TRANSCRIPT: PRESS CONFERENCE – PERTH
TRANSCRIPTION: PROOF COPY E & OE
DATE: 14 MAY 2012
TOPICS: Afghanistan; Craig Thomson; Defence Budget
STEPHEN SMITH: Well thanks very much for turning up. This morning I just want to welcome very much the announcement by President Karzai of the third tranche of provinces and districts transitioning in Afghanistan. I welcome very much the fact that all of Uruzgan Province has been included in the third tranche of transition. This accords with Australia's analysis that we are on track to transition in Uruzgan Province by 2014 if not earlier.
The effect of the third tranche of transition which will commence from the middle of this year is that we now see over three quarters of Afghanistan's population now covered by lead responsibility for security so far as Afghanistan is concerned.
This is a very important milestone so far as the international community's commitment to transition is concerned. You might recall that in November 2010, the Prime Minister and I attended the Lisbon summit where NATO and the International Security Assistance Force agreed the process for transition, to transition out of Afghanistan by the end of 2014, seeing Afghan National Security Forces take the lead responsibility for security matters.
For some time the Prime Minister and I have been saying that in Uruzgan we believe that we are on track to effect that transition by 2014, and possibly earlier, and we're very pleased that that assessment is shared by President Karzai, and also by General Allen, Commander of the International Security Assistance Force.
When the transition in the third tranche is effected, as I say, we'll see some three quarters, some 75 per cent of Afghan's population covered by lead responsibility for security by the Afghan National Army and the Afghan national and local Police.
So we welcome very much the announcement. We are very pleased that it accords with our analysis. It reflects the very good work which is being done by our mentoring taskforce and our forces in Uruzgan Province in particular.
On the weekend the Prime Minister and I will attend the Chicago NATO/ISAF Leaders' Summit, and there, not only will the international community make an assessment of progress so far as transition is concerned, but also formally, at leaders' level, at Presidents' and Prime Ministers' level, start to begin the detailed work so far as post-2014 transition arrangements are concerned.
And there, Australia has made it clear for some time that we believe it's important that the international community resource the Afghan National Security Forces after transition. And secondly we've also made it clear that Australia is prepared to contemplate a presence in Afghanistan after transition after 2014, certainly so far as development assistance and capacity building is concerned, but also so far as military advisors are concerned, and with a proper mandate, an ongoing presence of Special Forces.
I'm pleased to respond to your questions.
JOURNALIST: Hamid Karzai has a given commitment for Afghan security forces to be in place for the middle of next year. Why then is it still going to take at least another year or two years for Australian forces to be removed?
STEPHEN SMITH: Well, as the President's statement overnight says and we accord with this analysis, when you start the transition process in a province it can take some 12 to 18 months, that's our judgment. And in Uruzgan Province if you start the process of transition in the middle of this year then our judgment is that it can take some 12 to 18 months to effect that transition, that orderly process, that conditions-based process to the Afghan National Security Forces in the case of Afghanistan to the 4th Brigade of the Afghan National Army, and also to the Afghan national and local Police.
Now again that is our assessment. That's the advice that we have from the Chief of the Defence Force, and our senior officers on the ground, but we will take that step by step. We have always agreed with the analysis that transition needs to be conditions-based, but for some time we believe that we have been on track in Uruzgan.
So our analysis remains that we believe that in Uruzgan we can transition to Afghan-led security responsibility by 2014, if not earlier. Once we make that judgment as we go we'll then be in a position to make judgements about what draw-downs, so far as Australia's mentoring and training taskforce is concerned.
Once the mentoring and training job has been done, yes of course we will continue to be there, but we will continue to be, to use the International Security Assistance Force, combat ready. In other words, there to assist as required. And we'll also have an ongoing presence so far as security forces are concerned.
These judgements we need to make in an orderly way. We're not seeking to anticipate the detail of that. We want to make sure that we effect a transition, and as we've seen indeed in recent times there will continue to be set backs - Afghanistan and Uruzgan continue to be difficult and dangerous places - but the security grounds that we have made up in Uruzgan and in Afghanistan generally over the last 12 to 18 months, the Taliban has not been able to make up this ground in the field. They have resorted to the high-profile propaganda motivated attacks which regrettably we've seen occur in recent days.
