TRANSCRIPT: DOORSTOP INTERVIEW, LONDON
TRANSCRIPTION: PROOF COPY E & OE
TOPICS: Progress in Afghanistan; NATO/ISAF Defence Ministers’ meeting; women in combat.
JOURNALIST: Stephen Smith, you've just been to Afghanistan. What did you learn from Australian troops there?
STEPHEN SMITH: Well the most important thing I did, on my third visit to Afghanistan as Defence Minister, was to again thank our troops for the great work that they're doing.
But there is no doubt that our officers and men on the ground think we've made substantial progress, I agree with that. It's been very difficult for the Taliban to hit back at us on the ground in Uruzgan Province and that's why they've resorted to the high-profile suicide bomb attacks.
It's still very dangerous and the risk of the IED's, the roadside bombs, is ever present. But it continues to be difficult and dangerous work- but we believe we are making progress. In particular we think we are making progress with the transition to Afghan responsibility for security in Uruzgan by 2014.
JOURNALIST: This week marks 10 years since Australia first sent troops to Afghanistan. It's by far Australia's longest war, and yet peace still looks as far away as ever in Afghanistan. Where did we and our Allies go wrong?
STEPHEN SMITH: Well, I've said previously that Iraq was a distraction for us. That when the history of this mission is written in years to come they'll see half a dozen lost years where we were distracted by Iraq and then when the international community went back into Afghanistan there wasn't a sufficiently well-defined political or military strategy to bring Afghanistan to a successful conclusion.
And it was only with the Riedel Review, and the Obama Review, that we saw for the first time the international community adopt a coherent military strategy that has at its heart the fact that we can't be there forever. We do need the transition to Afghan responsibility and there also needs to be a political settlement, not just a military settlement. And the political settlement needs to be supported by Afghans neighbors including Pakistan.
JOURNALIST: Is a negotiation with the Taliban and warlords for that matter, is that inevitable to achieve some kind of stable government in Afghanistan?
STEPHEN SMITH: Well Australia has strongly supported the notion that there has today at some stage a political settlement. This has to be done by the Afghan Government with people who are prepared to lay down their arms, accept the Afghan constitution and take part in democracy.
But there is also no doubt that there are the very early signs of political rapprochement have taken a very serious backwards step as a result of former President Rabbani’s assassination; there’s no doubt that is a significant blow, and that’s seen President Karzai say for the time being he's not proposing to negotiate with the Taliban but he does want to speak to Pakistan and I welcome that very much. Pakistan is essential to a resolution of the very difficult issues we see on the Afghanistan Pakistan border.
JOURNALIST: Does it feel hopeless; the situation in Afghanistan now?
STEPHEN SMITH: Well, the last two times I have returned from Afghanistan as Defence Minister I have been more quietly cautiously optimistic than I have in the past.
There is no doubt that we have degraded the Taliban in Uruzgan and Afghanistan generally. There is no doubt you are about that. They found it very difficult to make up ground in the course of this fighting season with consolidated. And that's why they have resorted to the high-profile propaganda style suicide attacks. That's aimed at the TV sets in the United States and Europe and in Australia.
So we've definitely made up ground in terms of security. We've also been doing very well on training and mentoring the 4th Brigade of the Afghan National Army.
So we are confident we can transition to Afghan security led responsibility in Uruzgan by 2014, the international community’s deadline. But there will be setbacks, as we've seen with former President Rabbani’s assassination.
JOURNALIST: But isn't your confidence somewhat contradicted by the fact that this year has been Australia's deadliest in Afghanistan with eight soldiers killed?
STEPHEN SMITH: We now have a fatality list of 29, we've got over 200 casualties and we have to steel ourselves for more. There is no turning away from that, but the advice and the analysis that I have from our officers on the ground was over the last 12 months we have seen in terms of Taliban initiated attacks in Uruzgan and Afghanistan generally, a significant decline.
So the momentum has clearly stalled so far as the Taliban is concerned. International Security Assistance Force has made substantial ground in terms of activities on the ground and securing the ground for the Afghan people.
But there is no denying that there is a long tough road ahead but Australia's analysis is that we remain confident with the transition to Afghan security responsibility by the Afghan National Army by the Afghan national and local Police and effect that by 2014.
JOURNALIST: Was it personally embarrassing for you to discover that the head of the Police force in Uruzgan Province has been trying to extort money out of the [indistinct] forces?
STEPHEN SMITH: Well I've seen that allegation before and as I said about any such allegation if people have evidence about that they should take that the Afghan authorities and we would ask the Afghan authorities to strenuously investigate that.
But people need to understand that in Uruzgan and in Afghanistan generally we are dealing with complex tribal relationships. Very many of the criticisms that I've seen of Matiullah Khan are from tribal rivals.
Now, we have no choice but to deal with the personnel that the Afghan authorities determine take positions of responsibility.
I met with Governor Shirzad. I also met with the Governor, with his three Security Chiefs. General Zafar, the local Afghan National Army Brigadier who runs the Army in Uruzgan Province together with the Police Chief Matiullah Khan and the new Chief of the National Directorate of Security. They all report to him. So we deal with Governor Shirzad, we have a lot of confidence in Governor Shirzad all we ask of the Chief of Police is that he acts responsibly in that position and reports to his boss, Governor Shirzad.
