TRANSCRIPT: PRESS CONFERENCE
TRANSCRIPTION: PROOF COPY E & OE
DATE: 21 March 2013
TOPICS: Afghanistan; Labor Leadership.
STEPHEN SMITH: Thanks very much for turning up. I'm very pleased to officially welcome to Canberra Dr Rassoul, Afghanistan's Foreign Minister.
I do so on behalf of Senator Carr, our Foreign Minister who of course you'll understand is in New York on Security Council commitments.
It's Dr Rassoul's first visit to Australia, and it's the first time that an Afghan Foreign Minister has visited Australia since 2002, when then Foreign Minister Dr Abdullah Abdullah visited.
That of course is not to say that we haven't had significant contact between that period of time and now. Indeed, the first time that Dr Rassoul and I met was at the London conference on Afghanistan in 2010.
That conference was about making the point that so far as Afghanistan is concerned, a lasting solution could not just be a military or combat solution, but also had to be a political solution.
Since that time, we have met on numerous occasions, both in Brussels, in Afghanistan and also one occasion in Tallinn, Estonia for a NATO/ISAF Foreign Ministers meeting, but we're very pleased to welcome Dr Rassoul to Canberra.
Dr Rassoul will later today travel to Melbourne where he will, together with the Governor General, open the Afghanistan National Treasures Exhibition, a significant feature of Afghan culture. He'll also later today call upon the Prime Minister.
This morning, we laid a wreath at the War Memorial and had a brief tour with the former Defence Minister, Brendan Nelson - now the director who Dr Rassoul knows well, and we've just finished our formal bilateral meeting.
Two important features of our bilateral discussions; firstly we discussed our progress of transition in Afghanistan, both in Uruzgan and Afghanistan generally.
Secondly we discussed the importance of Australia's role on the Security Council, holding the pen, to use the United Nation's jargon, on some issues of significance to Afghanistan, the best example of which in the last couple of days has been the extension of the United Nation's Assistance Mission in Afghanistan’s mandate, but also the holder of the pen for the Taliban Sanctions Committee.
Dr Rassoul and I last met in Kabul on my last visit to Afghanistan in February of this year. We updated each other on our respective views.
The Australian Government remains confident of transition in Uruzgan by the end of this year, and we believe the transition in Afghanistan is on track.
We continue to make the point that we believe it's important that the international community assists Afghanistan in the post 2014 environment, and Australia has again indicated we're prepared to make a contribution so far as training is concerned, but also under an appropriate mandate, a Special Forces contribution - either training or counter-terrorism operations if there is an appropriate mandate.
We also considered and discussed a range of issues, the progress and the peace and reconciliation efforts, particularly the proposed establishment of an office in Doha for the Taliban, and transition as I've indicated generally so far as Afghanistan is concerned with the so-called fifth tranche of provinces and districts due for transition in the middle of this year.
Dr Rassoul, very pleased to welcome you here. We're not just good colleagues, but also friends, and I appreciate the generosity of your remarks to me this morning, and I'd be pleased if you could make some remarks and we'll then do our best to answer questions.
DR ZALMAI RASSOUL: Thank you very much, Your Excellency, my dear friend, Minister Smith. Thank you so much for those kind words and the gracious hospitality that you provided for me and my delegation on this visit.
I wanted to thank you especially, Excellency for the personal friendship in your connection with Afghanistan, in your capacities both as a Foreign Minister in the past and as Defence Minister now.
It is a special honour for me to be here with you today, because it is my first visit to Australia and I have been amazed by the beauty of this land, and the warmth and the friendship of the Australian people.
My main purpose in making this visit to Australia is to bring you and the Australian people a message of profound thanks and gratitude for the tremendous role that Australia has played in the stabilisation and development of Afghanistan over the past decade.
They have paid a heavy price in blood of your sons and daughters, who have given their life in Afghanistan in the generous development assistance that you have provided us for the past 10 years.
Just as well, we never forget the sacrifice of tens of thousands of our fellow Afghans who lost their life in striving for peace, dignity, democracy and development; we shall not forget your sacrifices in support.
Mr Smith and I visited the War Memorial where we paid our respect at the tomb of the Unknown Soldier. It was a powerful and solemn reminder of the sacrifices of the Australian soldier who lost their lives in Afghanistan and other parts of the world.
I think the best tribute we can pay to our shared sacrifices is to preserve the truly historic gain of the Afghan people, since the fall of Taliban regime in 2001.
