TRANSCRIPT: INTERVIEW WITH DAVID SPEERS, PM AGENDA, SKY NEWS
TRANSCRIPTION: PROOF COPY E & OE
DATE: 23 JUNE 2011
TOPICS: US troop drawdown in Afghanistan
DAVID SPEERS: We're joined now by the Defence Minister, Stephen Smith from Canberra. Minister, thanks for your time. Has Barack Obama made the right call?
STEPHEN SMITH: Well, it's a call which is consistent with the strategy of transition Afghan-led security responsibility by the end of 2014. It's also consistent with what he said he would do when he announced the surge some 18 months ago.
An increase of just over 30,000 US troops and an increase of between 30,000 and 40,000 US and NATO and International Security Assistance Force troops. So he said at the time that he would commence a draw down from July of this year.
So it's consistent with the strategy and consistent with his previous commitments to the American people.
DAVID SPEERS: Do you support it? Is it the right move from your perspective?
STEPHEN SMITH: Well from our perspective, three things. Firstly, we welcome it as being consistent with the Lisbon summit strategy which is a transition to Afghan-led responsibility by 2014. Secondly, on the basis of the discussions that we have had with our US counterparts both at military and defence and political level, we don't have any concerns that this will have any significant or adverse implications for us in Oruzgan province.
We're working very well there under a combined team in Oruzgan with the United States. But thirdly, and this in very many respects is the key point, it does confirm as we have been saying for the last recent period that we're making progress against the Taliban.
That we have made up ground in terms of combat and enforcement and security ground.
And we know also from the fact that there are now initial approaches in terms of reconciliation or political rapprochement that the Taliban are hurting and they're feeling it so it also reinforces that point.
DAVID SPEERS: Well, I want to get to the rapprochement but on Oruzgan and the Australian forces there, you said there won't be any adverse impact. But it would seem that the first batch of these troops are going to come out of Southern Afghanistan. We do rely on the Americans, of course, for air support, ground support, medical evacuations and the like. So how is this going to affect our role in Oruzgan?
STEPHEN SMITH: Well a couple of points there. Firstly, I wouldn't assume where the first batch or draw down would come from. That's been left entirely in the hands of General Petraeus and his successor, General John Allen.
When I was in Brussels recently for the meeting of International Security Assistance Force and NATO Defence Ministers, I spoke to both of them. So it's being left effectively to General Allen so we shouldn't-
DAVID SPEERS: And what did they say to you? Where do you think they'll come from?
STEPHEN SMITH: Well we shouldn't prejudge that. It's been left for General Allen, that's the first point. Secondly, I don't have any concerns about ongoing access to or use of the so called enablers so far as helicopters, artillery and the like are concerned.
In very many respects from a military perspective, they would be the last things that you would seek to draw down on. So in terms of the details of the draw down, we should leave that to General Allen.
But in the mean time, as we've been having discussions with our United States counterparts on an ongoing basis, at CDF level, at political level and at defence level, we will continue, of course, to obviously monitor what occurs in the provinces around us whether it's Kandahar, Helmand and the like.
DAVID SPEERS: Yeah, well, you may not have any concern about access to those enablers but do you expect to be consulted about this at all, about whether there is the possibility that we might see an impact?
STEPHEN SMITH: Well firstly, on the basis of the conversations that we've had over the recent period, we don't believe that will occur. But obviously now that the President's decision has been made, we know what the precise draw down will be and the way in which that will proceed, namely a matter for the Military Commander, the ISAF Commander, General Petraeus and subsequently, General Allen to make judgements of that.
Of course, we will have conversations with General Petraeus and General Allen, in the usual way. We do that on a regular and ongoing basis not just through our senior officers in Afghanistan, and when the CDF and other senior officers or indeed myself or other Ministers visit.
DAVID SPEERS: This has become an unpopular war in the United States, particularly after the death of Osama bin Laden. Americans are starting to ask more and more, why are we still spending billions of dollars and risking so much in Afghanistan? Do you regard this decision from Barack Obama to be a military decision or a political decision?
STEPHEN SMITH: Well, it's obviously both. I mean, he's the President of the United States so he is making a public policy decision based on the military advice that he has received and also on the strategic objectives that he wants to obtain.
I think the key point is, you know, is this a decision which is consistent with the international community's strategy in terms of transition to Afghan responsibility by 2014? Yes it is. In Australia's context, is it a decision which causes us significant or great or grave concern? No it doesn't, because we believe that so far as we're concerned in Oruzgan we will continue working with our United States colleagues to be able to do our job.
And we are very confident that we're on track in Oruzgan for transition by our mentoring and training, transition by the end of 2014.
DAVID SPEERS: Alright, so that timetable remains in place. Can I ask you - the President also said in his speech today that “The US will never tolerate a safe haven for those who would destroy us. And he reminded Pakistan to live up to its commitments.” Is the focus in the fight on terrorism shifting from Afghanistan to Pakistan? Which country do you regard to be the greater terrorist threat?
STEPHEN SMITH: Well, I wouldn't disaggregate in that way. Firstly, the Australian Government has said for a considerable period of time that we regard the Afghanistan-Pakistan border area as the area where if we are not careful and don't put our effort in as an international community there is a risk that international terrorism, a hot-bed of international - breeding ground for international terrorism, can re-emerge there.
So far as extremists or terrorists organisations are concerned, we know that we have been effective against al-Qaeda, but remnants of al-Qaeda continue to exist, both in Afghanistan and Pakistan. But there are other terrorist networks as well, the al-Haqqani network, for example.
So we need to continue to be able to make sure that Afghanistan can manage its own security affairs so that area does not become, again, a breeding ground for international terrorism. So far as Pakistan is concerned, we know that Pakistan has its very significant challenges.
And that's why over the last three years we have enhanced our cooperation with Pakistan both development assistance and also training in counter-terrorism of their military offices. Pakistan is a very important nation to the international community, regionally very significantly placed.
So we have to give every assistance to Pakistan that we can, as Pakistan faces up to its security challenges and we know it has made improvements over the last couple of years. But it needs to do much more and we've made that point publicly and privately to Pakistan.
DAVID SPEERS: Defence Minister, Stephen Smith, we will have to leave it there. Thank you for your time.
STEPHEN SMITH: Thank you. Thanks very much.