TRANSCRIPT: INTERVIEW WITH PHIL KAFCALOUDES, RADIO AUSTRALIA
TRANSCRIPTION: PROOF COPY E & OE
DATE: 25 MARCH 2011
TOPICS: Libya; Facebook and Afghanistan.
PHIL KAFCALOUDES: Now a little earlier we were joined in the studio by Australia's Defence Minister Stephen Smith. He started by giving us the latest on the situation in Libya.
STEPHEN SMITH: The no fly zone is effectively being enforced. There's currently - literally as we speak, the Security Council is considering the matter again. The Secretary General has reported this morning he's again urged Colonel Qaddafi to abide by a ceasefire, made the point that the hallmark of the Security Council's resolution was protection of civilians. And at the same time we see discussions between the United States and NATO and constituent countries like the United Kingdom and France for effectively a transition to responsibility for the operation to NATO [indistinct] European-based NATO countries.
PHIL KAFCALOUDES: You can understand why the United States would want to hand over to NATO as soon as possible. It would not want to be seen to be taking charge of another incursion for such a long period of time.
STEPHEN SMITH: Well I was in Brussels a couple of weeks ago for a NATO and ISAF, International Security Assistance Force, meeting on Afghanistan, but obviously we all spoke about Libya as well. NATO Defence Ministers formally resolved at that time that if the Security Council did authorise a no fly zone that it would do the necessary planning for implementation of it, but made the point that they wanted regional support, so they were looking to support from the Arab League, from the African Union, from the Gulf Cooperation Council, but I said to a number of my defence counterparts - Secretary Gates from the United States, Liam Fox from the UK, and my Italian and French counterparts, that Australia supported a no fly zone but because we're talking about north of Africa and the cusp of Europe we wouldn't be in a position to apply assets of our own.
And that was very clearly understood - largely because everyone saw enforcement action as being a responsibility of the region, and any relevant regional organisation of which NATO is the obvious candidate.
So there was always an expectation that if the Security Council authorised a no fly zone that NATO/Europe would do the enforcement. And so we're seeing what I regard as a natural transition to leadership of the campaign by European countries.
PHIL KAFCALOUDES: If they did ask you to contribute to this, would Australia have contributed?
STEPHEN SMITH: No. I made it clear that given our ongoing commitments in our own region and in Afghanistan that we wouldn't be in a position to provide assets. I've made it clear that if there's a need for us to give further assistance on the humanitarian or disaster relief front in terms of evacuation of a large number of civilians, that we would be in a position to supply a C-17 to assist that in that purpose.
But that offer hasn't yet been taken up - again because you are on the cusp of the Mediterranean, and there are at this stage plenty of available assets, as we use the phrase in Defence jargon, to provide for that purpose as well.
So there was neither an expectation nor a capacity - and that's clearly understood by our European and NATO colleagues.
PHIL KAFCALOUDES: It's an odd theatre, isn't it, because it seemed that the rebels were making great headway two or three weeks ago and then the Qaddafi forces came back? Now that the no fly zone and the resolution to protect civilians has been enforced, we're still seeing the Qaddafi forces pushing forward, still trying to take action here.
They haven't been assuaged from their-
STEPHEN SMITH: Well I think the Security Council resolution talks about enforcing a no fly zone, it also talks about enforcing an arms embargo. And that's been affected as well.
But it makes it clear - there's no authorisation for an on the ground troop occupation or activity. I wasn't the only person who before the Security Council authorised a no fly zone resolution to make the point that a no fly zone whilst of itself will be of great assistance in stopping civilians being massacred from the sky, it won't of itself be a magic solution to what is effectively a civil war. And so we've seen the ebb and flow of that. There is a potential that there will effectively be a stalemate - and that's why you see for example suggestions that the Security Council may need to formally revisit it, and that's part of today's Security Council proceedings.
I'm not expecting that to occur out of today's report by the Secretary-General, but some people are saying does the Security Council need to consider any further action?
As well you're seeing at a very low level suggestions that maybe, given there looks like a military stalemate, that there's a need to try and put together Colonel Qaddafi's representatives and the opposition's representatives to see whether some negotiated settlement can be effected, and there are suggestions that the African Union might try and play a role in that respect. But a stalemate is a possible outcome.
