TRANSCRIPT: INTERVIEW WITH JIM MIDDLETON, NEWSLINE, AUSTRALIA NETWORK
TRANSCRIPTION: PROOF COPY E & OE
DATE: 14 February 2012
TOPICS: Propaganda video; Afghanistan transition; Papua New Guinea; Australian Labor Party
JIM MIDDLETON:? Minister, welcome to the program.
STEPHEN SMITH: ?A pleasure, Jim.
JIM MIDDLETON: ? First, to the terrible Afghan video that emerged over the weekend. The soldier in question claimed that many of his friends in the Afghan National Army talked about killing foreign soldiers working with them. That's got to be a serious concern to you, given your responsibility for the Australians in Afghanistan?
STEPHEN SMITH:? Well, I think you've got to take that video - frankly, to use a great Australian expression - with a grain of salt. He also said - Mohammad Roozi, on that video - that he killed 12 Australians and wounded three. He wounded three Australians. It was a terrible incident, but it's quite clear that the Taliban are using him and the video for propaganda purposes. Most of the assertions, the allegations in it, are simply not true.
And I return to that central point - if you're in a video that the Taliban put on air saying that you killed 12 Australians and you've killed none, then people should be very cold-blooded about accepting any of the rest of the story. And it is, frankly that, a story.
JIM MIDDLETON:? Nevertheless, the incident itself was unsettling, not to say a serious issue, a security issue for the Australians. This has got to be something which disturbs the confidence, at least, of Australians working with their Afghan counterparts.
STEPHEN SMITH: I don't deny for a moment, or underestimate for a moment, that the three terrible incidents that we had - four fatalities, 10 woundings - sent a shudder through our system. And that's why we immediately sympathise with the French when a comparable incident occurred to them. But it's also why we made a range of changes to our force protection measures, the detail of which I won't go into in public. We work very closely with Afghan Defence Minister Wardak. The Chief of the Defence Force here was working closely with his counterparts and his line commanders.
So, a series of changes have been made. We also asked ISAF, the International Security Assistance Force commander, COMISAF, General Allen, to go through a range of the ISAF procedures. That's being done and General Allen reported on that to all of the NATO and International Security Assistance Force defence ministers in Brussels a week or so ago.
JIM MIDDLETON:? You were in Afghanistan recently, acknowledged the environment is difficult and dangerous but that progress is being made. You don't fear, do you, like some relatively senior American military officers that, for all that, Afghanistan is in danger of returning to the control of the Taliban once foreign forces leave in 2014?
STEPHEN SMITH:? Well, I certainly think, if we left now without finishing the job of transition, without seeing the so-called five tranches of transition through to conclusion, seeing the transition process through to the end of 2014 that we would be in danger of seeing all of the gains reversed.
?But one of the things that Australia's been conscious of, one of the things that NATO and ISAF defence ministers have been conscious of in the run up to the NATO summit in Chicago in May, is to start now working through what post-2014 transition international community assistance we need to leave behind. And in Australia's case, we've made it clear repeatedly that we see the possibility or the prospect of remaining either training - continuing the training job in the high end or niche area, artillery or officers and the like, military advisors, but also, potentially, a special forces presence, either for training special forces or, indeed, if properly authorised, for operations on the ground for counterterrorism.
JIM MIDDLETON:? I'm also wondering what you would make of the public assessment of US Lieutenant Colonel Daniel Davis who wrote in the US Armed Forces Journal recently that members of the Afghan armed forces collude with the Taliban, that the insurgents control much of the territory beyond eyeshot, as he put it, of ISAF forces, and that the Afghan Army has little support among local people. This is a man who served two tours in Afghanistan, was there for most of last year on duty.
STEPHEN SMITH: ?Well, I don't want to - he's done his time in Afghanistan, he's made a contribution, he's now got a view. That's not the view that we get from our advisors, from the chain or the line of command, and it's not the view that our International Security Assistance Force colleagues get either.
Yes, we do have to be very conscious of the potential efforts or the actual efforts of the Taliban to infiltrate. We are conscious of that. And when those terrible incidents occur, as I say, they send a shudder.
But I think the best sign that the Taliban understand that they are losing the battle on the ground is the response to the initial efforts for discussion, for dialogue, for attempts at reconciliation and, also, the more general efforts of reintegration.
?I've said repeatedly, Afghanistan can't be won just by a military solution alone. It also needs to be a political solution. But it's only when the Taliban come to the realisation that they can't win on the ground that they will really sit down and engage in such a political discussion.
We've got some tough fighting seasons to get through until the end of 2014. Yes, it's dangerous, yes, it's difficult. If we left now, yes, there would be a very grave danger that the Taliban, the Haqqani Network, other insurgency groups associated with al-Qaeda would come back and fill that space, and that's what we're seeking to prevent. We don't want Afghanistan to again become a breeding ground or a launching pad for international terrorism to strike against innocent civilians abroad.
JIM MIDDLETON:? To turn to another subject, has the Australian Defence Force sought or received assurances from its PNG counterparts that the Papua New Guinea armed forces won't feel tempted to intervene to ensure stability, either by taking charge themselves or otherwise?
STEPHEN SMITH:? Well, can I make this general point- firstly, it's not a matter for us to seek assurances from a sovereign country. I think, with respect to some comments that I've seen over the last few weeks, too many people, I think, start from the mistaken standing point that, somehow, Australia remains a colonial power.
Papua New Guinea is a sovereign, independent nation. And our call, so to speak, to PNG when it was going through its recent difficulties, was that we wanted to see these difficulties resolved in accordance with Papua New Guinea constitutional, democratic and legal processes.
And in the course of all of those tensions, the PNG Chief of the Defence Force, and the vast bulk of his personnel essentially kept out of the fray and saw these matters resolved through those judicial and parliamentary processes. And some of those processes are ongoing, and in the course of this year, we expect that - expect to see a poll in PNG and we simply ask that that poll is a full, and free and fair one.
But our urging to PNG was to resolve these matters in the - in accordance with their democratic processes and that's what they've done. And that's all we ask of any of our neighbours.
JIM MIDDLETON:? One final subject, you've met dozens of foreign governments in your time, both as Defence and Foreign Minister, have any of your counterparts in either role ever asked you whether the Australian Prime Minister would be toppled, either back in 2010 or more recently?
STEPHEN SMITH: ?Well, to the best of my knowledge, information and belief, not that I can recall, no. These are not matters that have been the subject of conversation with any of my international counterparts, other than after the event. And given that, in the main, I'm dealing with parliamentary members of the executive, it’s not surprising that an examination after the event of political events in any number of countries is always of interest.
But in terms of the sweep of Australian history, the events that you're referring to are, essentially, matters for history. It's more important for the government of the day to focus on the key issues and challenges that we have, and the issues we've been discussing in the national security space and in our own region are very much top of the order so far as we're concerned.
JIM MIDDLETON:? Minister, very good to speak to you.
STEPHEN SMITH:? Thanks Jim, thanks very much.