TRANSCRIPT: INTERVIEW WITH DAVID SPEERS, PM AGENDA, SKY NEWS
TRANSCRIPTION: PROOF COPY E & OE
DATE: 30 JUNE 2011
TOPICS: Afghanistan; Chief of Defence Force.
DAVID SPEERS: Defence Minister Stephen Smith joins me now. Minister, welcome to the program.
STEPHEN SMITH: Pleasure.
DAVID SPEERS: This Taliban attack on the Inter-Continental hotel in Kabul was clearly aimed at delivering a psychological blow in Afghanistan. Do you think it succeeded?
STEPHEN SMITH: Well, any high profile attack which is successful is regrettable, obviously; in this case, terrible loss of life. But I've been saying for some time in this northern summer fighting season we need to expect the Taliban to fight back on the ground, but also to engage in these high profile, propaganda-type attacks. It's not the first one we've seen.
DAVID SPEERS: It's quite a big one though.
STEPHEN SMITH: It is a big one and I'm not seeking to understate the success or the need for both the Afghan authorities and also the International Security Assistance Force to do a very careful review as to how it occurred.
DAVID SPEERS: Do you think inside support might have been involved in this?
STEPHEN SMITH: It's too early to say that. I mean, in recent times as they have adopted this tactic, an attack upon the defence headquarters in Kabul, we've seen successful efforts to assassinate a local police commissioner; another high profile attack. This is aimed at sapping political will in Europe, in the United States and also here.
DAVID SPEERS: Sapping political will; also, it would seem the Taliban are intent on infiltrating some of the local security forces.
STEPHEN SMITH: Well, yes, in Afghanistan and in Kabul we are essentially in a counterinsurgency and a counter-terrorism mode. But Afghanistan and Kabul is not the only capital city in recent times where there's been, regrettably, a terrible successful terrorist attack. So, as a general proposition we need to be ever vigilant as we are in Australia and as we are for our citizens overseas but this-
DAVID SPEERS: The-
STEPHEN SMITH: -is a deliberate tactic and we should recognise it as such. One of the causes of this tactic is that we know, over the last 18 months - the last nine to 12 months in particular - we have been making ground in terms of security gains and we have-
DAVID SPEERS: Well, that was the case certainly in southern Afghanistan in Helmand and Kandahar-
STEPHEN SMITH: It's not limited there.
DAVID SPEERS: No but is the Taliban, while suffering defeats in southern Afghanistan, now making inroads or trying to make inroads in other parts like we've seen in Kabul?
STEPHEN SMITH: Well, we have degraded or denuded their effort in the south, in their heartland areas Helmand, Kandahar and to a lesser extent Uruzgan and I say to a lesser extent because their home territory, so to speak, has traditionally been Helmand and Kandahar. But there are other parts of the country where we need to do more and the east is one example.
But they're also quite clearly trying to destabilise or to have the successful attacks in those areas where we've already seen the first phase of transition, the seven provinces or districts which were announced at the Lisbon summit-
DAVID SPEERS: All of this raises the question-
STEPHEN SMITH: -and Kabul was one of those.
DAVID SPEERS: -is now the time for the US to be starting to withdraw troops?
STEPHEN SMITH: Well as I said before - I think on your show - I've never seen any difficulty with the transition by the end of 2014 and a drawdown by the United States of its surge troops.
When the drawdown of the United States surge troops is over by the end of next summer they'll still have 68,000 troops there. In the meantime, we know that the Afghan security forces, both army and police, have increased to nearly 300,000. And over the period of the United States NATO surge we've also seen growth in the Afghan security forces, particularly the army-
DAVID SPEERS: -But clearly not of the same calibre as the NATO forces.
STEPHEN SMITH: No and this is why, for example in Uruzgan, we believe we're on track to do the mentoring and training to make the transition by 2040 but we're not seeking to accelerate that. We are making very good progress. It's not just quantity, it is also quality.
It's also not just the quality of, if you like, infantry but also the back-of-house skills; headquarters, Special Forces and the like. And there is now a significant Afghan force component working in partnership with us.
DAVID SPEERS: Well, despite that progress, the International Crisis Group, a key global think tank that's looked at this very closely, says, quote: An aggressive campaign of assassinations of government officials, infiltration of Afghan security forces in neighbouring provinces has gutted the Afghan Government's ability to expand its reach. So there is pessimism there about Afghanistan's local forces.
STEPHEN SMITH: Well, we do know that in addition to building the Afghan institutions, in addition to the central government from Kabul doing better, that we've got to build the capacity of the provincial and local governments.
Indeed, when I came back after Anzac Day from Uruzgan, I said here that one of the most important things we could do would be to encourage Kabul to give Governor Shirzad in Uruzgan better district governors and better direct - line directors, essentially heads of department.
Because, as well as making security grounds, we've got to try and build the capacity of the Afghan Government, both central and provincial, to start delivering services.
DAVID SPEERS: Well, all of this comes as the US Administration has confirmed, at a very early stage, peace talks have begun with the Taliban. What do you know about that? What stage is this at?
STEPHEN SMITH: Well, first, as a general proposition we know they are at a very early stage. As Secretary Gates has said and the President has reinforced their-
DAVID SPEERS: So what does that mean?
STEPHEN SMITH: Well, essentially its outreach or feeling the way. We have been strong supporters of the notion that our mission in Afghanistan, transitioning to Afghanistan security responsibility, getting out of Afghanistan can't be done by military means alone. There has to also be a political settlement.
