TRANSCRIPT: INTERVIEW WITH KERRY O'BRIEN, FOUR CORNERS
TRANSCRIPTION: PROOF COPY AND E & OE
DATE: 16 April 2012
KERRY O'BRIEN: Why are we still doing this- a question that gets harder to answer for public consumption as the years roll by. It still confronts Defence Minister Stephen Smith, who's just come back from Afghanistan and joins me now.
Stephen Smith, it seems to me that it's not just a case of why are we still there but when the Coalition has gone, what would it leave behind that will justify the cost?
STEPHEN SMITH: Well, we're still there because it's in our national security interest to stay and finish the job. And the job won't finish at the end of 2014 which is why for the last 12 months or more Australia has been arguing and saying to its international partners that we need to focus on the post-2014 international community contribution and that's now seeing a couple of very important issues crystallising for the Chicago NATO leaders' summit which the Prime Minister will attend.
Firstly, resourcing the Afghan National Security Forces after 2014 and secondly, what international community support will there continue to be to give support not just to the security forces but also to the Afghan institutions? And our ultimate objective is to make sure that Afghanistan does not again become a training ground or a breeding ground for international terrorism.
We've been on the receiving end of that, terribly, over the last decade or so, and we want to do our bit to make sure it doesn't happen again.
KERRY O'BRIEN: The American drawdown of troops is on the way. We've seen again overnight from Kabul the presence of the Taliban is still very much there. You heard Colonel Davis say, if with all the might of the Coalition forces combined with the Afghan military has not been able to stop the killing, has not been able to rid Afghanistan of the insurgency, why is that suddenly going to be possible with Afghan forces alone after 2014 no matter how much money you've pumped in from the outside on top of the billions and billions that's already been spent?
STEPHEN SMITH: Well, Colonel Davis’ analysis is not one that I share. It's not one shared by his military seniors nor is it shared by effectively everyone I spoke to inAfghanistan, in Kandahar, in Tarin Kot and in Kabul last week.
KERRY O'BRIEN: But that doesn't surprise me, because for any of the senior military or governments to acknowledge any right in what he says is to acknowledge failure.
STEPHEN SMITH: Well, I'm not saying that we've got rose-coloured glasses on or that we're starry-eyed about this. It's difficult, it's dangerous. Risks continue, very high risk, whether it's safe havens in Pakistan, whether it's issues about corruption or drugs or governance so far as Afghan governance and institutions are concerned but the overnight events in Kabul really show, in my view, a number of things.
Firstly, the entire response was handled by Afghan National Security Forces themselves. They weren't handled by International Security Assistance Force combatants, they were handled by the Afghans themselves and handled, on the advice I have, pretty well.
Secondly, we've seen and I've been saying this for more than 12 months, we will continue to see the Taliban and other associated groups resorting to greater reliance upon the roadside bombs, the IEDs, but even more so greater reliance upon the high profile propaganda motivated attacks including suicide bombings, including suicide bombings using children.
We've seen more of that. That's because they haven't been able to make up the ground that they've lost in the field and that's been the case really for the last 18 months.
The surge, which was the United States and International Security Assistance Force forces, has been effective. They have not been able to take back any ground at all, and that's why they have been resorting to the high profile attacks, and that's also why, for the first time, we've seen clear indications that they are contemplating having talks.
Now, it's at early stages, but it does underline the point Australia has made for a number of years, this can't and won't just be a combat or a military solution, it also needs to be a political solution.
KERRY O'BRIEN: Well, there's two things out of that. One, this was in Kabul. It was quite a significant operation for the insurgents. We're told two dozen have been killed. There were a number of targets, high quality targets - the Parliament, NATO, various Embassies. That was an operation that must have been in planning for some time. Why wasn't it picked up by intelligence? Why didn't they see it coming?
Secondly, in saying look how well the Afghan Security Forces have dealt with this, now- pardon me for being sceptical but I immediately picked that up as a possible spin line that we are now going to see closer and closer to the withdrawal so that we, the public, build a confidence that somehow or other the Afghans are going to be able to do this.
