TRANSCRIPT: INTERVIEW WITH GRAHAM RICHARDSON, ‘RICHO’ SKY NEWS
TRANSCRIPTION: PROOF COPY E & OE
DATE: 11 APRIL 2012
TOPICS: Afghanistan visit; US Force Posture Review.
GRAHAM RICHARDSON: Earlier on this afternoon, a couple of hours ago, I did tape an interview with Stephen Smith, our Defence Minister, who's over there in Kabul visiting the troops and talking to President Karzai. Here it is right now. Stephen Smith, welcome to the program.
STEPHEN SMITH: A pleasure, Graham.
GRAHAM RICHARDSON: Now tell me, I'm going to ask a really incisive question- how are things in Afghanistan?
STEPHEN SMITH: I think they're much improved. I spent yesterday in Kandahar, where we've got some people doing helicopter flights and unmanned aerial surveillance vehicles. Then I went to Tarin Kot in the heart of Uruzgan, and all of the advice we're getting is that we've made substantial progress and we are set up for transitioning Uruzgan to Afghan-led security responsibility, and we hope that will be in what's called the third tranche, which president Karzai will announce in the middle of this year.
GRAHAM RICHARDSON: Having mentioned President Karzai, I mean how is it that we continue to support this bloke? I saw a statement from him a couple of weeks ago where he wants no coalition soldiers to enter any of the villages. I mean, how do you put up with a bloke who says stuff like that for domestic political consumption, when obviously he's just crapping all over the allies that are trying to save him?
STEPHEN SMITH: As chance would have it, Graham, I've just come from a meeting with President Karzai and there are a range of things I think it's important to put on the record.
Firstly, he is very grateful and very appreciative of the efforts of Australia, including the efforts of Australian Defence Force personnel; and he knows that has been at the cost of life and great tragedy for us. So he's very appreciative of that.
He also, I think, understands the need to cooperate with the international community to effect a transition to Afghan-led security responsibility. And in recent days we've seen an agreement between Afghanistan and the United States on the so-called night raids; an agreement between Afghanistan and the United States on detention centres; and this is leading to a long-term strategic partnership agreement between Afghanistan and the United States similar to the one that we've seen NATO enter into.
This is sending a signal to the Taliban that the international community is not going to desert Afghanistan. President Karzai's term expires in 2014 and there will be a democratic election for his replacement.
He can be from time to times mercurial, but when you deal with him on the substance - in my meeting today I found him very focused on achieving transition; very focused on delivering better services and facilities to the people of Afghanistan and very focused on making sure that he has long-term partnerships with a range of countries. But also partnerships which are understood in the region, so that in addition to security improving in Afghanistan, you've also got cooperation from the region.
GRAHAM RICHARDSON: But do you get a sense that President Karzai matters, outside of a couple of big cities? I keep hearing that out in the boondocks, there is no real government presence.
STEPHEN SMITH: Well, there's no doubt that the further away you are from Kabul and the further away you are from the large provincial population centres, there is less presence of either the central government or provincial governments, less service delivery and the like. But we've already seen two tranches of provinces and districts transition to Afghan-led security responsibility. That's about half of the Afghan population.
And what I think is not yet widely appreciated - and I got it on the ground from our troops yesterday in Uruzgan; I got it from the tribal leadership in Uruzgan; I got it from our international security assistance force partners - that is, there's no doubt that over the last 18 months to two years, we have made up considerable ground so far as security is concerned. That's why the Taliban have resorted to almost complete reliance upon the roadside bombs - now moving to the suicide bombs and the high profile propaganda motivated attacks - because they can't make up the ground that's been taken from them.
It's also clearly the case that the capacity and capability of the Afghan National Army and to a lesser extent the Afghan national local police, has improved considerably. I was very pleased with the reports I got from our troops and our officers about the capacity and capability of the 4th Brigade of the Afghan National Army, which is the brigade that we are training, and we are confident that they are growing in capability and that's why we are confident in our own mind that Uruzgan itself is set for transition in the course of the middle of this year.
Now that will take some time, but we are absolutely confident that in Uruzgan we can meet the international community's deadline of transition by 2014 and indeed probably earlier.
