TRANSCRIPT: INTERVIEW WITH JIM MIDDLETON, NEWSLINE
TRANSCRIPTION: PROOF COPY E & OE
DATE: 6 OCTOBER 2011
TOPICS: Progress in Afghanistan; NATO/ISAF Defence Ministers Meeting; Pakistan.
JIM MIDDLETON: Minister, thanks very much for joining us.
STEPHEN SMITH: Pleasure, Jim.
JIM MIDDLETON: Leon Panetta arrived in Brussels offering assurances that the impending US withdrawal from Afghanistan would not leave contingents from countries like Australia exposed to greater danger. That's going to be pretty hard to achieve, is it not, given how closely Australian forces are integrated with the Americans?
STEPHEN SMITH: Well, in Uruzgan Province where we are, we work very closely with the United States under what we call Combined Team Uruzgan. We also have contributions from Singapore and Slovakia. But yes, we work very closely with the United States. We're proceeding on the basis that the United States drawdown won't have any implications for us in Uruzgan Province, certainly in the first instance. In other words, as a result of the first drawdown by the United States.
But it doesn't go just to troops; it also goes to the equipment, the so-called enablers. I've had discussions with Secretary Panetta about this matter. The Chief of the Defence Force, General Hurley, has had discussions with the Commander of the International Security Assistance Force, General Allen.
So we're well aware of this issue, but we are very satisfied with those discussions and we don't believe at this stage that there's going to be any concerns so far as Australia and our operation, our mission, is concerned in Uruzgan Province.
But, yes, the United States, through ISAF, does have to very carefully manage its drawdown. But at the same time as we have a drawdown of United States forces, we also have a substantial increase in the number of Afghan National Security Forces through our training and mentoring. And that's really the whole point; the transition to Afghan security and Afghan-led security responsibility.
JIM MIDDLETON: But the Afghan National Armed Forces can't provide the kinds of things that the Americans do for you, or for Australian forces; that is, intelligence, surveillance, reconnaissance, also aviation support, helicopter gunships and transport around Uruzgan. That's going to be very difficult to replace, is it not?
STEPHEN SMITH: Well, they're the so-called enablers that I have referred to. And, really, what this issue in part has now become involved in is what we're describing as the post-2014 presence. We need to make the point that when we effect the transition by 2014, it doesn't mean that there's going to be no international community presence in Afghanistan. In Australia's case, for example, we've said that we can envisage a continued presence so far as high-level or niche training is concerned; officers or artillery. We can also see a role for Army or military advisers, and also potentially a role for Special Forces.
We've really got I think three issues here: firstly, managing the United States drawdown; secondly, knowing that we're making good progress towards transition and we can effect transition to Afghan-led responsibility by 2014. But what will be the ongoing international community presence? At our last Defence Ministers' meeting in Brussels we started that process, and we'll continue it at our formal meeting today. And I suspect that the results of that will come to the fore at the NATO and ISAF summit in Chicago in May of next year.
JIM MIDDLETON: Before we move on from this topic, do you think you can then guarantee that Australian forces in Uruzgan would not be in any greater danger nor limited in the scope of their operations once the Americans start to leave?
STEPHEN SMITH: Well, two things. Firstly, we are very satisfied that in the first instance, over the next 12 month period, there won't be any adverse implications for Australia in Uruzgan. Secondly, we are very confident that the detailed discussions that we have had and will continue to have with the United States will see a very sensible drawdown or arrangement, and that we will be fully satisfied with whatever implications they might have for Uruzgan Province and the surrounds.
One thing I can say by way of a guarantee is that Afghanistan continues to be very difficult and very dangerous. We have very substantially degraded the Taliban capacity in Uruzgan and elsewhere. That's why they've resorted to a focus on IEDs, the roadside bombs, but also the high profile suicide bomb propaganda-type attacks, the most notorious of which of course is President Rabbani's assassination. But that reflects the fact that they can't make up the ground they've lost on the ground itself.
But as we go to transition, there will need to be an ongoing international community assistance or presence in Afghanistan. That's reflected by the NATO Afghanistan Strategic Partnership, which is currently being negotiated, the commitment by the United States to have a United States Afghanistan long-term strategic partnership, and also countries like Australia saying whilst when we finish our training and mentoring job, the numbers of Australian presence in Afghanistan will substantially, very substantially, be reduced as a result of that transition we do see a role for Australia continuing after 2014 in those areas that I've described. It will be substantially fewer numbers, but we expect that that will be reflected by other countries' contributions, not just the United States but other NATO and other ISAF countries.