Bear in mind that was in the capital. What happens if you get out in the provinces where the Afghans are spread thinner, their training potentially less effective?
STEPHEN SMITH: Well, a couple of things. My response to you is something that I've been saying for more than 12 months in terms of how effective not just Australia has been in Uruzgan Province but the International Security Assistance Force generally across Afghanistan in taking ground off the Taliban and denuding their capacity to strike back but they will continue to resort to these high profile attacks, precisely for the purpose of getting the publicity that they want.
Now, that's not to say that there aren't serious issues and General Allen, the Commander of ISAF, has made it clear overnight that of course there needs to be an exhaustive analysis of what allowed this to occur. But I was in Kabul less than a week ago, and other than the very high security area where these attacks took place,Kabul is a thriving, bustling, South Asian city and that is in stark contrast to the first occasion I went to Kabul as an Australian Government Minister in 2008.
One of the things which did surprise me, both in Kabul and in Kandahar and Tarin Kot, was how optimistic people were. Now, that wasn't just optimism coming from our troops on the ground or our officers, or from General Allen. The most enthusiastic and optimistic were the Afghans themselves both on the ground in Uruzgan, the leaders and the officials, but also inKabul and that's because there's a growing confidence that the people themselves don't want to be, as they would say, Taliban-ised. There is a growing improvement on security and, importantly, the capacity of the Afghan National Army and the Afghan national and local Police is growing on a daily basis.
KERRY O'BRIEN: But growing off a very low base. You disagree with Colonel Davis. Do you also disagree with Susanne Schmeidl who has been there since 2002, who has significant credibility, who was lead author in a report that was commissioned by AusAID, an Australian Government agency?
She says when she hears Coalition generals talking about being on track, making progress, things getting better, she thinks they're taking crazy pills.
STEPHEN SMITH: She's been dealing quite correctly with the development issues and the governance issues and the services on the ground, and I have repeatedly made the point that in terms of progress or improvement, we find it first on the security front, particularly with the Army.
There's no doubt the police are lagging behind, but where we find Afghanistan at its worst is the delivery of services and the provision of basic facilities to their people. And when I met with the Governor and Deputy Governor of Uruzgan Province, the Police Chief, the Director of the National Directorate of Security and the Army Commander of the 4th Brigade, to a man they all said the most important thing now, not security issues, the most important things now are developing and providing the services. And whilst we have made-
KERRY O'BRIEN: But this is all over - this is a ticking time bomb. A deadline has been created. How you worked that deadline out I don't know but a deadline has been created and the time is ticking down.
STEPHEN SMITH: The deadline is transition to Afghan National Security Forces to enable them to take lead responsibility for security. Already we've seen with the so-called transition of the first two tranches of provinces and districts about 50 per cent of Afghan's population under the lead responsibility or lead responsibility for security of Afghan forces.
We expect, for example, in Uruzgan, that in Uruzgan Province we'll be part of the third tranche which we expect President Karzai to announce in the middle of this year.
KERRY O'BRIEN: But how-
STEPHEN SMITH: By the time-
KERRY O'BRIEN: How much confidence do you think the people of Afghanistan out in the countryside, in provinces like Uruzgan actually have that their Government, which has a very low credibility in Afghanistan, can hold the line against the Taliban? And what do you say again to Susanne Schmeidl when people say to her in Uruzgan that the Taliban could be back- will just move back in within two weeks of Australia leaving?
STEPHEN SMITH: To finish my answer, by the time you get to the middle of 2013 when the fifth and final tranche has been effected, you'll have all of the population of Afghanistan under lead responsibility and that will be the case with the International Security Assistance Forces essentially playing a background and advisory role, a combat role when necessary or required until the end of 2014. But 2014, the international community contribution doesn't stop and it doesn't stop there.
