TRANSCRIPT: TRANSCRIPT OF INTERVIEW WITH ROD TILEY, 6PR DRIVE
TRANSCRIPTION: PROOF COPY E & OE
DATE: 14 MAY 2012
TOPICS: Afghanistan; RAAF Pearce Air Show
ROD TILEY: And the Defence Minister Stephen Smith kindly joins us now, leaving a meeting to do so. Stephen, thanks for your time.
STEPHEN SMITH: A pleasure, Rod.
ROD TILEY: Great announcement today as far as what's happening in Afghanistan - the likely draw-down ahead of schedule.
STEPHEN SMITH: The Prime Minister and I have been saying for a number of months now that we were confident that we could transition in Uruzgan by 2014 or perhaps earlier, and we remain confident of that. The transitional arrangements were really set in place at the summit of leaders, NATO and International Security Assistance Force leaders in Lisbon in 2010 in November, which I attended with the Prime Minister, and we set out this timetable to hand over to Afghan security-lead responsibility by the end of 2014 in Uruzgan Province where we are in the main. We're very pleased that it's been included in the so-called third tranche and we remain confident that over the next 12 to 18 months we can effect that transition. But we'll take it step by step. But it does open up the possibility of a substantial proportion of our training and mentoring taskforce coming home earlier than the end of 2014.
ROD TILEY: Minister, what change between the Lisbon Summit in November 2010, where you were looking at the end of 2014, to now where you're saying by the end of 2013.
STEPHEN SMITH: Well I think a couple of things. Firstly, we have in Uruzgan and in Afghanistan generally, while it has been very tough and at times tragic for us and for other countries, we have made up substantial ground on the security front. And so for the last 18 months in Uruzgan, the Taliban have not taken back any ground in the field that we have taken from them so there's been an enhanced or an improved security atmosphere and arrangement on the ground. And indeed, when I was in Afghanistan recently, a month or so ago, together with the Chief of the Defence Force, the local Afghans were even more optimistic and positive than we were. So there's been no doubt that the Taliban are finding it tough, and that's why - one of the reasons why they've resorted to high-profile propaganda motivated attacks, including assassinations. And regrettably they've been successful on that front. But secondly, the other key factor, we've found that from a slow start or a low base, that the training and mentoring of the Afghan national army in particular, and the national and local police, to a lesser extent, has taken hold better than we originally thought.
So they are now taking responsibility for a whole range of matters. They still need our assistance, but we're doing very many more joint patrols, very many more operations and exercises where the Afghans themselves take lead responsibility, and we assist from the sidelines or back of house. And that's where we ultimately want to end up, which is the Afghan national army - in the case of Uruzgan, it's the fourth brigade - but also the local and national police being responsible for lead security, but knowing that we will continue to need to be there to render assistance at least until the end of 2014. But we've also made it clear that Australia is happy to contemplate a post-2014, or a post-transition presence, in particular advisors, and also the possibility of continuing to contribute some special forces for counter-terrorism purposes.
ROD TILEY: Strange war isn't it. I mean in Vietnam we had advisors in prior to the war. And here we are with Afghanistan, we're likely to keep advisors after the war.
STEPHEN SMITH: Well, what we don't want to do is to send a signal that come 31 December, 2014, that that's it for the international community, and we're out of there, so we do need to send a signal that the international community is interested in Afghanistan and its region for a long period of time. And that's why you've seen the United States recently strike up a long-term strategic partnership with Afghanistan which says we're interested in you for the long-term. NATO have done likewise, and European countries like France and Italy and Germany and the UK, they've either signed up - or will sign up. And we're also currently in discussions with Afghanistan for a strategic partnership agreement. And there's a prospect that President Karzai and the Prime Minister may sign that at Chicago next weekend when we all go to Chicago for the follow-up summit from Lisbon.
But also in terms of just ongoing assistance, we don't - there are two things that we need to do for the Afghan national security forces, one is make sure that they continue to be resourced after the end of the transition period; and the Russian experience - when the Russians left Afghanistan, for a couple of years they continued to fund the Afghan national army and that worked well. But then with the collapse of the Soviet Union the cheques stopped coming. And we then saw essentially the deterioration of the Afghan national security forces, and hence the rise of the Taliban. So we don't want to make that mistake again.
So Australia has said that we'll make a fair contribution to that. But secondly we also think, post transition, when they have taken lead responsibility across the country, they will need potentially some back of house assistance in specialist areas - whether that's advisors, whether it's specialised training like officer training or artillery training, or indeed special forces. But the good thing about today's announcement by President Karzai is with the so-called transition of the third tranche we now see every province - there are 34 provinces, it's our equivalent of a state, 34 provinces in Afghanistan. A third of those now have been wholly transitioned. So that includes Uruzgan. So 11 out of the 34. But there's now a part of every province, so every part of the country has now got some part in the transition cycle. And when the so-called third tranche, today's tranche complete in 12 to 18 months time, it will be 75 per cent of the country covered by Afghan-lead responsibility.
So it continues to be difficult, continues to be dangerous, and we're not taking anything for granted, but it does reflect the progress that we think has been made over the last couple of years.
ROD TILEY: Well fingers crossed that the Afghan Government and your commanders are right. Are you likely to pay the troops a visit either prior to the Chicago summit or after?
STEPHEN SMITH: We had, in the run up to Chicago we had a meeting of NATO and ISAF defence and foreign ministers meeting in Brussels in April. So Bob Carr, the Foreign Minister and I went to that and prior to going to Brussels I visited Afghanistan - I went to Kandahar where we have some aerial personnel, some air-force personnel both helicopters, Chinook - our Chinook helicopter contribution, but also for unmanned aerial surveillance purposes, and then to Tarin Kot where we've got the bulk of our people and then to Kabul. So I'll go - I won't be going back to Afghanistan before Chicago, but in the normal course of events I go a couple of times a year. So I expect to get back to Afghanistan before the end of the year. And I tend to try and do it in the run up to a meeting of Defence ministers in Brussels so that I've just come from an on the ground experience...
ROD TILEY: Sure.
STEPHEN SMITH: And the Prime Minister of course gets there a couple of times a year as well. And the Governor-General also gets there from time to time. So that's - the Governor-General and Prime Minister going is obviously very good for the morale of the troops. From my perspective it just helps keep you in touch so that you're speaking to the commanders on the ground and the troops on the ground, not just the reports you get on paper in Canberra.
ROD TILEY: Good on you. Thank you. And if you're heading for Chicago this weekend, you're going to miss the Defence Force air show from Pearce Airbase. So bad luck.
STEPHEN SMITH: Don't tell anyone Rod but I'm... don't tell anyone, I'm trying to sneak out there on Friday so I get a bit of a-
ROD TILEY: Might see you there then.
STEPHEN SMITH: A bit of a look before the Saturday, but no, it'll be a terrific event and again I'm probably not supposed to tell you this - but I think we're working hard to see if we're going to have a B-52 flyover as well which will be something that's occurred in previous air shows in other parts of the country. And that will impress the locals for sure.
ROD TILEY: Keep a seat for me will you?
STEPHEN SMITH: Okay.
ROD TILEY: Bye bye.
STEPHEN SMITH: Thanks mate, good on you, cheers.