TRANSCRIPT: INTERVIEW WITH LEIGH SALES, 7.30 REPORT
TRANSCRIPTION: PROOF COPY E & OE
DATE: 9 NOVEMBER 2011
TOPICS: Three soldiers wounded in action.
LEIGH SALES: A short time ago, I was joined from Perth by the Defence Minister, Stephen Smith. Minister, thank you for your time. Should Australian soldiers trust their counterparts in the Afghan National Army?
STEPHEN SMITH: Well, there's no doubt that the events overnight, following on so closely from the death of Corporal Birt and Lance Corporal Gavin and Captain Duffy have been a very significant and deep blow to confidence. So, we need to work to rebuild that.
LEIGH SALES: But how do you rebuild that confidence and trust? I mean, how do you expect an Australian soldier to focus on the job that he's doing when the person next to him could be getting ready to let off a weapon?
STEPHEN SMITH: Well, I'm not seeking to downplay the reverberations that occur as a result of these two terrible events. But we've got nearly 7000 Afghan National Security Force members in Uruzgan, we've got 300,000 in Afghanistan generally, and whilst we've been the subject of three of these sorts of incidents since May of this year and two in quick succession, in the overall scheme of things, the numbers are quite low on the stats that I've seen, 15 to 20 over the last 12 month period.
And it's happened more to our International Security Assistance Force colleagues in the past than it has to us. In particular, the United States. It's now happened to us, so it sends a shock wave.
LEIGH SALES: Given there have been a number of these types of incidents, is it safe to say that there is some sort of concerted campaign against Australian and other Coalition soldiers being waged by enemies who've infiltrated the Afghan National Army?
STEPHEN SMITH: There's nothing to indicate that any of the three that we have suffered are linked in any way, but I'm not seeking to discount that at this stage.
But there'll be a range of possibilities. A rogue ANA soldier, or a brain snap or the potential for infiltration which [indistinct] significant vetting procedure and process so far as the Afghan National Army and security forces are concerned, and ISAF, the International Security Assistance Force, overseas have.
But as General Hurley, the Chief of the Defence Force said today, there's not one simple answer to this. This is complex and complicated and we've got to work our way through it.
LEIGH SALES: When Australia joined the war in Afghanistan after 9/11, we were told that it was to remove the Taliban from power and to dismantle al-Qaeda. Both of those goals were achieved. Why are we still there?
STEPHEN SMITH: Well because, if we left now, if we left prematurely, we'd run the risk of Afghanistan - particularly the Afghanistan-Pakistan border area again becoming a breeding ground for international terrorists. And we've been on the receiving end of that, whether it's South-East Asia, Europe or the United States. The Taliban are still there. There are-
LEIGH SALES: But the reality is [indistinct] but that's not going to change much between now and 2014 when we're looking at pulling out. Conditions on the ground there aren't going to change that much between now and then.
STEPHEN SMITH: Well, I don't believe that's the case for a number of reasons. Firstly, we believe we're on track to train and mentor the Afghan National Security Forces, not just in Uruzgan but generally, to be able to take responsibility and leadership for security arrangements.
But we also [indistinct] and this has been the subject of discussions at the last two NATO and ISAF Defence Ministers meetings that I've attended that there needs to be some ongoing contribution by the international community, effectively, back of house, to make sure that the Afghan institutions of state, including security forces, can sustain that load.
But one thing which is clear is that the Taliban haven't made up any ground against us in Afghanistan. By us, I mean, the International Security Assistance Force, for the last 12 to 18 months, and that's one of the reasons why they've resorted to the high profile propaganda-motivated, but nonetheless morale-sapping and confidence-sapping high-profile attacks, assassinations, suicide bombings and the like. But don't-
LEIGH SALES: But I guess, what's the mission there in one sentence?
STEPHEN SMITH: To train the Afghan National Security Forces so that they can take responsibility for their own affairs and to give sufficient support to Afghan institutions that Afghan society, Afghan governance can cope with that pressure by itself.
We don't want to be there forever. We believe we're on track to make that transition to Afghan responsibility. But if we left now, we believe that the remnants of al-Qaeda, the Haqqani network, the Taliban would see us run the very grave risk in the Afghanistan-Pakistan border area of reverting to where we started.
LEIGH SALES: How many young soldiers' lives are you prepared to sacrifice in the pursuit of that mission and that interest?
STEPHEN SMITH: Well, that is not something that I would ever quantify, and it's not something that should be quantified. Every-
LEIGH SALES: But there is - sorry to interrupt, but there is - in terms of any combat operation-
STEPHEN SMITH: -fatality that occurs - every - well, I'm not going to let you interrupt, Leigh.
LEIGH SALES: -there always has to be a prag- I'm sorry, I just want to make clear exactly why I'm asking that, which is because the conduct of any combat operation always involves a hard-headed calculation about the costs, the risks and what you're prepared to have the costs be in the pursuit of your goals, and that's why I ask that question.
STEPHEN SMITH: Well, let me make this point to you very clearly, this is not a quantitative matter. This is a qualitative measure of what we strongly believe is in our national interests. And the Australian Defence Force personnel who volunteer to join the Defence Force, who effectively volunteer to go to Afghanistan make a substantial - indeed, a magnificent contribution to protecting and defending our national security interests. It's not a quantitative thing, it's a qualitative thing.
LEIGH SALES: Polls show that in the past four years an increasing number of Australians don't believe that this country should be involved in Afghanistan. In other words, they don't believe you that it is important to our national security. What does that tell you?
STEPHEN SMITH: Well, what it tells me is that in the aftermath of, particularly, a fatality, which sends a reverberation through the Australian community, and it's perfectly understandable that that should occur - in the face of a multiple fatality where an Afghan National Army member has turned on our own soldiers, as well as turning on an Afghan interpreter, an Afghan serviceman, of course, that will send reverberations and the instinctive reaction of the Australian community would be to ask the very obvious question, why are we there.
We're there because we believe it's in our national interest to do the job, to complete the mission.
LEIGH SALES: But the point I'm making is that a majority of Australians don't believe you on those points you're making there.
STEPHEN SMITH: Well, the Government has made its view crystal clear, and this is an area in public policy and public life where the Opposition also strongly supports the approach that we take.
The Australian community can let their views be known at the ballot box in the usual way or in the representations that they make to their [indistinct]. I often see in the modern era people saying that the only thing we see from Members of Parliament, from Ministers is to be poll-driven. Well, if we were poll-driven, you're quite right, we wouldn't be there. We're there because we strongly believe it's the right thing to do in our national interests.
LEIGH SALES: Stephen Smith, thank you very much for making time to speak to us today.
STEPHEN SMITH: Thanks Leigh, thanks very much.