TRANSCRIPT: INTERVIEW WITH KIERAN GILBERT, AM AGENDA, SKY NEWS
TRANSCRIPTION: PROOF COPY E & OE
DATE: 3 FEBRUARY 2011
TOPICS: Afghanistan transition; NATO-ISAF Defence Minister's meeting; Chicago summit; Inquiry officer reports; Leadership.
KIERAN GILBERT: Thank you very much for your time, Mr Smith.
I want to ask you first of all about Secretary of Defense Panetta's reported statement that the US will move its troops from combat to mentoring roles by mid-2013. Is there any shift in message from Secretary Panetta and, if so, did that take the Government, yourself, by surprise?
STEPHEN SMITH: I saw those reports when I arrived in Brussels this morning and I've seen them repeated in some of the Australian media today. The reports actually bore no resemblance to the transcript of Secretary Panetta's remarks, nor any resemblance to the conversation that I and other colleagues had with him today.
What he has said is that the United States, together with NATO, together with International Security Assistance Force countries like Australia, remains absolutely committed to the Lisbon strategy which is transition to Afghan-led responsibility for security by the end of 2014.
We're making progress on transition and Secretary Panetta - and we share this view - believes that by the middle of 2013 we could well have reached a stage where all of Afghanistan has been transitioned to Afghan-led security responsibility.
That doesn't mean that the United States will then leave, it doesn't mean that NATO or ISAF will leave. The phrase I've heard a lot today is: in together, out together.
So the presence will continue until the end of 2014 because there will need to be a consolidation of the Afghan security responsibility and it's also clearly the case that in the course of that period NATO and ISAF will be called upon to assist so far as combat and military activity is concerned. So it's really Secretary Panetta saying that we're making progress, we're sticking to the Lisbon strategy and the United States, like Australia, believes that we're on track to make that transition and potentially make that transition before 2014 which is a point I've made and the Prime Minister's made in the last six months or so in Australia.
KIERAN GILBERT: So you're saying that within the Lisbon strategy there is scope for the timeline to be sped up inherently, that this statement or the reportage of it does not mark any shift in strategy from the United States at all?
STEPHEN SMITH: Absolutely not. We've seen already the first two tranches of transition to Afghan-led security responsibility and that has already seen nearly half of Afghanistan, in terms of territory, now under the lead responsibility of the Afghan National Security Forces.
In Australia's case, in Uruzgan Province, there's an expectation that Uruzgan will be included in the third tranche of transition. Now, we expect that those decisions will be made in the course of the middle of this year and that would see Afghan transition over the next 18 months or so.
There'll be, we expect, about five sets of transition and the point that Secretary Panetta was making is that we could well be able to see the transition effected by 2013 but that doesn't mean that there will then be a rush for the door or an exit.
There'll be a change of emphasis, a change of focus, as lead responsibility for combat or security passes from the international security forces to Afghan security forces but we will still be there rendering assistance and engaging in military and combat activities as well as ongoing training and mentoring.
KIERAN GILBERT: You've met your Afghan counterpart in Brussels today. Have you discussed what role Australia might take beyond 2013 if we do meet that earlier schedule and hand over in 2013, beyond that, into 2014? What role would Australia play there?
STEPHEN SMITH: Yes, certainly I had that conversation with Minister Wardak, just as I had that conversation with Secretary Panetta and my UK counterpart, Philip Hammond, my New Zealand counterpart Jonathan Coleman but also other defence ministers from NATO and the International Security Assistance Force.
We're really now starting to focus very much on if we make the transition, if that's affected, and we get to the end of 2014, what do we then need to do so far as an ongoing international community contribution is concerned?
And so we're going to focus on this very much in the run-up to the next NATO-ISAF leaders' summit in Chicago in May.
That potentially, in Australia's case, will envisage ongoing training, officer training or artillery training, military advisers, but also the possibility of a continuing Special Forces role, whether that is training Afghan Special Forces or, indeed, if appropriately authorised, continuing some operations.
We need to make sure that after 2014 there continues to be stability so far as Afghan security is concerned because our objective here is to make sure that Afghanistan doesn't again become a breeding ground for international terrorists.
So we're starting now to have a much more focused and detailed conversation about what role there is for the international community in Afghanistan after 2014 and we expect that these issues will come to some form of conclusion or decision or judgment at the Chicago summit in May.
KIERAN GILBERT: The process of combat death reviews is being overhauled. The delays have been unacceptable, haven't they, for the families of those killed in Afghanistan? There have been complaints to Defence over this issue. How important is it that this is overhauled and that the process is made really streamlined?
STEPHEN SMITH: It's very important. Yes, there was very bad delay in respect of the deaths of three of our soldiers and the Chuck and the Palmer and the Aplin families, we didn't get information to them as quickly as we should.
The Chief of the Defence Force has apologised to them in writing. I've apologised publicly and I do so again and the Chief of the Defence Force, in close consultation with me has made a range of changes to try and make sure that we get these inquiries dealt with much more quickly and we fully inform the families.
We're in the process, as we speak, of discussions with up to half a dozen families about the inquiry reports and the possible publication of them but the death of a soldier in Afghanistan is deeply distressing for the nation and terrible for the family concerned.
We do an inquiry into the death of Australian soldier on operations, that's very important, but it's also important that we lift our game and make sure that the families are advised of the outcomes as quickly as humanly possible and we have let them down in the past and neither the Chief of the Defence Force nor I want to do that in the future.
KIERAN GILBERT: Okay, Minister, while you've been overseas the relentless speculation around the leadership continues. At what point must this be brought to a head? Surely this distraction can't continue indefinitely?
STEPHEN SMITH: It might be a distraction. With the greatest of respect to you and the colleagues in your profession, I've seen plenty of speculation from your side of the TV camera but I heard Tony Burke's remarks and I'm with Tony Burke. We made our judgment on this before the last election. Anyone who's mentioned in despatches as an alternative says what I say, which is we're strong supporters of the Prime Minister. We just want to get on with our jobs.
So I'm not distracted by the idle speculation. We're doing very important work here so far as our national security interests are concerned and that's what my colleagues are doing so far as their portfolio responsibilities are concerned as well.
KIERAN GILBERT: Can the Prime Minister survive as leader?
STEPHEN SMITH: Absolutely. I'm a strong supporter of the Prime Minister. I think she's doing a good job in very tough circumstances. We have, over the last 12 months or so, gone through a very tough political time.
That's got a lot to do with the fact that we have fronted up to some very difficult decisions about the country's future but we've worked our way through those and, as we get closer to the election in third or the fourth quarter of 2013, then the community will come to start not viewing the Prime Minister and the Government in isolation but starting to make the comparison with Tony Abbott and I think the community will come to a conclusion that Tony Abbott doesn't have the judgment to make the crunch decisions, the difficult decisions required to be made about our economic future and also about our national security interest.
It's all very easy to view a government in isolation during tough policy and political times but, in the end, the community will have a choice and in that choice I think the Prime Minister will do very well as compared with Tony Abbott.
KIERAN GILBERT: Under any circumstances would you be drafted?
STEPHEN SMITH: There's no vacancy and I'm very happy doing my job but, more importantly than that, I'm a strong supporter of the Prime Minister and I'm confident the Prime Minister will lead us to the next election in the third or the fourth quarter of 2013 and I'm absolutely confident that we will be very competitive in that respect.
KIERAN GILBERT: Minister, thanks for your time. Appreciate that.