These achievements include the establishment of Arabian democratic society, a modern constitution that guarantees equal rights and freedom for all citizens, woman and man, more than eight million children are in schools today, 40 per cent of them girls.
Tens of thousands of young men and women are attending universities, accomplishments [indistinct] media, civil society group basic health care which is more 70 per cent of our population, and more than 12 million will be mobile phone subscribers and forward looking all for the young generation.
As I just said, Australia has played a tremendous role, all those achievements, especially in Uruzgan, which used to be one of the poorest, least developed of our provinces.
I'll be also travelling to Melbourne tonight with Our Excellency Governor General Bryce, to open the Afghanistan: National Treasures’ Exhibition at the Victorian Museum.
The preservation and recovery of this precious [indistinct] for ancient culture heritage is a mirror image of the revival and the construction of the new Afghanistan.
I'm grateful to Our Excellency, the Governor General for the interest in this exhibition and kindly agreed to open it with us tonight.
Your Excellency, I also want to thank you very much for the generous financial support that Australia has given and promised the future of Afghanistan and looking forward to implement the [indistinct] partnership that we have signed together in the future. Thank you very much.
STEPHEN SMITH: Thank you very much Dr Rassoul. Now, we're on a reasonably tight schedule. We've got to be out of here sometime between 20 and 25 past. So that's the drop dead time, about 25 past. So we'll do our best. Catherine?
JOURNALIST: Dr Rassoul, Catherine McGrath from Australian Network International Television. Can you comment please on two important issues here in regard to Afghanistan?
One is civilian casualties on the ground in Afghanistan and your view of the efforts being made by NATO and allies to counteract that.
Secondly, the potential return of Hazaras to Afghanistan - the dangers they make for you and they may face, and your position on that return.
DR ZALMAI RASSOUL: It's a problem. Long time they've been very clear that the civilian casualty is very counter-productive, in the war against terrorism, and we have been very clear in that. Lot of effort and discussion and sometime tensions.
Now, the level of civilian casualty has dropped significantly and that's the good news. We hope that by the end of the fighting and the full control of Afghanistan security by acting security forces, civilian casualty will become minimal and disappear.
On the second issue which is issue of the refugees, first of all I thank you. We have been in discussion with the Australian Government of the conditions of their return, but one thing that I should mention, that Afghanistan is a safe place.
It's much safer than of course before and we hope that our citizen should stay in Afghanistan and help Afghanistan to be rebuilt.
JOURNALIST: Dr Rassoul, [indistinct] from Reuters. I wanted to ask you a couple of quick questions; one is that there are reports that the Afghan opposition parties have actually been open to talks with the Taliban on some sort of peace negotiation.
Can I ask what's the Government's view of success in getting them back into talks at the moment? Is there any?
Secondly, our bureau in Pakistan has been told by a senior official on record from the Pakistan Foreign Ministry, that President Karzai's recent statements appear to be an impediment in the President himself - an impediment ahead of transition, to ever getting peace talks and getting the Taliban back into a successful route for peace talks. I'm just wondering can you comment on that at all?
Like again linked to the first question, I mean is there any progress?
DR ZALMAI RASSOUL: You know first of all the majority of Afghan people want peace. Three decades of war is too much for any country especially for Afghanistan. So the aspiration of the Afghan people is for peace and for that purpose we organised, as you know, a big Jirga to make sure that all Afghans are looking for peace and what is going to be the condition of this peace.
This Jirga in which all the Afghans have been present and for the first time 20 per cent of the Jirga was women which was unique in the history of Jirgas but [indistinct] yes, we want peace but we put also the deadlines and the condition for that peace which was the respect of our constitution, achievement that we have made together in the last 10 years, a democratic process, women's rights, human rights, freedom of media, freedom of expressions.
So these are the deadlines but out of that we are ready to talk with those Taliban who want to talk with us on peace process. We know that in the leadership of Taliban there are those who wants to come to peace and discuss with us.
Now where to go and where to talk? The first condition, this place would be Afghanistan but maybe for some reason in the first steps they cannot come to Afghanistan. So we have just get a third place to go to talk, okay and after a lot of discussion we agree that Doha in Qatar would be the place that the contact office is going to be open for [indistinct].
