TRANSCRIPT: INTERVIEW WITH PHILIP CLARK, RADIO NATIONAL BREAKFAST ABC
TRANSCRIPTION: PROOF COPY E & OE
DATE: 10 OCTOBER 2012
TOPICS: NATO-ISAF Meetings; Afghanistan; Peter Slipper.
PHILIP CLARK: Defence Minister Stephen Smith's attending the talks, after making a flying visit to our troops on the ground in Uruzgan Province. The Minister joins us from NATO headquarters in Brussels. Stephen Smith, welcome back to RN Breakfast.
STEPHEN SMITH: Yes, good morning, Philip.
PHILIP CLARK: Australian soldiers have restarted operations with Afghan security forces. Now in the wake of the insider attacks, you might think that morale was a difficult issue, how did you find it?
STEPHEN SMITH: Well, the Chief of the Defence Force, and the Secretary of the Department and I, found morale pretty high, we of course acknowledge that our servicemen and servicewomen on the ground in Afghanistan have been through a very tough time in recent weeks, the first six months of this year we didn't have a fatality, then in six weeks we had six, five in one day, the worst combat day we've had since Vietnam.
And three of those so-called green-on-blue, or an insider attack, so that was a tragic blow, and very difficult circumstances for our personnel, but they bounced back very strongly.
We are making progress on the ground, and that's reflected by the fact that we're now out doing partnered operations again, below kandak or battalion level.
And secondly, our job is to mentor and train the Afghan National Army, the 4th Brigade in Uruzgan, so they can take responsibility for security by the end of 2014 and earlier this week, to one of those kandaks or battalions, which is about 500 or 600 strong, we have determined they are now capable and ready to do operations independently, so they're now starting that, and that's a good thing.
So on the ground, people think progress is being made, people think they're doing good work, so despite the difficult circumstances recently, morale's pretty high.
PHILIP CLARK: What's changed about these joint patrols now, given the green on blue attacks that have happened?
STEPHEN SMITH: Well, because - we started transition in Uruzgan in July, and as a consequence of that, we've seen over a period of time, not just since July, but earlier, the Afghans doing more partnered operations with us, doing more solo patrols by themselves, and we're doing less patrols in our own right, so that process has been in train for some time.
In the aftermath of the green-on-blue incidences, Commander ISAF, so the International Security Assistance Force said we've got to go through and review all of our force protection measures, the Afghans have to go through their re-vetting and biometric process, we'd done a lot of these things in the aftermath of our own insider attacks, we've had four, the first one just before the middle of 2011, so we'd made a range of these force protection changes, and ISAF said you can't do partnered work below kandak or battalion level without the approval or the green light of a regional commander - for us that's Regional Command South - and we got the green light earlier this week, and we're now resuming those patrols.
But the whole notion of transition will be that as we move to transition, the Afghans will be doing those patrols by themselves, as we essentially return to back of house and oversight, or overwatch, and logistics and command, or operational - logistics and command and headquarter advice mechanisms, and with the first battalion or kandak that we've now nominated as ready for independent operations, they'll now effectively get out and do it themselves, and that's what we want to effect by way of transition.
And what's occurring in Uruzgan on the basis of the conversations I've had in Brussels today with some of my colleagues, including US Secretary of Defense, Leon Panetta, is that what's occurring in Uruzgan is effectively being replicated around Afghanistan, we've now got 75 per cent of the Afghan population in an area where transition has occurred, or transition is in progress, and that's what we want to effect, because we don't want to be here forever.
PHILIP CLARK: Did any of the soldiers you spoke to on this visit to Afghanistan raise questions with you about why on earth they were there, what was the point of it all, and what was the direction of the mission?
STEPHEN SMITH: No, they understand the mission very carefully, really since 2009, our focus has been training and mentoring the 4th Brigade of the Afghan National Army so that they can do the job themselves, and we've done a couple of things over the last 12 to 18 months.
Firstly, we control more of the ground; in terms of security, so what we control, more importantly what we control together with our International Security Assistance Force and ANA - Afghan National Army - colleagues.
And the Taliban in Uruzgan have essentially resorted to three devices, the IEDs, the roadside bombs, then taking credit for the insider attacks, or the green on blue attacks, we know there are potentially multiple causes or motivations for the small number of attacks that we have, but the Taliban have used them in a propaganda sense.
And thirdly, the high profile suicide bomb assassination attempts more recently that have involved children.
So they don't engage us these days voluntarily in a combat scenario, and whilst there have been changes to patrol operations in recent times, that has not seen any change to what we've been doing with our Special Forces, our Special Forces have been very effective, and work very well with their Afghan partners, and that has sent a very strong message to the Taliban in Uruzgan.
