TRANSCRIPT: INTERVIEW WITH FRAM KELLY, RADIO NATIONAL
TRANSCRIPTION: PROOF COPY AND E & OE
DATE: 19 April 2012
TOPICS: Afghanistan; NATO/ISAF meeting.
FRAN KELLY: The Brussels meeting follows the Gillard Government's decision this week to withdraw Australian troops almost one year ahead of schedule and straight from the talks with the fellow NATO Ministers we're joined by Defence Minister, Stephen Smith, now.
Minister, good morning.
STEPHEN SMITH: Good morning, Fran.
FRAN KELLY: Minister, before I get to the NATO talks, can I just get your response to these images that have been published in the LA Times of American soldiers posing with body parts of Afghan insurgents?
STEPHEN SMITH: Well, they're terrible, they're contemptible and they deserve nothing other than condemnation. That's certainly been the reaction of my counterpart US Secretary for Defense Leon Panetta and he's been joined appropriately by other colleagues. I've heard the public remarks of Philip Hammond, my UK counterpart, and I'm very happy to join with them. They don't reflect the values and the virtues of the United States or NATO or the International Security Assistance Force and what we're trying to do in Afghanistan.
FRAN KELLY: And they're counterproductive to that, aren't they, I mean, in the sense the most likely result is building sympathy on the ground in Afghanistan for the insurgents, for the Taliban?
STEPHEN SMITH: That point's absolutely right. There is no point in gilding the lily. There's no point in trying to pretend that it's not a setback but there's also no point not thinking that as we go through the transition process to the end of 2014 that there won't be bad days or setbacks and there's also no doubt that recently we've seen the Koran burning, we've seen the terrible murder of about 20 Afghan civilians by one US soldier. These are terrible setbacks but we need to see them in that light but also understand that more broadly we do believe that we continue to make progress but the pictures that have been seen today and the conduct, as Leon Panetta has made clear, he has nothing but contempt for it and those responsible will be held accountable.
FRAN KELLY: Minister, what's the reaction been switching to the NATO meeting now, what's the reaction been there amongst the NATO countries to the decision to bring Australian forces home almost a year earlier than planned?
STEPHEN SMITH: Well, the NATO and the ISAF colleagues understand the transition process that we're going through and Leon Panetta and I exchanged wry smiles when we were discussing this today because the last occasion I came to Brussels, in February of this year, when I landed I saw comparable stories about US withdrawal on an earlier timetable and what Leon Panetta had been doing was explaining to United States journalists the transition process.
So people understand in the meeting that what the Prime Minister said and what I and have been saying for some time now is squarely within the Lisbon framework. It's all about transition to Afghan-led security responsibility and we've been saying for the last six months or so that we were confident that we were on track to transition to Afghan-led responsibility in Uruzgan Province by 2014 and possibly earlier and we are now confident of that view so over the next period we think that Uruzgan Province will be included in President Karzai's third tranche of provinces to transition and that'll occur in the middle of this year. That'll then set the scene, we think, for finishing the transitioning job in Uruzgan certainly by 2014 and, as I say, possibly earlier.
And as the transition becomes successful then the trainers and the mentors that we have can be drawn down in an orderly way so colleagues here understand those notions because in very many cases over the next two years they'll be going through comparable processes.
FRAN KELLY: And we're not really actually pulling out anyway, are we? Our SAS will stay there. Can you give us a sense in what numbers and for how long? Is there a plan?
STEPHEN SMITH: I think you're quite right to say that we're not, inverted commas, pulling out. I use the phrase transition and drawdown so it's not a withdrawal or a rush to the exit door. Australia has made it clear, I have previously on your program and I've made it the last couple of occasions that I've been to Defence Ministers' meeting in Brussels, most recently in February of this year, that Australia does believe that after transition in 2014 the international community does need to make a post-transition contribution to Afghanistan to ensure that security holds.
And there are two aspects that we're considering now. One is fairly and adequately resourcing the Afghan National Security Forces and Australia has said that we're prepared to make a contribution to pay our fair share of that but secondly what post-transition contribution there needs to be, if you like, in a military sense and we've said that we are happy to contemplate high level or niche training such as training of officers, artillery training, also the potential for advisors, military advisors, back-of-house advisors and also the possibility, if properly authorised, of a Special Forces component either for training Afghan special forces or for counter-terrorism.
STEPHEN SMITH: Now we've come to no conclusions on that front, we need to start as an international community through NATO and ISAF starting to descend upon the detail of that in the first instance, so of course any ongoing presence would need to be effectively at the invitation of, or authorised by the Afghan Government, but-
FRAN KELLY: I think there's no doubt that invitation will be coming, the Afghan Ambassador to Australia said this week his country wants ongoing Australian support, personnel and equipment, helicopters, and he said in a speech yesterday his Government also wants a ready reaction force of 300 to 400 soldiers in Uruzgan.