KERRY O'BRIEN: But on the combat front it does. While Australian soldiers now are being killed by Taliban bombs, President Karzai is referring to the Taliban as his brothers. How do you process that?
STEPHEN SMITH: Well, what President Karzai is saying there is what I've said in my own language, which is, not only does there need to be enhanced security and a military or combat solution which effects peace and security in Afghanistan, there also has be a political rapprochement - a political settlement.
And we're seeing the early signs of what the Afghan's describe as re-integration, where fighters on the ground who have been running with the Taliban are now coming to realise that in many instances they're not fighting International Security Assistance Force soldiers from overseas, they're fighting their own countrymen - they're own brothers. And they are-
KERRY O'BRIEN: Works both ways. It works both ways in a civil war-
STEPHEN SMITH: -And they are laying down their arms. The legitimate point which development assistance officers make is that we are coming off a very low base, so far as the provision of services is concerned. It's also the case that the further away you are from the population centres, the more difficult it is to control security, and the more difficult it is to provide services on the ground, whether you're a development assistance partner like Australia, or whether you are a provincial or a central Government.
KERRY O'BRIEN: But this is the very point that David Kilcullen has made, that the Coalition in a sense has created this circumstance of a highly centralised government - a government that is not credible. A government that does not feature good governance on any regular basis.
Bruce Riedel states the obvious, that any political solution to the war has to be an Afghan solution. That is, an agreement between the Afghan Government and the Taliban, not between NATO forces and the Taliban. Where is the guarantee of that solution by 2014 when you're gone - in combat terms, when you're gone?
STEPHEN SMITH: Well, I again make this point. The international community won't be gone-
KERRY O'BRIEN: In combat terms-
STEPHEN SMITH: - the international community won't be gone effective from 31 December 2014. This is why for the last year or so, together with my Defence Ministerial colleagues, we've been speaking about how do we sustain the Afghan National Security Forces after 2014?
When the Russians left, the Afghan National Security Force was about 60,000 strong. The Russians or the Soviet Union supported that for two to three years. When the Soviet Union collapsed the cheques stopped coming, and so the Afghan National Security Force collapsed. But during the time they were resourced they held security reasonably and effectively well.
So, we need to continue to resource the Afghan National Security Forces so that that continues.
Secondly, they will need Kerry, ongoing assistance, which is why Australia's been saying, when the drawdown comes so far as Australia is concerned, when we've finished our training and mentoring job and the vast bulk of our troops go, we are prepared to continue to make a contribution. Military advisors, high quality or high level or niche trainers, artillery or officer command but also, the possibility of Special Forces, either for training Afghan Special Forces or for counter-terrorism purposes.
So, there does need to be that ongoing-
KERRY O'BRIEN: But at the same time you want a local political solution, you're also saying that the international presence is not going away. It's still going to be there, partly in terms, I mean, the Americans are making it clear, they want to maintain bases of some description there because they want to continue to drop bombs on insurgency targets, whether it's extremist Taliban or whether it's Al Qaeda, in Pakistan which they say they can't do unless they maintain a base there.
The Taliban say no political settlement until all foreign presence is going. So, the longer you stay, in their terms, the longer you put off any real solution.
STEPHEN SMITH: Well two things. Firstly, any political solution can only be an Afghan-led political solution. It can only be brought about by the Afghan Government speaking to other parties including the Taliban. And the establishment of the Qatar office of the Taliban is a very early sign that the Taliban may well be interested in going down that road.
They'll only do that if they believe two things - if they believe they can't win militarily- and they've made no ground up in the field for effectively 18 months, and if they also believe the international community is there for the long-haul. And that's why it's been so important forAfghanistan to enter into long-term strategic partnerships with NATO, [indistinct] will effect one with the United States. It's effecting long-term strategic partnerships with India, with Germany, with France.
The Prime Minister has made it clear that we are in discussions-
KERRY O'BRIEN: But they're only as long-term as that Government survives.