GRAHAM RICHARDSON: Well, when you say all of that, I mean it is the case that parallel with these efforts in the provinces, with the Australian and coalition forces - is it not the case that President Karzai and indeed the United States have been trying to get the Taliban to the table?
STEPHEN SMITH: Well, Australia's been saying - I've been saying for a long time - that this is a battle that can't just be won by military force alone. Yes, it's absolutely essential to improve and secure the security arrangements and conditions, but in the end there also has to be a political settlement, and Australia has been a strong supporter of the notion that in the end the Afghan government, the Afghan people, have to sit down and try and effect a political settlement.
In the course of my meetings today it's been made clear to me that Afghanistan - the government of Afghanistan - does want to pursue with the Taliban talks about reconciliation. Australia, for example, strongly supports the notion of a Taliban office in Qatar which can be the starting point for discussions between the government of Afghanistan and the Taliban.
We believe that there has to be a political settlement as well. It's got to [indistinct] the government of Afghanistan and has to involve those members of the Taliban who are prepared to abide by the Afghan constitution and lay down their arms.
And there's also what is described as a process of reintegration, where local people who've previously run with the Taliban or worked with or for the Taliban are now essentially going to local communities and saying, I want to lay down my arms. I don't want now to be fighting my Afghan brothers, because as responsibility for security moves away from the international forces to the Afghan forces, we find the Taliban fighting with their own country men and women. And that is seeing now the start of what is called reintegration, where people are essentially laying down their arms.
Now, it's very early days, but both those processes are very important for trying to get a long-term enduring settlement in Afghanistan, which will take away the danger that we see - which is Afghanistan again becoming a breeding ground for international terrorism, whether it's al-Qaeda, the Haqqani Network or the remnants of the Taliban.
GRAHAM RICHARDSON: For me it's not just about the terrorism aspect, and one of the things that I am not critical about - and as you know, I am a critic generally of our role in Afghanistan - but we have now got a lot of young people back in school and a lot of them are young girls. That is a major advance. Are the Taliban attempting to cut that back at all? Because obviously that's something they really didn't like at all when they were there.
STEPHEN SMITH: Well, there's no doubt - whether it's in Uruzgan where we are, or Afghanistan generally - that there is substantial progress that has been made on providing basic education services to children, particularly to girls, and the stat's are quite impressive about how in Uruzgan and Afghanistan generally, education is now available to girls and young women. It's also the case that considerable improvements have been made on health care and health facilities and also on basic infrastructure like roads.
Now there's no doubt that all of this is coming off a low base, and you can't pretend that development assistance or aid, whether it comes from Australia or other countries, can be the thing which can solve all of these problems for Afghanistan. For Afghanistan to solve these problems, it needs to be able to live in peace and security and it also needs to start developing its own economy, and coming as I do from Western Australia - a great mining state - there is a lot of potential for minerals resources in Afghanistan, if only the security circumstances were to improve and peace were to prevail.
But yes, there have been a lot of improvements, particularly for women, which the Taliban - the hardline, hardcore Taliban - were a million miles away from when they were in control. So whatever the difficulties, whatever the complaints, whatever the failings of the Karzai government, the Karzai government has seen together with the international community these advances made, and they are considerable advances for the people of Afghanistan.
I've been in Kabul today, and Kabul - as an Asian city, a south Asian city - is much more vibrant than it was the first time I came to Kabul back in 2008. Other than the obvious security arrangements, it looks like a city which is starting to have a modern economic and social base to it.
GRAHAM RICHARDSON: When you get out of the cities, obviously there is a much bigger problem the further you go away - as you've already mentioned - I know the Americans in particular have made really big efforts on corruption by trying to limit the poppy fields, have they had any real success, or does corruption still win and the poppies still grow?
STEPHEN SMITH: Well there's no point - there's no point trying to pretend - there remain considerable difficulties and challenges, so the challenges so far as governance is concerned, so far as corruption is concerned, so far as narcotics and drugs are concerned. One of the things that Australia has been very successful at, and our defence force and special forces have been very successful at working together with the United States and working together with Afghan special forces aimed particularly at drugs has been to take away the capacity of the Taliban to rely upon the poppy field and the poppy markets for their revenue.