JIM MIDDLETON: Talking about those changed insurgent tactics, you don't think that they could jeopardise the military gains, about which you were very upbeat, in Uruzgan and more broadly in Afghanistan?
STEPHEN SMITH: No, they have resorted to that tactic because they can't make up the ground that they've lost in Uruzgan Province and in Afghanistan over the last 12 month period. We've seen a very substantial decline in the number of Taliban initiated attacks. On the ground they're on the back foot, and that's why tactically they've resorted to the high profile suicide bomb assassination attempt attacks.
That's aimed at two things; to undermine confidence, but also to sap political will in Europe, in the United States, and elsewhere. It's a deliberate strategy.
And that's why we continue to keep on the security pressure, particularly through Special Forces operations but also continue to make grounds in the transition to responsibility by Afghan National Security Forces, both the Army and the Police. And that transition process is on track.
We also of course know that it's not going to be a military solution alone. It has to be a political solution as well. And while the assassination of former President Rabbani is a setback to those peace efforts, in the end there has to be a political reconciliation and there has to be a political reconciliation that is supported by Afghanistan's neighbours, including Pakistan and also including India. And we've seen in the last couple of days a long-term strategic partnership also between Afghanistan and India, and we've seen President Karzai indicate that in the short term he wants to have very serious discussions with Pakistan about resolving the difficulties in Afghanistan and the difficulties in the Afghanistan-Pakistan border area.
JIM MIDDLETON: Speaking of that security pact with India, it's obviously in part designed to put pressure on Pakistan to be more helpful, but isn't there a danger it could make Islamabad feel even more vulnerable than it does already, squeezed between not one but two hostile neighbours?
STEPHEN SMITH: Well, so far as Pakistan is concerned, Pakistan we know has very serious issues, very serious problems and challenges so far as extremism and terrorism is concerned. Australia is a friend of Pakistan and we want to do everything we can to see Pakistan address those issues. So in our case, for example, over the last three or four year period we've doubled the number of Pakistan military officers that we train in counter-terrorism matters. We've doubled our development assistance. We want Pakistan, we need Pakistan to redouble its efforts so far as terrorism and extremism is concerned.
But Afghanistan is perfectly entitled to have a relationship with India, just as it's perfectly entitled to have a relationship with Pakistan. It's very important to get a long-term enduring solution in Afghanistan, that it is supported by its neighbours.
And President Karzai has been at pains, to use his expression, to say that whilst India is a friend, Pakistan is a twin brother. And so he's been at pains to say just because we have a long-term strategic relationship with India doesn't mean that we don't want to have the same and more with Pakistan. I think that's a very important point.
In the subcontinent in South Asia there's more than one country and, indeed including Australia a bit further afield, but there's more than one country who has to have a positive relationship with India and a positive relationship with Pakistan.
JIM MIDDLETON: Turning briefly to the change in insurgent tactics, whatever the military implications of that, it has forced President Karzai to abandon his strategy of negotiating with the Taliban and its affiliates. Isn't that a victory for the insurgents in its own right?
STEPHEN SMITH: Well, there's no point denying that the terrible assassination of former President Rabbani, the head of the Peace Council, is a serious setback. There's no point denying that. And the regrettable thing about the change of Taliban tactic to the high profile suicide bomb assassination-type attempts is that regrettably they've been successful and in Professor Rabbani's case, you know, terribly so. And President Karzai has made it clear by saying he doesn't see in the short term any point in having a conversation with the Taliban; he wants to have a conversation with Pakistan. And I have, both in Afghanistan and in Europe welcomed that, as I do again.
But, in the end, there has to be a political settlement, there has to be reconciliation, there has to be rapprochement. That can only be done by them together. It can only be done by the Afghan Government but with those people who want to lay down their arms and abide by the Afghan Constitution.
So Australia has been a strong supporter of those very early outreach reconciliation and reintegration efforts. But there's no point pretending that the assassination of president Rabbani hasn't been a setback to those efforts.
But we welcome very much the fact that President Karzai has said in the meantime he wants to pursue a very serious conversation with Pakistan, and that's a good thing.
JIM MIDDLETON: Minister, your time is short, we'll have to leave it there. Thank you very much indeed.
STEPHEN SMITH: Thanks Jim. Thanks very much.