The Taliban will only start to contemplate talking to the Karzai Government, talking to other international players, if they come to the conclusion they can't win militarily. And that's, I think, one of the measures of the success of the security campaign in recent times.
DAVID SPEERS: But it's not the Taliban, it would seem, reaching out for that reason to NATO and US forces. It's the US now saying that they are reaching out to the Taliban, isn't it?
STEPHEN SMITH: Well, it's - you can't have a dialogue with yourself. You can't have a one-way dialogue, so our analysis is that these are very early stages. US Secretary of Defense Gates has made the same point. Also you've got to be very confident about who you're talking to and who they represent.
I think, very early stage, but to me it's a good sign because we know we've denuded or degraded the Taliban capacity. If they were confident they could outlast the international community or confident they were winning the security front, confident they were winning hearts and minds there'd be no conversation at all.
DAVID SPEERS: But isn't it the brutal reality that the Taliban are still showing us, we've seen this week, a capacity and a willingness to kill civilians mercilessly? It's shown no softening of its attitude towards women which, of course, has been such a big concern for the West as well, that the prospect of the Taliban having some involvement in the Afghan Government that we leave, surely is concerning?
STEPHEN SMITH: Well, the precondition of any discussion with the Karzai Government or the Afghan government has to be a commitment to lay down your arms, to forsake violence, to abide by the Afghan Constitution and agree to pursue your objectives in a political sense.
Now, there'll be some members of the Taliban who will not contemplate that.
DAVID SPEERS: But even those who agree to do that, in practice may not.
STEPHEN SMITH: Well, people said that years ago of the IRA in Ireland. So in any insurgency or counterinsurgency it's only ever come to an end as a result of a political settlement. What you need to have is majority political will or majority of the players wanting to end a state of warfare and get on with managing a country's affairs.
DAVID SPEERS: In the end, I suppose, it comes down to the Afghan Government's decision here on what it does. Hamid Karzai has referred to the Taliban as my brothers. Does that concern you that he would be willing to form some of allegiance or alliance?
STEPHEN SMITH: He has made it crystal clear, which underlines what I describe as the preconditions, that any serious discussions can only be with people who abide by the Afghan Constitution, lay down their arms, forsake terrorism and extremism and violence and want to pursue a resolution by conversation. And we have to be realistic about this, there'll be some-
DAVID SPEERS: If there's still members-
STEPHEN SMITH: -members of the Taliban who won't do that.
DAVID SPEERS: Well, if there's still members of the Taliban though and hold those extreme views that we know and they share with, you know, Islamic terrorist organisations, if Afghanistan is left with that sort of involvement in the government there, has the last 10 years of this war and Australia's involvement, been worthwhile?
STEPHEN SMITH: Well, the reason that we remain in Afghanistan - we know we can't be there forever. We know that the international community can't be managing these affairs forever so we've got to make the transition. We have to make the transition to secure it a responsibility.
We've got to try and effect a political settlement but the reason we're there is because we don't want the Afghanistan-Pakistan border area to again become a breeding ground or a trading ground for international terrorism and-
DAVID SPEERS: The bottom line is Pakistan's crucial here too.
STEPHEN SMITH: Well, Pakistan is crucial. We know that and the Taliban going into Pakistan and having respite in Pakistan is - continues to be a difficulty and a challenge for us. But we want to close off that option.
If we were to leave now there would be a vacuum into which the remnants of al-Qaeda, the Haqqani network, other extremist networks who have international objectives, would move and so we have to prevent that.
The only way we can prevent that in the long term is by training up the Afghans to manage these security responsibilities themselves. We expect, as I've made clear, that we may well be there, the international community may well be there after 2014 in other roles - Special Forces Overwatch, certainly development assistance and capacity building - helping to build the strength of their institutions.
But if we were to leave now there would be a vacuum into which international terrorism, in our view, would go.
DAVID SPEERS: A final question, Minister. Tomorrow is, in fact, the final day on the job for Angus Houston. The Defence Force Chief is leaving. He's moving after some 41 years in the military and a distinguished time at the helm of Defence. What will be his legacy?
STEPHEN SMITH: Well, technically it's midnight on Sunday night and he will be absolutely meticulous and diligent and conscientious about that.
DAVID SPEERS: I'm sure he will [laughs].
STEPHEN SMITH: I can assure you of that. Look, he's the second longest serving Chief of the Defence Force. He's a great Australian. I think people will remember him, frankly, for the respect in which they held him.
He was regarded very much as a person of integrity before he became the Chief and he walks out being very highly regarded as a person of great integrity.
To use the jargon, he's been Chief at a time of high operational tempo. What does that mean? That means with a lot of our forces overseas in areas of high risk; Afghanistan, Iraq and Afghanistan. And he's had to manage that and do it in a way where we give our troops on the ground the best equipment we can, look after their safety and their wellbeing but also understand that there'll be wounded warriors and fatalities.
And he's been, I think, regarded very, very well as a person who has done that tough side of the job in the manner in which Australians would expect it to be done, which is with sensitivity and compassion for families. But also very strongly adhering to what he believes and what the Government believes are our long-term national security and national interests.
DAVID SPEERS: Defence Minister Stephen Smith, we'll have to leave it there. Thanks for joining us.
STEPHEN SMITH: Thank you. Thank you very much.