TRANSCRIPT: INTERVIEW WITH DAVID SPEERS, SKY PM AGENDA
TRANSCRIPTION: PROOF COPY AND E & OE
DATE: 26 MARCH 2013
TOPICS: Afghanistan transition; Budget; Cabinet reshuffle.
DAVID SPEERS: We're now joined by Defence Minister Stephen Smith. Minister, thanks for your time.
STEPHEN SMITH: A Pleasure.
DAVID SPEERS: You were there in Tarin Kot last month, and you said at the time that you're absolutely confident that by the end of the year we would have - we would have been able to transition security responsibility to the Afghan security forces. So, what's new about today's announcement? The Government has been talking about this for a long time.
STEPHEN SMITH: We've been confident that we would transition to Afghan led security responsibility in Uruzgan by the end of this year, and we've been confident of that since the beginning of this year. And this really now just confirms that, consolidates that, essentially it makes that irreversible.
DAVID SPEERS: It just seems like the Government announces and announces and announces that the troops are coming home?
STEPHEN SMITH: Well, that's not right. Indeed this - today was the first occasion where I have put a figure on what the drawdown might be in course of this year. The Prime Minister, the Chief of the Defence Force and I have all repeatedly said we need to take this step by step, we need to make sure we're methodical about it. And so, today with the closure of Tarin Kot, with the closure of our base and no presence there we can quite clearly say that the drawdown at the end of the year will be at least 1000, and subject to other discussions we need to have with Afghanistan, with NATO, with ISAF and the United States, it may be more. But we'll take it step by step.
DAVID SPEERS: This doesn't change the timetable that we signed up to at the Chicago NATO summit last year, does it?
STEPHEN SMITH: Well, it doesn't change the Chicago timetable or approach, nor the Lisbon timetable or approach, other than - we were in the third tranche of transition, so we started in July of last year. We've always believed that we've been a bit ahead of the pace and this now confirms or consolidates that.
DAVID SPEERS: We still don't know what role our special forces, in particular, may play in Afghanistan beyond next year. When will a decision be taken on that?
STEPHEN SMITH: Well, in the course of this year. We've been saying consistently that we will offer - we're prepared to make a post-2014 contribution. Certainly that will be training- the officer training is one example. Other training is in prospect. We've also made it clear that Special Forces are available, either for training or for counter-terrorism operations, if there's an appropriate mandate. Now, we've always made that point clear - an appropriate mandate. Whether there's a mandate or not will really depend upon the discussions between the United States and Afghanistan on what we would call the Status of Forces Agreement, what they call a Bilateral Security Agreement and then subsequent discussions with NATO and ISAF. So, there may or may not be a role for us. We've made it clear that we would make such a role or make our special forces available for either or both roles, depending upon the mandate.
DAVID SPEERS: So this goes to the question of the rules of engagement and their legal footing after the transition?
STEPHEN SMITH: It's the mandate. At the end of 2014 the United Nations mandate will cease, so there needs to be a new mandate for a different mission and that's - discussions are underway between Afghanistan and the United States on that.
DAVID SPEERS: If that can - If you can be satisfied on all of that and we do see our special forces playing a counter terror role still in Afghanistan, they would now then be based out of Kandahar or Kabul, I think you've said, no longer Tarin Kot. Would that potentially be a more dangerous operation for them if they are being deployed right across Afghanistan?
STEPHEN SMITH: Well, Special Forces missions are always dangerous. That's the first thing. Secondly, our special forces do their work in conjunction with International Security Assistance Force. So, they deal very closely with other Special Forces communities, in particular the United States. That's the first point. Whatever they do is dangerous, and so-
DAVID SPEERS: Afghanistan's still a dangerous place?
STEPHEN SMITH: Absolutely, and our Special Forces don't just operate in Uruzgan. They're authorised to operate in the surrounding areas where there is a benefit to Uruzgan.
DAVID SPEERS: The Helmand Province in particular?
STEPHEN SMITH: Helmand, Kandahar, the adjoining provinces, Zabul, Daykundi. So, in once sense it doesn't much matter where they're physically based from. The work they do is dangerous, and-
DAVID SPEERS: Is that Afghanistan-
STEPHEN SMITH: Can I just make this point. The same is true generally. Just because we're now consolidated at Tarin Kot, there is still a risk. It's just the risk is a different risk but we still need to be very careful and manage that risk, but whatever our Special Forces are doing, whether its in Uruzgan or whether it's in an adjoining province is dangerous work.
DAVID SPEERS: Is - I mean, you acknowledge there that Afghanistan will still be a dangerous place. Is it any safer than when we first went there at the beginning of what has been, I think, our longest war ever?
STEPHEN SMITH: Well, in our view, yes, absolutely. At the end of last year we were about to accord the four infantry Kandaks of the fourth brigade of the Afghan National Army a capacity to operate independently without advice. We handed over by the end of last year, all of the forward operating bases and the patrol bases. So, they're now responsible for security. Just as Afghan National Security Forces are for 80 per cent of Afghanistan's population.
