TRANSCRIPT: INTERVIEW WITH JULIE DOYLE ON ABC 24
TRANSCRIPTION: PROOF COPY E & OE
TOPICS: Afghanistan; Libya.
JULIE DOYLE: Stephen Smith we've seen now the 29th soldier killed in Afghanistan, the eighth this year, think every death we see now raises more questions in the communities mind about Australia's ongoing role in Afghanistan?
STEPHEN SMITH: Well every death certainly sends a shock wave through the system through our nation. It's a terrible tragedy for the family concerned. It's also a terrible reminder to - in this instance, 28 other families. And it always causes us to take stock of what we're doing but we continue to very strongly believe that what we're doing is in Australia's national interest.
We are training the Afghan National Army and the Afghan national and local police in Uruzgan province to put them in a position to take responsibility for security by 2014 and we're doing that under a United Nations mandate as part of an International Security Assistance Force and we believe it's in our national security interest to do that and also in the international communities interest.
JULIE DOYLE: And do you think the community at large does understand the importance of Australia's work in Afghanistan?
STEPHEN SMITH: I think whenever there is a fatality and this year as you say we've had nearly 10 fatalities this year - whenever there's a fatality it reverberates through the community and the community does legitimately ask the question, but we continue to very strongly believe that if we were to leave now we would leave a vacuum into which potentially the remnants of al-Qaeda, the Haqqani network, other terrorist organisations, a vacuum into which they would fall which would run the risk of Afghanistan, particularly the Afghanistan Pakistan border area again becoming a breeding ground for international terrorism. Australians have also been on the receiving end of that whether it's in South East Asia, whether it's in Europe, whether it's in the United States itself.
JULIE DOYLE: Now this soldier was part of the Mentoring Task Force and the Prime Minister's described this as dangerous work that they're doing there with the Afghan National Army, are we on track to hand over to the local forces?
STEPHEN SMITH: Yes, all the advice I have is that we remain on track to put the 4th Brigade of the Afghan National Army into a position of being able to take the responsibility for security matters by 2014. We have one of those kandak or battalions which is in very good shape, we regard as being in excellent shape. All the others are showing very good progress. So we remain confident that we're on course in Uruzgan and the consultations we have with our other international partners leads us to the same conclusion that we're on track in Afghanistan generally.
JULIE DOYLE: So you mention the 2014 timetable there, do you see any reason then that that timetable might be extended?
STEPHEN SMITH: I don't see any reason why it might be extended. The international community commitment is to effect the transition by the end of 2014. That was adopted at the Lisbon Summit last year which the Prime Minister and I attended and strongly supported by the Afghan administration President Karzai and his administration and strongly supported by NATO and international community. So we're on tract for 2014. We're not being more precise than 2014 but we don't believe that it will take longer than that.
JULIE DOYLE: So you're confident the mentoring work will be completed and the local forces will be ready by that time?
STEPHEN SMITH: That's the advice I have, that's our current assessment and that assessment is shared by our international community partners. One of the reasons that the international community set that timetable to make that transition was to send the signal that we can't be there forever, we don't want to be there forever. Indeed I've made the point on a number of occasions, publicly including in the Parliament that one of the difficulties we have with Afghanistan is that when you look back there are some lost years where we were distracted by Iraq and by we I mean the international community. So we're in a position now where we've got a military and a political strategy which has taken affect but we have taken half a dozen years too long to get there.
JULIE DOYLE: So if it's getting closer to 2014 and the local forces feel that they're not ready, I mean what will Australia do in that circumstance?
STEPHEN SMITH: Well the Lisbon Summit commitment and our commitment is what we describe as conditions based. We're not going to hand over unless they're in a position to accept security responsibility. But we are convinced that we're making very good progress on that front, just as we're convinced that we've made progress on the security front. We have made up considerable ground against the Taliban and the fact that they're coming back at the international forces not on the ground, whether that's in Uruzgan or elsewhere, but through the high profile propaganda style suicide type attack which is as much at TV stations as it is to forces on the ground.
JULIE DOYLE: So given the situation do you think that community should be prepared for more fatalities?
STEPHEN SMITH: Well the Prime Minister and I have constantly made the point and it was made again yesterday in the aftermath of our 29th fatality that we have to continue to steel ourselves for further fatalities. The mentoring and the training is difficult and dangerous work.
JULIE DOYLE: Now just looking at the events that are unfolding in Libya, do you think what we're seeing now vindicates the position the Australian Government has taken on this?
STEPHEN SMITH: Absolutely, I mean we were at the forefront of arguments that the United Nations Security Council should effect a no-fly zone. We strongly support it, prior to that the arms embargo. So it's a vindication of those members of the international community who believe that we couldn't stand aside and watch the danger or the potential of Colonel Qaddafi to massacre his own people. We hope now that there'll be a smooth and orderly transition. Colonel Qaddafi should walk off the stage. His forces, his troops should lay down their arms. And we also expect there'll be a continuing United Nations involvement as we transition from Colonel Qaddafi to a new administration in Libya.
JULIE DOYLE: So just on that how do you see or what assistance can Australia provide in that transition?
STEPHEN SMITH: Well firstly we want to see an orderly and a smooth transition. We are realistic, we're not necessarily holding our breath about that. We don't know Colonel Qaddafi's whereabouts and it's quite clear that conflict continues.
But when I was in the United States recently, including in New York at the United Nations, United Nations officials made it clear that the Security Council having effected an arms embargo which Australia strongly supported, having effected a no-fly zone, there would be a need for the United Nations and the Security Council to put its mind to the post-Qaddafi Libya. So we're fully expecting that the United Nations will now take an interest in effectively the transition to the post-Qaddafi Libya.
In Australia's case we've made it clear from the first moment that we're not in the position, nor are we proposing to contribute any defence or military assets but we have made it clear that if there is a need for humanitarian assistance then we continue to stand ready, willing and able to contribute further on that front.