STEPHEN SMITH: Well, we will take each of those issues step by step. Yes, I do think that on the basis of my discussions, including today with Defence Minister Wardak of Afghanistan, from Afghanistan, that Afghanistan itself recognises the need for some ongoing support, and I've indicated the areas that we are happy to look at, but the precise detail of that does require further consideration and further discussion.
But it does reflect Australia's long term commitment to Afghanistan, it's also reflected by the fact that we're hopeful that in the Chicago Summit in May that President Karzai, the Prime Minister, will be able to sign up a long term partnership agreement between Australia and Afghanistan, similar to that which NATO has signed up, which the US is currently negotiating with other countries, like India and Germany have done, because that sends a signal to Afghanistan.
It also sends a signal to the Taliban and al Qaeda, and sends a signal to the region, that the international community is not deserting Afghanistan, it's not walking out the door, there's a long term interest and commitment to peace and stability and security in Afghanistan, and the region.
FRAN KELLY: It's 23 minutes past six on Breakfast. Our guest this morning is Defence Minister Stephen Smith, who's been in talks at NATO with defence and foreign ministers all day.
Minister, as I mentioned, the Afghanis are concerned about the ongoing security of their forces as the international forces eventually pull out, but what about the safety of Australian soldiers as this transition out gets underway?
Some are drawing parallels to Vietnam, where soldiers were left to fight on, while others went home, suffered disproportionately high casualties, the withdrawal phase can often be the most dangerous part of the mission, how do you make sure there's enough and the best support possible, as everyone starts to head home?
STEPHEN SMITH: Well I know some people do make the Vietnam comparison, but I think there are some qualitative differences.
Firstly, you've had since the Lisbon Summit in 2010 a coherent international strategy agreed by President Karzai, the Afghan Government, about the way forward, about transitioning security responsible to the Afghan National Army, and the Afghan national and local Police.
Secondly, that the Afghan security forces, the Afghan Army itself is now in the order of some 300,000, and will grow to 350,000, so you continue to see the Afghan National Army numbers rise as the transition process occurs.
At the same time, everyone is very conscious that a draw-down and a withdrawal does bring with it some difficult logistical issues, and you may well have the diversity in some instances where the so-called extraction teams are larger in numbers than the number of forces that are being taken out, so it's a big logistical challenge, and we're all well aware of that.
But the lasting image from Vietnam was essentially the helicopter roof withdrawal, and this is light years away from that. But-
FRAN KELLY: Minister, I'm conscious of the fact your time is tight, but you also said at the start of this interview that your NATO colleagues and you have been discussing also the ongoing financial contribution and support of Afghanistan, once the force transition from 2014 is complete, you're talking about the size of that commitment, estimates of $4 billion needed, if the US foots half that bill, which is also what the suggestions have been, how much will Australia be expected to pay on an ongoing basis, what do you see as Australia's fair share of this support?
STEPHEN SMITH: Well firstly, the importance of adequately resourcing the Afghan National Security Forces after 2014 into the future, is best reflected by the fact that when the Russians left Afghanistan, the Afghan national security force was sustained financially by the Soviet Union for two to three years, and during that period of time, made a reasonable fist of keeping security in a reasonable shape in Afghanistan.
When the Soviet Union collapsed and the cheques stopped coming, that's when lack of security and disorder, and the capacity for the Taliban emerged. So it's important to resource them.
Our view is the international community generally needs to accept that responsibility, not just NATO, not just ISAF, but other countries who haven't been playing a role, including countries in Afghanistan's region who will benefit from peace and security and stability.
Some countries have today indicated, or nominated a contribution, we haven't done that, we've made it clear, Bob Carr, the Foreign Minister and I, have made it clear that we will make a contribution to that, but we haven't come to a decision about the size or the nature or the amount.
But we'll put ourselves in the position potentially of the Prime Minister indicating that in the run-up to, or at, Chicago, but the key thing is, we will make a contribution, we will make a fair share contribution to that, but we also strongly believe that the contribution should come not just from the US, not just from NATO countries, not just from International Security Assistance Force countries like Australia, but also from other international community members, who will benefit from greater stability and greater security in Afghanistan and the region.
FRAN KELLY: Stephen Smith, thank you very much for joining us on Breakfast.
STEPHEN SMITH: Thanks, Fran, thanks very much.
FRAN KELLY: Defence Minister, Stephen Smith, joining us from that NATO meeting in Brussels.