpful for someone in my position.
JOURNALIST: Have they raised any concerns with you?
STEPHEN SMITH: Not yet, but as I go through the day I expect as I have in the past here that they will raise with me issues of concern. Sometimes they can be things like uniforms, other times they can be concerns about women in combat. But I expect that as I go through speaking to the troops in the course of the day that I'll pick up those concerns.
But the first impressions I have had- they understand they are doing a very important job and they do believe they are making progress on the mentoring and training work that they are doing.
That's the most important thing to make the transition to Afghan responsibility for security. There is no doubt we've made ground in Uruzgan in the last 12 to 18 months, and there is no doubt that we have consolidated ground over the course of this so called summer fighting season.
JOURNALIST: How would you rate the summer fighting season, it is starting to come towards the end, into the winter?
STEPHEN SMITH: Well traditionally as we get to the northern winter to the middle of November we start to see the fighting season coming to an end. Already we have had some anecdotal evidence that some of the insurgents have returned to Pakistan and have shown no intention of coming back over the border. So there is no doubt we have consolidated.
Part of that consolidation has also seen what I described as the high-profile propaganda style attacks that we've seen in recent times, suicide bombings and the like. That in very many respects reflects the fact that it has been very difficult for the Taliban to gain momentum again on the ground and make up the ground they have lost over the last 12 to 18 months.
JOURNALIST: Is that an indication that the Taliban tactics are shifting away from these sort of provinces more towards Kabul?
STEPHEN SMITH: I said at the beginning of this year that we would see high-profile propaganda style attacks. This is in part because it would be difficult for the Taliban to come back on the ground both in Uruzgan province and in Afghanistan generally.
Regrettably, we have to acknowledge that some of those high profile attacks have been successful. And the successful assassination of the former president Rabbani has been a very significant blow. So we can't pretend that some of those attacks some of those suicide bombings haven't set us back. They have. The assassination of the former president is the most significant of those.
JOURNALIST: And how are the Aussie troops particularly here being received by the locals?
STEPHEN SMITH: Well I'll speak to some of the local Afghan and Uruzgan officials later in the day, but every time that I have had a conversation with my Afghan counterparts or Afghan officials that they always value very highly the work that Australians do. They respect the way in which they conduct themselves.
They also respect the way in which they deal in a decent civilised way with the local population. So I am not expecting anything other than what I've always get which is Australian's are held in very high regard for the work that they do, that's combat or security work, or whether that development assistance, or whether it is just dealing with the locals in a civilised and dignified way.
JOURNALIST: And just finally, in the few minutes that I was sitting there with a couple of the troops I did ask them about women in combat and they did raise serious concerns; they weren't willing to talk on camera though. Those sorts of concerns, have any of those been raised with you and how do you-
STEPHEN SMITH: Not on this occasion. But when I was last here to coincide with ANZAC Day there was also publicity about women in combat and I made the main points then that I make now and that the Chief of the Defence Force and the Chief of Army have also made the past couple of days which is, all we're doing is simply opening up 7% of positions to women, but that can only be on merit.
They will have to go through the same standards, the same training, they will have to be up for the task whether it is physically, intellectually or psychologically.
The most important message that I will have for any of our soldiers who have concerns is that there will be no reduction in standards. This is not to simply enable women to do a job if they want to, it's to enable women to have the chance to do the job. They will only get to do that job if they pass all the rigorous training that the men themselves as to pass.
So the most important thing here is that there is no dropping in standards, and that's a quite straightforward basic Australian principle, that you should qualify for a job if you have the merits and the capacity to do the job. You shouldn't be knocked out of a job simply on the basis of your sex for any other reason.
JOURNALIST: Their main concern wasn't to do with the Australian side, it was with the enemy- and the fact that they believed if a woman was in a patrol that whole patrol would become a higher value target purely because of the way women are viewed by the Taliban and the locals here, but also because of the press that they would believe it would generate if a woman was killed or captured in combat.
STEPHEN SMITH: Well the advice that I have from the Chief of the Defence Force and the service chiefs generally is that they don't believe that that would be the case. But obviously there are two important points that can be made.
Firstly, in any conflict in Australia has engaged in, of course we want to be culturally sensitive and the alive to the tactics of our opponents. That’s the first thing. Secondly, this is not something which should be viewed simply through an Afghan prism, or through the context of our mission in Afghanistan.
We have had the Australian Army going for 110 years, Navy going for 100 years and Air Force for 90 years. So this is a big change. It is a historic change and will require some cultural adjustments and we accept and acknowledge that.
But it is something that shouldn't be viewed through the prism of the one particular conflict or one particular mission.
I'm simply saying to the Australian Defence Force and to the Australian people that if you are good enough to do the job if you're physically, mentally, intellectually psychologically capable of doing a job then you shouldn't be prevented from doing that job simply on the basis of your sex.
JOURNALIST: Thank you.
STEPHEN SMITH: Cheers.