TRANSCRIPT: INTERVIEW WITH DAVID SPEERS, SKY NEWS PM AGENDA
TRANSCRIPTION: PROOF COPY E & OE
TOPICS: Progress in Afghanistan; NATO/ISAF Defence Ministers Meeting; Chinook Grounding.
DAVID SPEERS: Stephen Smith, you've just come from Afghanistan and you've been at a meeting with your NATO counterparts there in Brussels; what update can you give us about the general feeling on the war in Afghanistan as we do mark the 10th Anniversary of this war?
STEPHEN SMITH: Well the assessment of Australia and the assessment of our colleagues in the International Security Assistance Force, that we've made considerable progress in the last 12 to 18 months. We've degraded the Taliban; they haven't been able to make up any ground either in Uruzgan or Afghanistan generally in the course of this fighting season. And that's why they've resorted to the high profile suicide bomb, assassination-type attacks.
So we believe we've made progress on the security front, we've also made progress on transition, on training and mentoring the Afghan National Army, the Afghan national and local Police so they can take responsibility for these matters in 2014.
But the other point of conversation we've had is it's not all going to end at the end of 2014. There does need to be a post 2014 presence, and we're starting that conversation about what the international committee's presence will be after transition occurs in 2014.
DAVID SPEERS: What will our presence be post 2014?
STEPHEN SMITH: Well I've made it clear to our colleagues, for example, US Secretary of Defense, Leon Panetta, to NATO Secretary General, Rasmussen, and to our other International Security Assistance Force colleagues that Australia strongly believes that there does need to be continuing assistance to Afghanistan after transition in 2014. And that's for example reflected by the fact that NATO is about to sign up a long term strategic partnership with Afghanistan; the United States is doing the same.
But there will need to be ongoing assistance. And in Australia's case, we've said we're very happy to contemplate the notion of ongoing training - that would be high level, specialised, technical artillery or officer training.
We also see the potential for Army advisers or military advisers. And also potentially, some ongoing Special Forces role. But we're just starting that discussion, but we do need to now bring that to the fore because we don't want the Taliban or Afghanistan's neighbours to think that just because there will be a transition by the end of 2014 that the international community will then ignore Afghanistan - on the contrary.
There needs to continuing assistance, and that of course will include substantial civilian capacity building and development assistance.
DAVID SPEERS: Now your American counterpart, the US Defense Secretary, Leon Panetta has warned that the US may not be able to sustain operations like it has in Libya and Afghanistan because of the budgetary pressures it’s under. Does that concern you as an American Allie?
STEPHEN SMITH: Well we're all under financial pressure. We've all got to effect value for money and we've all got to be careful about what we spend. So the United States is under financial pressure so far as military and Defence Budget is concerned, as are our United Kingdom and NATO colleagues, as indeed are we.
The point we've made is that whilst the United States is drawing down in the stage way from Afghanistan, we need to do that in a sensible and staged way. But as the United States and other NATO draw down occurs, we are of course growing the Afghan National Army and the Afghan national and local Police. But we can't be in Afghanistan forever; we've got to transfer responsibility to Afghanistan.
So the point that Secretary Panetta has made is that the Untied States is under financial pressure and it can't bear the burden by itself, and that's why Australia has been saying in Afghanistan post 2014, there does need to be an ongoing international community contribution or commitment. It'll be significantly less than what we currently see. In Australia's case, we've got 1550 troops in Afghanistan; the vast bulk of that goes to training and mentoring.
So once the training and mentoring job is complete by 2014, then there will be a substantial draw down so as far as Australia is concerned. But there needs to be an ongoing presence. We've got to make sure that Afghanistan doesn't again become a breeding ground for international terrorism that'll need ongoing international community assistance, and also need the support of Afghanistan's neighbours, in particular Pakistan.
DAVID SPEERS: Just a final question, Minister. Australia's Chinook helicopters have been grounded. This is about four months on from the crash in Afghanistan which killed Lieutenant Marcus Case. Is the grounding of the Chinook's to do with - is it related to that crash?
STEPHEN SMITH: Well I'll make two points and make them separately because this is important. We are of course having an investigation into the death of Marcus Case. That investigation is ongoing and we're not coming to any conclusions about that. But the Chief of the Defence Force and I have had a discussion about this in the course of yesterday and today.
It is the case that part of the evidence which has come up as a result of the Marcus Case investigation has drawn attention to the difficulty that we've now made public with the Chinook fleet.
So whilst we've come to no conclusions on the Marcus Case case, we need to continue that investigation.
Some of the information that has been picked up already in that case has added to the cause, or added to the reasons why we have, for safety measures, currently grounded our Chinook fleet just to make sure that we don't have an ongoing difficulty in that respect.
So whilst in one respect the two are separate, part of the information that we've based the grounding on is a result of information we've picked up through the Marcus Case investigation. But we do need to treat the two as separate.
Importantly from an operational point of view, because we've got access to United States helicopters in Afghanistan, it's not going to have any adverse impact on our operation in Afghanistan, and that's of course very important.
DAVID SPEERS: Defence Minister Stephen Smith joining us from Brussels. Thanks for your time.
STEPHEN SMITH: Thanks David. Thanks very much.