DAVID SPEERS: But how long do you expect that to last, and the authority of those local Kandaks, the local Afghan National Security Forces to last in a province like Uruzgan where clearly the tribal control is going to resurface?
STEPHEN SMITH: Well in Tarin Kot, and where you've got population centres, it'll be more effective and easier, I made the point today that not just in Uruzgan, but throughout Afghanistan and throughout Afghanistan's history, the further away you are from a population centre, whether it's Kabul, or a provincial capital, then the less influence central government, or district or local or provincial government has. But there is no doubt that over the last two to three years in particular, we've made substantial strides in security control in Uruzgan. The Taliban now don't confront us or the Afghan National Security Forces in the way they did a couple of years ago, they continue to rely upon the IEDs, suicide bombing and the like. But we want to make sure that after all this time, that after transition, the international community is still there, including Australia, is still there to assist and that's why we've said we'll help resource the Afghan National Army so that they can continue to do their security work. We'll continue to give the high level training and advice, and if required do the Special Forces activity.
So we're sending the signal, the transition doesn't mean the international community walks away. We still want to make sure that the Afghan institutions, whether it's-
DAVID SPEERS: Because we still have a responsibility?
STEPHEN SMITH: Absolutely, but after all - to use the terminology that people use in this context, after all the blood and all the treasure, we don't want to leave those institutions in a weak position so that they can't withstand whatever pressure is put on them.
DAVID SPEERS: Just a couple of other issues, finally. In the lead up to the Budget, are you able to give any guarantees that Defence won't be targeted again for savings?
STEPHEN SMITH: Well I'm a member of the ERC and I never speculate or talk about the Budget. I say to people if you're interested in the Budget, turn up on Budget night. So I don't get involved in-
DAVID SPEERS: So, okay, Governments previously have, at times, quarantined Defence, you're not doing the same this time?
STEPHEN SMITH: Well Defence has been quarantined since the last Budget. There have been a range of measures that the Finance Minister has instituted in other areas, largely relating to efficiency dividends and the like, Defence has not been the subject of those - of those further efficiencies. But we will need to wait and see. What you know is that we're going through a tough fiscal regime, that applies to us as a Government just as it will apply and does apply to the Opposition. And it applies to other countries.
DAVID SPEERS: But you know whether more savings can be found in Defence or not. And the message from Defence is pretty clearly that they can't afford any more cuts.
STEPHEN SMITH: Well, as I say, as a portfolio Minister and as a member of the ERC, these are discussions I have with my colleagues, and you see the outcome on Budget night.
DAVID SPEERS: How are your relations with Defence at the moment?
STEPHEN SMITH: Very good, I work very closely with the Chief of the Defence Force and the Service Chiefs and the Secretary.
DAVID SPEERS: Do you get down to Russell headquarters often?
STEPHEN SMITH: Yeah, from time to time I get down. I get down there often enough. I've made this point before, people need to understand there's a difference between current serving senior officers, and retired serving officers who have their own view, express their own view, but are not involved in the day to day.
DAVID SPEERS: And can I ask you finally about your relations with your colleagues here up on Capital Hill and Parliament House. You said on Thursday afternoon or evening, after the dramatic events of that day, that a number of others should reconsider their future. We then saw a number of Ministers resign. Have enough resigned, or are there others that you think should still be reconsidering their future?
STEPHEN SMITH: Well I was drawing attention to the fact that if you're a member of the Executive, or if you hold an office like the Whip, what you do and what you say has to be consistent with your position. And so Joel Fitzgibbon the former Chief Whip, he himself said I now have to consider my position. Why is that? Because he was publicly and privately saying that there needed to be a change.
Richard Marles, who was the Parliamentary Secretary was positively articulating on your show I think at about one o'clock, a vote for someone other than the Prime Minister. And so you can't conduct yourself in a manner which is inconsistent with you position. Indeed-
DAVID SPEERS:What about other Ministers who might have privately supported Kevin Rudd?
STEPHEN SMITH: Well it's what you do and say publicly in my view, and also some Ministers, some members of the Executive, will just make a decision or a judgement, a personal judgement that there's an outcome which they don't support and therefore they decide to serve the party or the caucus in a different way.
DAVID SPEERS: You don't think there's any others who should go?
STEPHEN SMITH: Well there's no - people have made their own decisions. There's no need for that and we've already moved beyond that. Let's make the simple point, I've been through this myself. I once argued publicly that Simon Crean should no longer be the leader of the party, the caucus [indistinct] Simon Crean and I immediately resigned because saying publicly the leader should stand aside was inconsistent with being on the front bench. And other Ministers have done that on this occasion.
DAVID SPEERS: Stephen Smith we'll have to leave it there, but thanks for joining us.
STEPHEN SMITH: Thanks David, thanks very much.