JOURNALIST: Sir, the Prime Minister's announcement a few weeks ago about most troops would be home by the end of 2013- does this change that?
STEPHEN SMITH: Well no, as the Prime Minister herself has said today, what has been announced overnight by President Karzai, after a lot of work by individual countries like Australia, both a lot of work by NATO and the International Security Assistance Force, but in the end this is a decision for the Afghan Government and President Karzai.
The announcements made today simply underline the analysis the Prime Minister and I have been articulating to the Australian people for some time, in particular the Prime Minister's speech of a month or so ago where she laid out the transition arrangements. So we continue to be confident that we will affect a transition in Uruzgan by 2014 if not earlier, but so far as the details of any draw-down is concerned, we need to take that step by step.
And the Prime Minister herself today has said that what she has said today, what President Karzai has announced is entirely consistent with her remarks of a month or so ago and indeed they're entirely consistent with the remarks on transition that our partners have made. For example, my US counterpart, Secretary for Defence, Leon Panetta. He's put out a statement today which essentially accords with his earlier remarks, and also accords with the plan that we've had in place since Lisbon in November 2010.
JOURNALIST: You mentioned how the summit has been held in Chicago and the possibility [indistinct] Australians prepared to contemplate a presence beyond 2014. What would that entail?
STEPHEN SMITH: Well as I've been saying for some time certainly, Australia wants to have a long-term partnership with Afghanistan and there is a possibility that President Karzai and the Prime Minister will be able to sign in Chicago a strategic partnership between Australia and Afghanistan. This reflects a long-term commitment by Australia.
Certainly, we've made it clear that we want to continue with our Development Assistance Program, we want to continue with capacity building and helping the Afghan Government, and the Afghan institutions, so far as improving governance and improving the strength of their institutions are concerned.
When it comes to matters military, we have said that we are open to continue to make a contribution so far as training and advising is concerned, and so, for example, we currently engage in high level or specialised training, artillery is one example. We've made it clear we're prepared to continue training in so far as artillery is concerned.
We've also agreed to a proposal by the United Kingdom Government that we join with the United Kingdom and also potentially Canada and New Zealand, and other countries, to engage in officer training, high level training of Afghan National Army officers.
As well, we've also said that given that it'll almost certainly be the case that a continuing counter-terrorism force is required, that under a proper mandate, that Australia would be prepared to consider an ongoing presence of Special Forces. But these are the details that we need to agree with our international colleagues, we need to agree with the Afghan Government, and we need to agree with NATO and the International Security Assistance Force, and the detail of that debate, or those issues, will start in Chicago.
The second important area where we've indicated that in principle we are prepared to make a contribution, is to make a contribution, a fair contribution, helping to resource in an ongoing way the Afghan National Security Forces, the Afghan National Army, and the Afghan national and local Police.
This is very important, because the experience after the Russians left Afghanistan, was that the Russians continued to support the Afghan National Security Forces in a resource sense. For a couple of years, while they continued to be adequately resourced, security was by and large respectable, or manageable. When the Soviet Union collapsed and the resourcing of the Afghan National Security Forces ceased, we then saw the rise of the Taliban.
So there are two important components for the international community and Australia after transition in 2014, the resourcing of the Afghan National Security Forces, and what presence there is in a military or defence sense, so far as the international community is concerned. We're prepared in principle to make a contribution to the resourcing of the Afghan National Security Forces, and we're prepared to contemplate an ongoing presence of advisers, of trainers, and also Special Forces, but that presence would be substantially less, very substantially less than our current, on average 1550 component, which is made up by a large majority of our current mentors and trainers.
As we make the transition to a competent Afghan National Security Force in Uruzgan, the need for those large number of mentors and trainers will of course recede, and then finish.
JOURNALIST: Minister, do you agree with [indistinct] a toughening up on MPs through a code of conduct?
STEPHEN SMITH: Well, I'm very happy to see ongoing discussions and debate about a code of conduct for Members of Parliament. The relevant House committee has had a reference, and has reported on that recently, it's currently before the relevant senate committee. The Government's also indicated that it believes in principle that having an Integrity Commissioner, effectively a Parliamentary Ombudsman, is also something that it agrees to, so I'm very happy to see these conversations continue.
