TRANSCRIPT: INTERVIEW WITH MICHAEL ROWLAND, ABC NEWS BREAKFAST
TRANSCRIPTION: PROOF COPY E & OE
TOPICS: Progress in Afghanistan; NATO/ISAF Defence Ministers Meeting.
MICHAEL ROWLAND: Australian Defence Minister Stephen Smith has just visited soldiers in Afghanistan and he's now attending that meeting in Brussels and he joins us from there now.
Minister, good morning.
STEPHEN SMITH: Good morning, Michael.
MICHAEL ROWLAND: If we start with one of our lead stories this morning, that, of course, is the foiling of that assassination plot against Hamid Karzai, it doesn't exactly inspire much confidence in the security of the country, does it?
STEPHEN SMITH: Well, all I can go on to date are the reports that you've seen and I've seen. I had a meeting with Afghan Defence Minister, General Wardak much earlier today Brussels time. The story hadn't broken when I met him, and it wasn't a subject of our conversations or discussions.
We did speak about the assassination of former President Rabbani. But we will, obviously, speak to our international partners and to Afghanistan, to get some assessment of these reports.
On the contrary, if the reports are true, what we see is Afghan intelligence agencies working successfully. The regrettable truth is that the assassination of former President Rabbani did show some very serious security flaws, and Minister Wardak was at pains to make those points as well.
So, we know the Taliban have been utilising these high-profile suicide bomb propaganda style attacks and, regrettably, in the case of former President Rabbani, they've been successful, and that's a significant blow.
MICHAEL ROWLAND: Secretary of Defense, Leon Panetta, who, of course, you did meet today, told a media conference a short time ago - warning [indistinct] western Allies of hollowing out the military in Afghanistan. But that's pretty much superfluous at the moment, because you mentioned there the very well-targeted assassination of former President Rabbani, as well as various other small-scale attacks involving intimidation and bullying in the capital, Kabul, and elsewhere.
It appears as though the Taliban has shifted tactics somewhat, avoiding direct confrontation with NATO forces and going for these instruments of terror and intimidation.
STEPHEN SMITH: Well, they're doing that because they have been degraded and depleted, and they haven't been able and can't make up ground, literally, on the ground. I was in Uruzgan Province with the Chief of the Defence Force on Monday. It's quite clearly the case that we have substantially consolidated our position on the ground. There's been a dramatic fall in the number of Taliban-initiated attacks, both in Uruzgan and in Afghanistan generally. And our analysis is that the reason they have moved to these high-profile propaganda attacks is because they can't respond on the ground.
Our operations against them, generally in Afghanistan, have been very successful over the last 12 to 18 months. Their tactic is to go for these high-profile propaganda-style attacks to seek to further undermine confidence and to undermine political will in NATO countries, the United States and Australia.
So, it's a measure of how successful we've been on the security front in the last 12 to 18 months rather than the contrary. But there's no point gilding the lily, there's no point beating around the bush, the successful assassination against former President Rabbani is a very significant blow to the High Peace Council, to efforts at peace and reconciliation, and that's one of the reasons, for example, why President Karzai has made it clear he would now prefer to have a conversation with Pakistan, rather than to have a conversation with the Taliban.
MICHAEL ROWLAND: And that's very much stating the obvious, of course. You're well aware that the outgoing top US military officer, Mike Mullen, I think it was last week, said he thought the Haqqani terror network, which Afghan authorities are saying are behind this foiled assassination plot against Hamid Karzai, in his words, are a veritable arm of Pakistan's intelligence service. Do you agree with assessments like that?
STEPHEN SMITH: Well, just leave to one side issues of any relationship between Pakistan's intelligence agency, the ISI and the Haqqani Network, what we do know of the Haqqani Network, is that in recent times it has made moves to extend its influence. For some time, it's essentially occupied traditional territory. But we now know that it is seeking to extend its influence. And that's a bad sign. But we can't allow the good work that we've done against al Qaeda, the good work we've done against the Afghanistan Taliban to now be overtaken by efforts of the Haqqani Network. So, that needs to be confronted.
So far as any Pakistan agency relationship with Haqqani, or any other terror network is concerned, our essential point publicly and privately to Pakistan is that we know that over previous years Pakistan has made efforts against extremism and terrorism in Pakistan, but it needs to make much greater effort.
We can continue to know that the Afghanistan-Pakistan border area is not just a potential threat to the international community, it's very much, we believe, a threat to Pakistan itself. And so, Pakistan needs to redouble its efforts.
And the comments that we've seen, not just from Admiral Mullen in recent times, but from other US officials in the past have simply served to reinforce the points that we can't ignore what occurs on the Afghanistan-Pakistan border area, and Pakistan has to redouble and increase its efforts against extremism and terrorism in Pakistan because that is a threat to Pakistan itself, not just a threat to NATO or ISAF forces in Afghanistan.
MICHAEL ROWLAND: And going to Mike Mullen's points, do those greater efforts involving breaking what he sees - and he, of course, was until recently the top US military officer - the very clear, direct link between Pakistan's intelligence service and Haqqani?
STEPHEN SMITH: Well, we urge Pakistan to redouble its efforts against extremism and terrorism in Pakistan. Certainly, the Pakistan civilian Government deny any links with the civilian administration and any terrorist organisation. We make the point publicly and privately to Pakistan that it needs to ensure that any of its agencies don't have links with terrorist or extremist groups.
But there is evidence which - and there is no point moving away from that, there is evidence which draws people to the conclusion that some elements of Pakistan's agencies do have links with terrorist groups.
Pakistan, as a nation state, needs to walk away from that and needs to focus very clearly on the dangers posed by terrorism and extremism in Pakistan.
This is very much a threat to Pakistan's own existence, not just a threat to stability or peace in Afghanistan, or a threat to Australian, International Security Assistance Force or NATO troops in Afghanistan itself.
MICHAEL ROWLAND: Okay, Stephen Smith in Brussels, thanks for taking the time to speak to us this morning.
STEPHEN SMITH: Thanks Michael, thanks very much.