TRANSCRIPT: INTERVIEW WITH JIM MIDDLETON, NEWSLINE
TRANSCRIPTION: PROOF COPY E & OE
DATE: 9 October 2012
TOPICS: Afghanistan, NATO-ISAF Defence Ministers meeting
JIM MIDDLETON: Australia's Defence Minister Stephen Smith has just paid another visit to the Australian contingent in Afghanistan, and is now in Brussels for a meeting with his NATO and ISAF counterparts. Minister, welcome to the program.
STEPHEN SMITH: A pleasure, Jim.
JIM MIDDLETON: This was your first visit to Afghanistan since the terrible recent green on blue attacks on Australian soldiers. Has that had a lingering impact on the way in which Australian and Afghan troops are now carrying out their business in your estimation?
STEPHEN SMITH: We've been through a very tough time in recent weeks. No fatalities for the first six months of this year and then six in six weeks, including a terrible murder of three of our soldiers with a green on blue incident. I think morale's good. The - every advice I had from Australian officials, and soldiers and commanding officers to Combined Task Force Uruzgan soldiers and commanders, and also to Afghan officials, local Afghan Uruzgan officials was that we continue to make progress on transition and we continue to do well on the security front.
JIM MIDDLETON: You and the Defence Force, obviously and responsibly, would have reviewed the way in which Australian and Afghan forces work together in light of incidents such as this. How much more difficult has it made it for them to operate effectively in the field?
STEPHEN SMITH: Well, we suffered our first so-called green on blue, terrible incident back in 2011, so we took a range of so-called force protection changes and very many of the changes that we made we made were effectively adopted by ISAF itself when, in recent times, regrettably, these incidences became more prevalent. But you'll recall that General Allen - John Allen, the commander of ISAF, issued an instruction for no below kandak partnering operations until such time as regional commanders approve that force protection measures were appropriately in place. In our case, that's Regional Command South. And good news on our arrival at the beginning of this week, the Regional Command South Commander, General Abrams, gave authority for Combined Task Force Uruzgan to make its own decisions about joint patrols. And so, the beginning of this week, for the first time, we saw joint patrols occurring at below kandak level. So, we're satisfied that all of the force protection measures that we can put in place have been effected, and we're also satisfied with the further steps that the Afghans themselves have taken, the biometrics, the re-vetting and the like.
JIM MIDDLETON: You said that you found morale among the Australian troops to be very high. You did not detect in your conversations with any of the Australian troops that you spoke to, any lingering concerns about their vulnerability in light of these incidents and the increasing number of them?
STEPHEN SMITH: Well, obviously, our troops are very conscious of the risk, and that's why since the first attack of this nature against us back in 2011, we've taken appropriate steps and measures from separation of accommodation to the so-called guardian angels approach. But I think morale was good because we are making progress. In Uruzgan, our job is to train and mentor six kandaks from the Fourth Brigade of the Afghan National Army Nation Army. Four of those are infantry, two are, essentially, back-of-house artillery and engineering and logistics, and we've got those essentially in a category described as effective with advisors. In other words, they can operate well with ongoing help.
Again, at the beginning of this week, in Uruzgan, we formally ascribed to one of the kandaks, one of the infantry kandaks, that they were capable of operating independently. We believe that we may well be in a position whereby, by the end of this year, all four of those infantry kandaks we will be able to ascribe as being capable of operating independently. That means they'll be doing patrols by themselves, they'll be doing the plan operation by themselves with us essentially back at our base at Tarin Kot providing the back-of-house logistic command, support and advice.
JIM MIDDLETON: One final question, as we can all see, you are now in Brussels. What will be your key message to your fellow NATO-ISAF defence ministers in the discussions over the next couple of days?
STEPHEN SMITH: Well, my key message today and tomorrow will be that in Uruzgan, we continue to be on track. That the green on blue or insider incidences hurt us very badly and we need to take every precaution against those. And everyone needs to understand the seriousness with which we must approach those. But the time has also now come for more forward planning. We need to now start working on the detail of what will the post-2014 transition presence look like. Afghanistan will still need assistance from the international community, and we've said that we're happy to look at ongoing training or advice, so artillery training, officer training, and the like, and also if there's an appropriate mandate, a Special Forces presence, either for Special Forces training or, indeed, for counterterrorism purposes. So, we don't want to be in Afghanistan forever, we can't be there forever, and that's why we've been focusing exclusively on transition to put the Afghan security forces and the Afghan institutions in a position to be able to manage security matters - take responsibility for security matters in their own right, and we think we're on track to effect that across Afghanistan by the end of 2014.
JIM MIDDLETON: Minister, thanks very much indeed.
STEPHEN SMITH: Thanks Jim, thanks very much.