But, you know also all Taliban's leadership are sitting in Pakistan, so we need the full cooperation of Pakistan in order for them to be allowed to travel and be allowed to talk. We are in very close discussion with Pakistan in that purpose and with this condition we'll be there; we'll start talking with them in Doha.
Now who is going to talk with Taliban? The [indistinct] peace Jirga has also appointed a high peace council which will represent the Jirga and represent the majority.
It's not a governmental body, it is a representation of the peace Jirga which all element opposition are present in the high council will be allowed to talk with Taliban. That is the position of the Afghan Government.
JOURNALIST: But both sides accuse each other of not going there. Pakistan accuses Afghanistan of not doing enough and the accusations go the other way. So where are they?
DR ZALMAI RASSOUL: We are ready for peace. As I told you we are ready for peace talk, we put our condition. Those people who wants to talk with us for peace are sitting in Pakistan, not in Afghanistan. So without the authorisation of Pakistan, without the support of Pakistan these people cannot travel, they cannot talk to us.
JOURNALIST: Foreign Minister, imagine for one moment briefly, did you - is your view that they should not be forced to repatriation and did you raise that with the Foreign Minister today?
DR ZALMAI RASSOUL: No, we have discussed the issue has been already discussed. The Afghan Government position is a voluntary repatriation and that is something that we have discussed to see what will be the position.
JOURNALIST: You haven't received an answer yet on whether there will be forced repatriation?
DR ZALMAI RASSOUL: I think that we want the volunteer repatriation but after all these people are in Australia and that's the Australian Government's - but you are in discussion of that issue.
JOURNALIST: Dr Rassoul, what do you think the chances are once the bulk of Coalition forces pull out that the Afghan Government can actually hold the country together and keep the Taliban out and what sort of contribution would you like to see from Australia post-2013?
DR ZALMAI RASSOUL: First of all, already today when I'm talking to you 78 per cent of the Afghanistan population is under the control of Afghan security forces. The first, second, the third tranche of transition has been done and 78 to 80 per cent of Afghan population is under the control of Afghan security forces.
In this area not only the [indistinct] but some areas improved. Of course we are now targeting the fourth and fifth tranche which is targeting those areas which bordering Pakistan which will - hopefully will be the same.
So I can assure you that after the end of 2014, after the withdrawal of NATO troops and ISAF troops from Afghanistan, Afghanistan will remain stable. We have now a very well trained and reasonably equipped Afghan national security forces and they are capable of maintaining the security of Afghanistan.
That does not mean that we're not looking for post-2014 relation with our allies. We have signed a series of statutory partnerships with our allies, the United States, UK, France, Italy, Germany, Norway and Australia.
So we will continue to have very close relations, not only in security but also in financial, developmental, cultural and social issues and we are under discussion of a security agreement with the United States which will define how many soldiers, US forces, will stay in Afghanistan after 2014 but also we are in contact with our NATO and ISAF Allies, which kind of contribution.
Of course there's not going to be the combat contribution, how much security contribution of training, advising Afghan security forces will be there.
STEPHEN SMITH: In our case, as I've indicated previously, we've made a contribution of $US100 million a year for three years from 2015 to help sustain the Afghan national security forces and we've made it clear that we propose to assist by way of training, particularly officer training and a Special Forces contribution if that's reflected by an appropriate mandate.
Dr Rassoul has referred to the long term strategic partnerships. We signed up a long term strategic partnership with Afghanistan in the margins of the Chicago Summit and that sees our relationship extend from the security to a more broadly based bilateral relationship which is what we want to see in the aftermath of improvements in security and ultimate transition at the end of 2014.
JOURNALIST: Sorry, can I ask you a domestic-
STEPHEN SMITH: Well, let's exhaust Afghanistan first.
JOURNALIST: Dr Rassoul, the Australian Government has kept open the option of Special Forces post 2014 doing counter-terrorism operations. Does that constitute combat? Is that something that you support?
DR ZALMAI RASSOUL: I think the security cooperation in Afghanistan and Australia is going to be on training our security forces, our Special Forces but also in the military academy that we are going to have to teach our officers. It's not going to be combat mission.
STEPHEN SMITH: I've made it clear that we are open to making a contribution on Special Forces, counter-terrorism, if there is an appropriate mandate. Now that will be the subject of discussion between Afghanistan and the United States, Afghanistan and NATO.
That may or may not be required, necessary or desirable. We've certainly also made it clear that we're - that in terms of our training effort our training can also include, if required or wanted, a Special Forces training component.