It's very important that Members of Parliament conduct themselves to a very high standard, the community expects that, and Members of Parliament should expect nothing less, and whilst some people say historically you can make commonsense judgements about that, I've got no objection in principle to that being formalised, either by a Parliamentary Code of Conduct, or by a Parliament Commissioner, or Integrity Commissioner, and the like. And so I'm very happy to see these Parliamentary deliberations continue.
JOURNALIST: Do you believe Craig Thomson?
STEPHEN SMITH: Well, that's not the appropriate question. A series of very concerning findings have been made about Mr Thomson, he indicated to the Parliament last week that he was proposing when the Parliament reconvened to make a detailed statement about that. For myself, I await to hear and listen to his statement. Secondly, if there's any action to be taken as a result of those findings, that is action for the appropriate authorities and not for the Parliament itself.
So I think there are two stages to this process, Mr Thomson has indicated he's proposing to make a statement to the House. That's a good thing, not only is he entitled to do that, I think there is a necessity for him to do that, and he'll do that when the Parliament resumes in a week or so. But then so far as formal action is concerned, that's a matter for relevant authorities, and not a matter for the Parliament itself.
STEPHEN SMITH: Well, in the course of the International Security Assistance Force assessment, and in the course of the Afghan Government's assessment, consideration was given to whether it was appropriate to transition all of Uruzgan Province, or part of it.
Our own view, which we presented both to the International Security Assistance Force and to the Afghan Government, was that we had made sufficient gains so far as security arrangements were concerned in Uruzgan, that it made sense to transition all of the province, Uruzgan will now be one of 11 provinces which have been transitioned in whole, we've got 34 provinces in Afghanistan, and so effectively now you've got a third of the provinces being transitioned.
Our judgement was that it was appropriate to transition all of Uruzgan Province, at the same time we made it clear that it was entirely a matter for the Afghan Government, it was a matter for their formal assessment. We welcome the fact that the judgement of President Karzai and his officials accords with ours, we think that we have made sufficient ground, so far as security arrangements are concerned in Uruzgan over the last 12 to 18 months, that it was appropriate to transition all of Uruzgan.
We're not the only province that has been transitioned in that way, about a third have, and that's a good thing. When I was last in Afghanistan, which was about a month ago, I made that point to General Allen, I also made that point to President Karzai, and I made the same point to Defence Minister Wardak when I met him a week or so later in Brussels.
So our analysis was that we believe that all of Uruzgan could be transitioned, but equally, we made the point to NATO and to International Security Assistance Force officials that it was entirely a matter for the Afghan Government. But our analysis accorded with ISAF's analysis, which was appropriate, given the security gains for Uruzgan to be transitioned as a whole.
STEPHEN SMITH: Well, our Special Forces currently operate out of Uruzgan Province, as I've put previously on the public record, under a delegation of authority by the National Security Committee to me and also by me to the Chief of the Defence Force in special circumstances out of province or out of Uruzgan operations are authorised. The current arrangements will continue.
Obviously we need to give consideration to where our Special Forces might operate from in the post-2014 transition environment. As the Prime Minister and I have both said, in principle we are prepared to make an ongoing contribution so far as Special Forces are concerned but that needs to have a proper mandate. Currently, the international community's presence in Afghanistan is mandated by United Nations Security Council resolution which has been reaffirmed and renewed over almost a decade.
So, again, where our Special Forces might operate from is a matter that we need to consider with the international community, in particular with NATO and the International Security Assistance Force. We're a fair way from getting to those details. The important thing is to make sure that there is a proper mandate for the ongoing presence of any military advisors or trainers but also a proper mandate for any ongoing presence of Special Forces contribution.
JOURNALIST: After that date, [indistinct] some Special Forces be under US command?
STEPHEN SMITH: Well again, we will need to see the arrangements that are in place. At the moment we work very closely with not just United States Special Forces but also with United Kingdom Special Forces and so our Special Forces which operate out of Uruzgan Province do so in cooperation and in conjunction with other contributing nations' Special Forces and we do that as part of the International Security Assistance Force arrangements. What arrangements are in place after 2014 will depend upon the matters that I have gone through.