JOURNALIST: Do you trust him and do you trust the people in authority in Uruzgan Province who you are dealing with?
STEPHEN SMITH: Well we have absolute confidence in Governor Shirzad and as I say if there are any allegations about any Afghan officials they should be taken to the Afghan authorities.
JOURNALIST: So you trust the Afghan authorities to investigate this sort of thing when it's their own people who are [indistinct]?
STEPHEN SMITH: Well we have no choice but to deal with the people who the Afghan authorities determine. They are a sovereign Government they have to make their own decisions.
When Matiullah Khan was appointed as Chief of Police we made two points. Firstly, he had to report to and be responsible to Governor Shirzad and secondly he had to conduct himself responsibly as the Chief of Police and we've made those points to the Afghan authorities. And we are prepared to wait and see how that is tested.
JOURNALIST: So has Australia any independent assessment investigation of any of the claims against the Chief of Police there?
STEPHEN SMITH: Well we are not an investigative authority so far as the Afghan people or the Afghan officials are concerned.
JOURNALIST: But you’re training the Police Forces there. Don't you want to ensure you are doing the right job and the right thing by your people?
STEPHEN SMITH: We are making a contribution to the training of soldiers. We are making a contribution to the training of Police and in both respects we impart to them the benefit of our knowledge and our experience so far as conducting yourself in accordance with international law and domestic law is concerned. But if anyone has an allegation to make against an Afghan official they should tell that information to the Afghan authorities and we would strongly support its investigation.
JOURNALIST: Now you're heading off to Brussels to meet with Defence Ministers there. When Julia Gillard was last in Brussels there was talk of Australia joining NATO as a member country. Has that advanced at all?
STEPHEN SMITH: Well it's not so much Australia joining NATO. I don't regard that as a serious proposition and I've never seen it seriously suggested.
What we are working closely with NATO is a long-term strategic partnership between Australia and NATO.
In the course of our operation in Afghanistan obviously we will work closely with NATO. We are the largest non-NATO contributor. But over the years we have come to work closely with them and discover that we have values and virtues in common with many NATO countries and the notion of a long-term strategic partnership with NATO, which is not based on our operations in Afghanistan is a sensible thing to do and we are progressing that and we're looking very much forward to the visit by the NATO Secretary General at the end of this year.
JOURNALIST: It is generally recognised by all of the countries you’ll meet with in Brussels that Australia is if not the strongest economy in the world right now. It is certainly right up there. So how do you as Defence Minister justify to your colleagues in Brussels having spent only 1.8% of GDP on Defence when NATO itself requires of its members no less than 2%?
STEPHEN SMITH: Well Australia makes a substantial contribution to Defence and peacekeeping efforts not just in our own region but throughout the world. And when you add our Defence and peacekeeping spend we are in the top dozen nations throughout the world and that's a very good thing.
What I say to my NATO colleagues is we are the largest non-NATO contributor to the effort in Afghanistan. We contribute 1550 troops, we're the 10th largest contributor overall and we are the 3rd largest contributor of Special Forces and it has been unquestionably the case and it's everyone's analysis that the effort of Special Forces over the last 12 months has seen the tide turned against the Taliban in Afghanistan. And my NATO colleagues and my International Security Assistance Force colleagues have nothing but praise for the contribution that Australia makes both in terms of its quantity and in terms of its quality and that reflects very well on the men and women who are in Afghanistan I doing their bit on behalf of Australia and behalf of the international community.
JOURNALIST: There has never really ever been a question about Australia's troops they are very well-regarded throughout the world it's more about equipment and resources though isn't it? The allegations against Australia's allocations of [indistinct]?
STEPHEN SMITH: Well when I was in Afghanistan the last couple of days so far as our troops were concerned they had nothing but praise for the contribution that the Defence organisation was giving them in terms of the keeping of equipment.
They are very pleased with the new combat gear that's now being made available to them. They are very pleased with the new uniforms and they're very pleased with the kit that they've got. So there's no complaint so far as us doing everything we have to do as a nation to provide them with the equipment and the force protection that they need.
JOURNALIST: And what did the trip say to you, what was the feedback about allowing women on the front line? Did they talk to you about that?
STEPHEN SMITH: Well I had more of that in my last visit. I was there last to coincide with Anzac Day and that was coinciding with the time that I announced that the Government would take this matter forward; I got more of that on that occasion.
It was raised on a couple of occasions and I make the same points to the troops on the line as I do publicly which is the most important thing here is making sure that we open the capacity for any Australian if he or she wants to serve on the frontline.
What we're not going to do is to in any way drop the standards to enable people to do that. So the same standards will apply.
This simple question is this; it doesn't matter whether your man or a woman; if you can do the job physically, mentally, intellectually, psychologically then an artificial barrier shouldn't be placed in your way.
JOURNALIST: Thank you very much.
STEPHEN SMITH: Thank you.