STEPHEN SMITH: No, that's not right. It's not an agreement with a Government, it's an agreement with a nation. And so-
KERRY O'BRIEN: It's an agreement with a Government.
STEPHEN SMITH: It's an agreement with a nation. It's a long-term strategic partnership with a nation sending a signal to the Taliban-
KERRY O'BRIEN: But if the Taliban get the upper hand and become the dominant member of Government, what stops them tearing that up?
STEPHEN SMITH: Well, two things. Firstly, the very strong view put to me by Afghans themselves when I was there last week, that there's no enthusiasm for the Taliban-isation ofAfghanistan. So-
KERRY O'BRIEN: Until they begin to feel the threat of the Taliban coming back-
STEPHEN SMITH: Which is why-
KERRY O'BRIEN: -and they're pragmatic people. The Afghans, if nothing else, have learnt over centuries to become pragmatic.
STEPHEN SMITH: Just to go back to an earlier point you made, this is not the first time we've seen a strong central Government in Kabul find it difficult to run the provinces and the districts. That's not a novel example or incident so far as Afghanistan is concerned and I don't think it's necessarily caused by the presence of international forces.
But, I again make the point, one of the reasons we don't want to walk out and not leave any support or assistance at the end of 2014, is we do need to make sure that the Afghan National Security Forces do have the capability and the capacity to do the job, that the Afghan institutions have the necessary support from the international community to effect that. And that ranges from advisors to the possibility of Special Forces and also importantly, to development assistance and capacity building.
KERRY O'BRIEN: Even in retirement, General Cantwell still clearly lives with the anguish of seeing his soldiers die and clearly he's still struggling to justify it. Do you struggle to justify continuing to put Australian lives on the line for what so many see - including frontline experts - as a dubious outcome?
STEPHEN SMITH: Well, every time Kerry there's a fatality, it sends a shockwave through Ministers, it sends a shockwave through the Service Chiefs and Chiefs of Defence Force, it sends a shockwave through the service itself.
KERRY O'BRIEN: But look, I don't want to be and I'm not being a cynic on this, but we've seen spin related to war in a big way really since Vietnam. You have to say these things. You have to say these things but do you really struggle for what I've said, according to many experts, is a dubious outcome? That's my emphasis - dubious outcome.
STEPHEN SMITH: I am absolutely of the view that we are there and continue to be there in our national security interest, that we can't allow Afghanistan to again become a breeding ground for international terrorism.
As we speak, Umar Patek is being tried in Indonesia. He was the bloke who built the Bali bomb. He was trained in Afghanistan. We can't allow this to occur again because Australian citizens will be at risk. When I start-
KERRY O'BRIEN: But Pakistanis the new breeding ground. What are you going to do - invade Pakistan eventually?
STEPHEN SMITH: Well, Pakistan is one of the very significant issues and problems that we have. You can do one of two things with Pakistan. You can continue to engage as we do strongly, as the United States continues to do despite-
KERRY O'BRIEN: While dropping bombs from drones?
STEPHEN SMITH: -or ignore it. Pakistan is a significant and complex nation and it can't be ignored and we engage with Pakistan as effectively as we can.
But Kerry, when I speak to my Defence Ministerial colleagues, they suffer the same array and range of emotions that I do in the face of fatalities. When I ring my US counterpart, my New Zealand counterpart, my UK counterpart, in the face of fatalities on their side, they all suffer the same emotions.
But in the end, Governments make decisions to protect and defend the national security interests of their nation, and we very strongly believe that when we went in there it was the right thing to do. We continue to believe that, not just because we're there with the United States. We are there under a United Nations mandate, as we've been for a decade, with 50 other countries serving the international communities' national security interest.
And that's why it's the right thing to do, and that's why the 32 families who grieve on a daily basis are not doing that grieving in vain.
KERRY O'BRIEN: Stephen Smith, thanks for talking with us.
STEPHEN SMITH: Thanks Kerry. Thanks very much.