JOURNALIST: We've seen a pretty big squeeze on the defence budget [indistinct]. Are you relieved now that there'll only be another 12-18 months of maintaining Australia's [indistinct]?
STEPHEN SMITH: Well, I've made the point generally that if you look at last year's Defence Budget which goes over a four year forward estimate period, last year's Defence Budget over the four years, the combined Defence Budget over a four year period was $103.4 billion. If you go to this year's Budget which the Treasurer unveiled on Tuesday of last week, over the four year forward estimates period the four year spend for defence is $103.3 billion. So effectively have the difference of 0.1 of a billion dollars out of $103 billion budget over a four year period.
This has caused some people to make some comments which I regard frankly as overblown. So, with a 0.1 billion dollar difference over $103 billion program, I've seen some people say that this is the worst day for Australian Defence since the fall of Saigon. This is patently a nonsense. I've also seen other commentators say that as a consequence of the Budget people will, as we speak, be planning the invasion for 2028-2031. This is also of course a nonsense.
So, let's just get this very clearly into context. Yes, Defence made a contribution to keeping the Budget or getting the Budget back to surplus. A strong economy is good for Australians and it's good for Defence and there are some decisions that we have made which are difficult decisions but they are manageable. And we have ring-fenced some very important areas.
There is no adverse implications for our operations overseas whether that's Afghanistan, whether it's the Solomon Islands, whether it's East Timor. There are no adverse implications for the kit supplied to our people on the frontline or about to be deployed. There are no adverse implications for military numbers and we have effectively ring-fenced or sought to protect core capability that you find in the 2009 White Paper.
And the fact that the system continues to operate, there's no better reflector than my announcement on Thursday of last week that we would be spending $1.4 billion to acquire a much-needed tactical military air lift capability, the replacement for the Caribou with the acquisition of ten C-27s.
We've also made the point - the Prime Minister and I - that because of changed strategic circumstances - so you do see the prospect, not just over the next few years of a draw-down from the Middle East, a draw-down from Afghanistan. So a draw-down from what has effectively been a land expeditionary warfare force to the Middle East for a decade to Afghanistan, then Iraq, then back to Afghanistan. So you see that draw-down.
At the same time we see the prospect over the next couple of years of a draw-down from our stabilisation role in East Timor and in the Solomon Islands. So, this is a cause for giving some very serious thought to the strategic implications which follow as a consequence of that. As well you've got the ongoing movement of strategic [indistinct] to our part of the world and that has continued since the white paper 2009.
You've also got, for example, the United States making it clear since that time that not only will it continue its engagement in the Asia Pacific, it will enhance it and we've seen that reflected by the United States Global Force Posture Review which has seen the rotational arrangements for Marines in the Northern Territory and we'll see greater access to our Northern Territory airfields. And in due course, greater access to US Naval vessels to HMAS Stirling our Indian Ocean port.
So these are but a number of strategic reasons why we have brought forward the 2014 White Paper, effectively by 12 months to the middle of 2013. That, from a strategic point of view, is a very sensible thing to do but there's no doubt that in terms of short and long-term finances we are under a lot of pressure so far as the aftermath of the global financial crisis is concerned.
The 2009 White Paper said that the global financial crisis effects were unfolding. Well, we've now seen the unfolding effects of that global financial crisis mark two effectively in Europe, a double-dip recession in the United Kingdom, in Spain and elsewhere. And as a consequence of that we have seen very deep cuts to United States defence and military and to United Kingdom defence and military and Australia is not the only country who is under pressure so far as Defence Budget is concerned. But what we have sought to do is to ring-fence those important areas, but also not to discontinue doing things, but to reduce resources that go to particular areas of operation so that when the fiscal position improves we can take those to a better level.
So, a draw-down from Afghanistan is but one part of a range of factors which has caused us to bring the white paper forward to the middle of 2013 and that will be a very good exercise and very good timing. And as a general proposition, commentators have welcomed that as a sensible thing to do. I think it's not only sensible, it’s essential and that's why we're going it.
Alright, everyone happy? Thanks. Thanks very much.