Now it is still a very substantial problem and when you fly over Afghanistan at the right time of year you can see the poppies in bloom. So corruption remains a considerable problem, poppies and heroin market remains a considerable problem, and governance generally and service delivery remains a considerable problem, but off a very low base progress has been made. It's required a lot of effort from the international community and a lot of effort from the Government of Afghanistan, but I think the central truth remains that you have to bring about an improved security situation, you've got to bring about peace and security. That then sets a scene for improvements in the quality of life and better Government and better governance.
GRAHAM RICHARDSON: Stephen Smith can I take a turn now back home. Obviously in the last few weeks we had the first contingent of Americans arrive, and I note that Senator Ludlum, the Greens Senator was immediately saying we have to watch what happens at US bases around the world, we have to look at the sort of social problems these bases bring. Now I thought we'd made it clear there was to be no US base in Australia.
STEPHEN SMITH: Well we certainly have made that clear. We don't have United States bases in Australia, we have joint facilities and Pine Gap is the obvious illustration of that. But what's occurring in Darwin now and what will occur over the next five or six years will be United States access to our training facilities in the Northern Territory.
Now United States personnel, Defence personnel, whether it's Army, Navy, Marines or Air Force have been coming to Australia effectively since the end of World War Two, and their presence in Australia is governed by what's called a Status of Forces Agreement and legislation which was passed back in the 1960s.
So that sets out the basis on which they come, but no there are no US bases in Australia and there won't be. And Senator Ludlum should know and appreciate that. We're giving access to our training facilities, they'll do their exercises, we'll do joint exercises with them and we've also made it clear meetings that Bob Carr and I have had with both our Indonesian counterparts and I have had with my Singaporean counterpart make it clear that we'd like to see those exercises extend to exercises not just Australia and the United States but also with our ASEAN colleagues, particularly Indonesia and Singapore.
GRAHAM RICHARDSON: Do you worry, Stephen Smith that the Chinese are worried about what's happening there? Does it concern you because they are the rising power, not just in an economic sense but one, from everything I can read, in a military sense as well? Their weaponry is getting more sophisticated, more reliable. I mean are we really smart if we antagonise them?
STEPHEN SMITH: Well none of this is aimed at China, and I've made that point repeatedly. The whole world is moving in our direction and that's why Australia is very focused on the rise of Asia, the rise of the Asia Pacific and also the rise of India. So it's not just the rise of China, it's the rise of China, the rise of India, the rise of the ASEAN economies combined, and that sees the world moving in our direction.
Now as political influence, economic influence, military influence, strategic influence, as that changes the world has to adjust to that and try and manage that change. And in that context the most important relationship in the course of the first half of this century will be the bilateral relationship between the United States and China, closely followed by the relationship between the United States and India, and India and China. And so nothing that we do is aimed at China, it reflects the obvious fact that military influence, strategic influence, political and economic influence is moving to our part of the world. But we've made it clear to China, both publicly and privately, that it is not aimed at China.
I see references to somehow containing China, well I don't believe it's actually possible to contain a country of over a billion people, whether it's China or India. And the presence of 250 marines in the Northern Territory, or 2500 marines in the Northern Territory isn't going to make a great deal of difference to that. It's about making sure that there is a presence in our part of the world - and we see, particularly on the humanitarian assistance and disaster relief front, a lot of potential for working with the United States and other countries in our region, including China, on such humanitarian assistance exercises and response.
Indeed Indonesian President S. B. Yudhoyono in the aftermath of the announcement last year by the Prime Minister and the President said that he could envisage a time when Australia, United States and China were doing exercise, and I welcomed that as something that we could look to down the track, as did the United States.
GRAHAM RICHARDSON: It's a delicate balancing act. I'm glad you're trying to do it and not me. Look I know that you've got really big time constraints in Kabul and I really do appreciate you coming on tonight, Stephen. It's been great talking to you and we wish you a safe trip home.
STEPHEN SMITH: Thanks, Graham. Thanks very much. Good to talk to you again.