TRANSCRIPT: INTERVIEW WITH LYNDAL CURTIS, ABC24
TRANSCRIPTION: PROOF COPY E & OE
DATE: 23 JUNE 2011
TOPICS: US troop drawdown in Afghanistan
LYNDAL CURTIS: Stephen Smith, welcome to News 24.
STEPHEN SMITH: Pleasure.
LYNDAL CURTIS: Is President Obama's message today about the drawdown of troops more driven by the domestic circumstances in the US than the circumstances in Afghanistan?
STEPHEN SMITH: Well he's had to make a public policy decision, but our analysis says very strongly that it's consistent with the commitment that he gave when he announced a surge, namely that he would effect a drawdown commencing from July of this year.
In some respects- more importantly- it's also very consistent with the strategy adopted by the international community at the Lisbon Summit and it also underlines and reinforces our analysis that we've been making progress; that we've been making up security ground; that we are degrading the Taliban; that they are under pressure.
And we're seeing, for example, the consequences of that, which are early signs of contact between the Taliban the United States and others over possible political rapprochement.
LYNDAL CURTIS: Are the timeframes he's announced though enough time to leave to secure the gains that have been made before the troops go?
STEPHEN SMITH: Well we believe so. When the drawdown is complete there'll still be 68,000 United States' troops there. That's double the number that President Obama inherited from President Bush. And in the meantime, over the period of the surge we've seen around 100,000 Afghan National Army and police officers enter the field.
So whilst there's a drawdown, it's complemented by the increasing number of trained Afghan National Security Forces.
In Uruzgan Province, where we are, we're of the view, as a result of discussions we've had with US officials in the recent past, that there won't be any serious or adverse implications for us and we remain committed to getting our job done there and we're still of the view that 1500 is about the right number to effect that job by 2014.
LYNDAL CURTIS: The US took over from the Dutch in working in partnership with Australia in the Uruzgan Province. Will the US be keeping troops in Uruzgan or will they be part of the drawdown; will they be pulled out?
STEPHEN SMITH: Well certainly we're partners with the United States under the label of Combined Team-Uruzgan, which has been in place since 1 August 2010. No surge troops are involved in that combined team, so we're proceeding on the basis that we'll continue pretty much as things are in Uruzgan Province, certainly over this fighting period.
Importantly, on the basis of the military advice he's received, President Obama has left the detail of the drawdown to the commander ISAF, currently General Petraeus but very soon to be General Allen. I met General Allen when I was in Brussels recently for the International Security Assistance Force Defence Ministers' Meeting. So in the first instance we need to wait and see the drawdown that General Allen effects of the 10,000 for this year. We will obviously have the opportunity of consulting with him and putting views to him, but-
LYNDAL CURTIS: And will you be putting the view that you want the troops that are in Uruzgan to stay there?
STEPHEN SMITH: As I say, in the first - in the first instance we don't believe there'll be any significant or adverse implications for us in Uruzgan and that's off the back of the conversations that either the Chief of the Defence Force have had, or I have had with General Petraeus or Secretary Gates and also military to military and defence to defence talks in recent times.But obviously we will, as we do on an ongoing basis have these discussions with US officials, in particular General Allen, because it will be to him that the real decision making falls.
LYNDAL CURTIS: Did we get - did Australia get any advance notice of President Obama's statement or are you confident that the discussions you will have afterwards will help confirm what the US is doing?
STEPHEN SMITH: No, no, we had appropriate advance notice. Our officials in the United States were given, to put it colloquially, were given a heads-up. I received a report both last night and a further report this morning. The Chief of the Defence Force spoke to his counterpart, to Admiral Mullen. And so we were appropriately advised in a timely way.
But we, because of the fact that the drawdown is no surprise, we've obviously been in discussion with officials at every level and I've said on a number of occasions that we should wait patiently for the President to make his decision. He's done that.
We believe it's consistent with the strategy of transfer of responsibility to the Afghans by the end of [indistinct], also consistent with what the President said both when he announced the surge and also at the Lisbon Summit. But also, importantly, consistent with the transition strategy, but also consistent with our analysis that we are making up ground. If we weren't making up ground I don't think you would have seen a drawdown of this nature.
LYNDAL CURTIS: Given there has been some questioning by the Australian public about Australia's commitment to Afghanistan, do you expect that to increase given President Obama has announced a drawdown of his troops? Do you expect to have to explain again to the Australian people why you want troops to stay in Afghanistan?
STEPHEN SMITH: Well I think there's an obligation on us to continually inform the Australian public about our strategy and how we believe it's going. As the Prime Minister said today, she will give a major annual report. I give regular reports to the Parliament. But the Australian public is entitled to ask these questions, but it also needs to understand both the qualitative reasons and the quantitative reasons.
We have, on average, 1550 people in Uruzgan Province- and that's compared with the 68,000 US troops who'll be left after the drawdown. In the meantime, we're seeing success in a growing number of trained and well equipped Afghan National Army soldiers.
Indeed, the Afghan National Security Forces now number nearly 300,000, so there's been a steady growth over the last two years and over the period of the surge of being able to put Afghan security forces into the field. So, a drawdown of United States surge troops is offset or complemented by an increase in Afghan security force.But we are absolutely committed to doing the tasks that we've set ourselves in Uruzgan Province. We're on track to effect that.
The single biggest thing that I think causes the Australian community to ask the question is the fact that we've been there for a 10 year period. And I have repeatedly made the point that finally we have in place a military and political strategy that we believe will work, the resources on the ground to effect it both before the - both after the surge and after the drawdown and the personalities to do the job. And that, we believe, will see the objective which is to stop the Afghanistan/Pakistan border area again becoming a breeding ground for international terrorism, will see that effected in the handover to Afghan authorities.
LYNDAL CURTIS: Stephen Smith, thank you very much for your time.
STEPHEN SMITH: Thank you. Thanks very much.