PHIL KAFCALOUDES: You said stalemate three times there. Negotiated settlement was mentioned two. Can there be a negotiated settlement that would be viable for the rebels for - if Qaddafi was to stay?
STEPHEN SMITH: Well knowing Colonel Qaddafi as we do I'm not getting overly excited about the prospect or notion of talks. I just make the point that when things look like there might be a stalemate other thoughts come to the surface. Australia's view has been from the first day that the solution to this problem is for Colon Qaddafi to leave the stage, that the matter can be resolved by his departure.
We're not expecting that - and he's made it clear that he wants to stay. He's also made it clear that he's threatening to shed every last drop of Libyan citizenship for his own sake - and that in the end was the reason why the Security Council moved with the centrepiece of the Security Council resolution, the protection of civilians.
And whilst I've seen some commentary that the Security Council moved too slowly - and the Foreign Minister and I made, have made that point ourselves - at least the resolution has seen the protection of citizens because the Security Council resolution occurred at a time where it did look very much like Colonel Qaddafi was getting the upper hand through the use of aerial assets.
PHIL KAFCALOUDES: So the only way they might get him out would be, say, a military coup? The only way for him to be removed?
STEPHEN SMITH: Well there are any number of ways in which you can change your government or move a leadership on - and the easiest outcome in this respect is for Colonel Qaddafi himself to walk off the stage.
But we have to just watch this step by step and make the judgments and assessments as we go. But importantly there's been I think a substantial reduction in the risks to Libya's civilian population.
That's not to say that terrible things haven't occurred. But at least a wholesale massacre has to date been prevented.
PHIL KAFCALOUDES: Defence Minister Stephen Smith, we know you've got to go. Just one final question I want to ask you about a Facebook scandal that we've been talking about this morning on the program, the one involving some soldiers in Afghanistan. This is quite an embarrassing thing to turn up isn't it?
STEPHEN SMITH: Well I wouldn't describe it as embarrassing; I'd describe it as appalling. And I condemn it as the Chief of Army has condemned it overnight. I was so concerned about this incident which doesn't reflect the attitude and the conduct and the performance of Australian soldiers in Afghanistan over a long period of time. But last night I rang Afghan Defence Minister Wardak. I said to him that I apologised for what had occurred. This was terrible, inappropriate, culturally unacceptable racist language that had been put up on Facebook.
But I didn't want that to disturb his longstanding view of Australian soldiers.
He responded as I expected he would which was to say he believed that Australian soldiers were held in very high regard by him and by the Afghan community, not just for being a good fighting outfit but because of the way in which they engage with the local community and respect people - and this flies in the face of the performance we've seen in Afghanistan, the way in which our diggers have engaged with the community, the way in which they respect them both culturally, treat them in a civilised and dignified way.
But I was so concerned by this terrible example that I rang him and I was pleased with his reaction. It shouldn't be regarded as standard form or the sort of general operating procedure so far as Australian Army or Australian Defence Force personnel are concerned. On the contrary it runs 100 miles in the opposite direction.
PHIL KAFCALOUDES: If it gets publicity in Afghanistan does it place any Australian soldiers in danger?
STEPHEN SMITH: Well I don't think it runs that risk because it doesn't go to operational or security matters, but what it does do is run the risk that we are perceived as not being a country, an army, a Defence Force, which is respecting of the Afghan people.
We are expecting to face a tough fighting season in Uruzgan Province and Afghanistan generally. We will only be successful in handing over responsibility to the Afghan people for security in Afghanistan if there is at the same time growth in the Afghan institutions capacity to govern which is why we have both a military strategy and a political strategy which involves building their institutions, development assistance, capability building, ensuring that there's better governance arrangements.
So the two go hand in hand and what this potentially undermines is the acceptance of the Afghan community that the international force in Afghanistan is working for their benefit and seeking to help and advance them.
It's a terrible example. And I'm sure that as a result of the investigation that Defence have underway that disciplinary procedures will follow. And there's also a very live prospect that people concerned will be sent home - as they should.