PHILIP CLARK: Stephen Smith the Defence Minister joining us on the line from Brussels. This International Crisis Group report this morning says time's running out, that it's likely to be a disaster after 2014. There'll be vote rigging, the elections are likely to be corrupt as well, the future is not very bright. That's a report which echoes other assessments, isn’t it? What do you make of it?
STEPHEN SMITH: Well I've seen a summary; I haven't read the whole report so I'd prefer to take an opportunity, but a couple of things. We have said that we're on-track, we're making progress on transition but when we get to transition - the agreements of nation transition time lines of end of December 2014, we do need to continue to assess Afghanistan because we want to make sure that Afghanistan can take responsibility for security but also that their institutions of state whether security or other, can withstand whatever pressure falls back on them and that's why we've said it's absolutely essential there's an ongoing contribution. And in Australia's case we've said we'll continue to provide training in niche or high level areas-
PHILIP CLARK: Yeah but the question - the issue here is that this report is saying and other assessments have made the same point that it's going to be a disaster after we leave. In other words 38 Australian soldiers would have died here for nothing.
STEPHEN SMITH: Well you can't foretell the future, nor can the International Crisis Group. I have said for a long time that we have to as an international community continue to give assistance after 2014 otherwise there will be a risk that the pressure on Afghan institutions means they won't be able to cope.
That's why we're doing two things. We are putting all of our efforts into mentoring and training so that the security forces have got the capacity to do that and then after 2014 the international community will continue to assess, not necessarily in a combat role but in a trainee assistance and advisory role.
But I have also said that under a proper or appropriate mandate Australia would give consideration to a Special Forces contribution both in terms of training Afghan Special Forces or indeed being involved in counterterrorism operations.
So I don't leap to the conclusion that the ICG leads to. I say that after 2014 the international community will still need to provide some assistance. And one of the things that we're doing in the meeting of NATO and ISAF defence ministers meeting in Brussels today and tomorrow is to start the detail planning for that post-2014 transition contribution.
PHILIP CLARK: Okay. All right back home the Peter Slipper resignation. Are you embarrassed by what happened yesterday? Here's the Government defending this man and then he goes and resigns anyway. A waste of political capital isn't it?
STEPHEN SMITH: Well I wasn't there but-
PHILIP CLARK: I'm sure you've been briefed.
STEPHEN SMITH: Well I've read a couple of the contributions. A couple of things; firstly, I've said publicly and privately when he was in the chair I thought Peter Slipper did a very good job. It's what's occurred outside of that that's got him into these difficulties. The text messages which on any measure are sort of offensive and-
PHILIP CLARK: Disgusting on any basis, that's right and here was the Government defending him.
STEPHEN SMITH: Well, they have to be condemned and they were condemned on our side from the Prime Minister down. I think two things. Firstly, on Friday of last week a judge had all of these issues before him including those text messages and he reserved his decision on that. So from time to time one has to give some respect to some court procedures-
PHILIP CLARK: But these - the text messages are not an issue, they're admitted by Mr Slipper.
STEPHEN SMITH: Yes and they're part of the evidence before the judge and they're part of the deliberations that the judge is working through before he makes his decision in a court case.
Secondly, what occurred in the House was unprecedented. Out of the blue a motion to remove the Speaker, any government faced with that would have in first instance defended the Speaker-
PHILIP CLARK: So just finally, so your-
STEPHEN SMITH: Can I just make this point as well-
PHILIP CLARK: Your comfortable with that decision though are you to support Mr Slipper in that vote?
STEPHEN SMITH: Well, his text messages were condemned roundly by the Prime Minister down and I condemn them as well. As you say any right thinking member of the community would do so.
But these text messages - I'm happy to be corrected on the record, but as I understand it, the text messages were sent before he became Speaker, after he'd been endorsed on seven or eight or nine occasions by the Liberal and or National Party.
So it's not what he did in the chair, it's these other matters and people can apportion blame or responsibility. In terms of what the Government did yesterday in the Parliament seeking to allow a judge to come to a conclusion in a court case and respecting those processes. But, secondly, not for the first time in the history of the Federation, allowing out of the blue a motion for the first occasion to remove a Speaker to effectively be uncontested.
In the event the Speaker came to his own conclusion that his position was untenable and he's done the right thing by the institution.
PHILIP CLARK: All right we'll leave it there. Thanks for your time. Defence Minister Stephen Smith on the line from NATO Headquarters in Brussels there.