JOURNALIST: Mr Smith, on local matters-
STEPHEN SMITH: Right. Are we exhausted on Afghanistan? You're unusually quiet, Nick.
JOURNALIST: Mr Smith, on local matters Simon Crean is believed to be in talks with the Kevin Rudd camp over potentially becoming his deputy. What do you make of that and are you worried that Julia Gillard will be replaced?
STEPHEN SMITH: Well, firstly in the presence of Dr Rassoul I'm not proposing to go through the entrails of domestic matters. That's the first point.
Secondly, I understand Simon gave an extensive interview this morning which you may well have attended but which I didn't see. Simon, I think, did make the point in the course of that conversation that you should listen to his own words so I advise you to do so.
JOURNALIST: Is there a leadership challenge on?
STEPHEN SMITH: Well, I have very distinct recollection of people saying on numerable occasions that we resolved this matter last year, that Mr Rudd has indicated he's not proposing to challenge again. I'm not aware of any other challenger and so far as I'm concerned there's no vacancy and indeed I distinctly remember the Member for Griffith saying at the time that if there was a challenge by someone else to the Prime Minister that he would act as a human shield and stand between the challenger and the Prime Minister.
JOURNALIST: So Julia Gillard's position is safe?
STEPHEN SMITH: Well, there's no vacancy, she's the Prime Minister and I support her and I continue to be of the view that she will be the Prime Minister in the election of September 14 and unless someone issues a challenge, and I haven't seen one, that's the circumstance which we'll carry through until September.
JOURNALIST: That doesn't mean nothing is going on though, Mr Smith. What's going on?
STEPHEN SMITH: Well, I refer you to the remarks made by the Chief Government Whip yesterday.
JOURNALIST: Do you think it's good timing though for Simon Crean to be out talking about criticising Government policy?
STEPHEN SMITH: Well, Simon's a former leader and he's entitled to express his views and he has.
JOURNALIST: Mr Smith, you've been a senior Minister for some time, you're also an experienced person from the machinery of the Labor Party, are you not concerned-
STEPHEN SMITH: It is true that for my sins I have once been a party official, yes, that's right.
JOURNALIST: Yes and you're not concerned that basically the process of Government has almost been immobilised?
STEPHEN SMITH: I don't regard that as being right, the process of Government has not gone to how you characterise it. Irrespective of how people might view the politics of the current day the Government continues to run a strong economy in difficult circumstances and to continue a substantial reform program.
And, in my area that's reflected by our priorities which is transition in Afghanistan, cultural change through the Defence Force and a White Paper which will reflect the changed circumstances including - including draw down, not just from Afghanistan but East Timor and the Solomons.
So I don't characterise Government over the last five and a half years or from now until September in the way in which you do. This has been a Government which has effected substantial reform across the board.
JOURNALIST: What's going on now though has the hallmarks of an insurgent campaign almost? I mean, it does have to be resolved.
STEPHEN SMITH: Well, particularly in the current circumstances again I wouldn't characterise it in that way.
JOURNALIST: It looks like the media bills won't be put to the House. Is that-
STEPHEN SMITH: I haven't had a discussion with any of my colleagues today about the progressing of those matters. So you really need to ask Senator Conroy or Minister Albanese who is the leader of the House.
I simply haven't had a conversation about-
JOURNALIST: If they don't get up or they don't get put to the House is that going to reflect badly on Julia Gillard?
STEPHEN SMITH: Well, I don't believe so. There are a package of six bills. Two have already been enacted, one is before the House but you'd need to speak to the Leader of the House or Senator Conroy about progress today.
JOURNALIST: Dr Rassoul, can I just go back to what we were talking about a moment ago, can you add any light to whether opposition figures in the Afghan Government are actually in talks with Taliban representatives about some sort of peace agreement?
DR ZALMAI RASSOUL: As far as I know nobody is in talks with Taliban at the moment. That's very clear. When the time comes and they express the will, give the declaration they are ready to talk everything will be open.
I think - and it's important to - one, authorities should talk to the Taliban, an authority which is elected by the Afghan people which is the high peace council in which opposition and others are all present.
Talking with everybody without result will not give any results. So we have this body which has been, as I mentioned to you, elected by the Jirga which has the authority on behalf of the Afghan people to talk to the Taliban.
STEPHEN SMITH: All right. Thank you very much. Thank you.