Stephen Smith MP
Minister for Defence
TRANSCRIPT: INTERVIEW WITH FRAN KELLY, RADIO NATIONAL BREAKFAST, ABC
TRANSCRIPTION: PROOF COPY E & OE
DATE: 1 OCTOBER 2010
FRAN KELLY: Defence Minister Stephen Smith is in Melbourne this morning. Minister, good morning, thanks for joining us.
STEPHEN SMITH: Good morning, Fran, thank you.
FRAN KELLY: Minister, in news just in, NATO says that six international soldiers were killed in the south of Afghanistan. There were no more details. I'm wondering if you can tell us if Australian soldiers were amongst the casualties?
STEPHEN SMITH: Well, firstly, we have a very well established procedure that we carry out if any Australian fatalities occurred and I'm not proposing to disturb that. But at the same time, you've asked me the question, and the early preliminary advice I have is that there's no suggestion that Australians have been caught up in this terrible matter.
FRAN KELLY: Okay, Minister, thank you. Stephen Smith, what's your argument against boosting Australia's troop numbers and our hardware commitment to Afghanistan?
STEPHEN SMITH: We act on the advice of the Chief of the Defence Force, and the consistent advice that the Government has had, including the advice to me since I became the minister, and as recently as yesterday, is that the number of troops we have in Afghanistan, on average 1550, and the support that we have for those, is sufficient and appropriate for the purpose which we're carrying out, which is to train the Afghan National Army Fourth Brigade.
I think a lot of people don't yet understand the nature of our mentoring and training task. And it's one of the reasons why I've said I think the Parliamentary debate will be a good thing, because it will not only allow these issues to be raised and discussed. It will also, I think, perform a very important informative and educative role.
So that's the advice of the CDF, and like the Leader of the Opposition said repeatedly during the election campaign, if we're going to increase our contribution in Afghanistan, we would only do that on the basis of advice from the Chief of the Defence Force.
FRAN KELLY: What do you mean though, when you say people don't understand the nature of our mentoring and training task? That is our role there, to train and mentor the Afghan National Army, but you're not trying to suggest, are you, that it's not a front line combat role?
STEPHEN SMITH: No, absolutely not, but often I think people think we're the only ones there. We're part of the International Security Assistance Force, which is mandated by the United Nations in Uruzgan.
The change that has occurred recently is that the Dutch, of course, withdrew and they were replaced by the Americans, by the United States, and we now have operating in Uruzgan, what we call Combined Team Uruzgan.
The replacement of the Dutch by the United States has meant that we now have additional troops on the ground. The United States brought with them what is called a Stryker Battlegroup, which has got more firepower than the Dutch had, and as well, for the first time, we are training all of the Kandaks in the Fourth Brigade, so there are more people on the ground.
I've often seen the suggestion that we should have up to 6000 troops in Uruzgan. When you combine our presence, the United States' presence and the Afghan National Army, we have that.
So at the same time, we, of course, have aspects of our own support arrangements, but we also have access to the International Security Assistance Force enablers or support, whether that's artillery, aerial support, intelligence, and the like.
FRAN KELLY: Sure, but it's the nature of our own support arrangements that are under discussion here. Retired General Jim Molan says the scope and nature of our mission in Afghanistan has changed, because the fighting has come very much to our doorstep there, and we are taking more casualties, which is different from two years ago, therefore we need to boost our commitment.
STEPHEN SMITH: Well, Jim has been, and I'm not being critical of Jim, he makes comments about these matters all the time, he's very interested in the debate.
FRAN KELLY: And he's very experienced in combat.
STEPHEN SMITH: And his view has always been that we should put more into Afghanistan, including tanks, which is not the advice of the CDF, is not my view, but, most importantly, it's not the advice of the CDF. And that is not reflected by the support that the United States or the United Kingdom have.
So just because a person is out there commentating doesn't mean that they are right.
But the consistent advice we have from the CDF, from the Chief of the Defence Force, is that when you combine what we have, together with our access to the International Security Assistance Force, not just the support of their troops but, more importantly, in some respects, the so-called enablers, the area of support, the artillery, the mortars, intelligence and the like, that that is sufficient for our purposes.
But let me make what I think are important points. Whilst we rely upon the advice of the CDF, and I note that the Leader of the Opposition says that is also his position, I've seen reports that the Shadow Minister for Defence has indicated that he's not necessarily proposing to follow that course, but I haven't seen the words come out of his mouth, so following what I've seen consistently from the Leader of the Opposition. While we've followed that advice, that is not to say that we don't look at, and listen to and consider what other people say.
It's certainly the very strong view of the Chief of the Defence Force that he listens to what people say on the ground. And when all of these things are raised, I, of course, as Minister, have a conversation about them and ask him for his advice.
We've made it very clear, for example, that in the aftermath of the tragic death of Lance Corporal MacKinney, that all of the issues raised by the so-called email, suggestions of weaknesses in safety and security arrangements, all of those things will be exhaustively considered in a formal, detailed way.
All of the suggestions that are made publicly are, invariably, considered by the CDF and his people, and, also raised by me.
FRAN KELLY: Just on that though, if you are listening to what people on the ground are telling you, you were in Tarin Kowt last week, so you're in a position to say what people are telling you. And it's been reported that one soldier approached you and suggested that the Australian troops are spread too thin. Don't you believe him?
STEPHEN SMITH: And my response to him was to outline to him what we had on the ground, what the nature of our training and mentoring role was.
FRAN KELLY: But he, presumably, knows that if he's there.
STEPHEN SMITH: Well, that's not necessarily the case because, as I say, this will form a very important educative role, the Parliamentary debate, and a reference to our mission.
But, for example, there's a story out there today suggesting that members of the SAS have very low morale and are very disheartened about what is occurring. Well, I've been to Campbell Barracks as Defence Minister. It's the first thing I did in Western Australia as Defence Minister. I've spoken to SAS people on the ground in Afghanistan. More important, so has the Chief of the Defence Force, and my impression and his advice is that morale in the SAS is very strong. They have a very clear understanding of what they are doing in Afghanistan and are very enthusiastic about that task, as you would expect.
So, just because something pops out in the public space, it doesn't necessarily lead to that being true. But of course…
FRAN KELLY: No, then again, we did hear on ABC Radio yesterday a senior commander, not the SAS, but a senior commander talking on morale, suggesting that the troops are incensed and dismayed over the criminal charges against three soldiers which have been announced this week. What's your reaction to a senior soldier speaking to the press like that?
STEPHEN SMITH: Firstly, in the case of the email, I've made it absolutely clear that we're not interested in trying to track down the soldier concerned. And my attitude is exactly the same to the soldier who came out yesterday, doing what he believed was something that needed to be done in support of his mates. So I'm not interested in tracking him or that issue down.
In terms of the charging of those three Australian soldiers, I've made it clear that because it's a legal process, it's not appropriate for me to either reflect upon the incident or to reflect upon the charges.
Like everyone else, I now simply have to wait until that legal process takes its course.
But as a general proposition, let me make this abundantly clear: I very strongly believe that the Australian Defence Force and its personnel, its soldiers in theatre of war have a very well deserved international and domestic reputation for being good soldiers, for following rules of engagement and for very carefully following the rules of warfare.
And whenever there is a suggestion that that hasn't occurred, we are very diligent - from the Chief of the Defence Force down, very diligent about tracking those down to make sure that the highest standards are met. So that's certainly true as a general proposition.
In terms of this case, we have to go through a legal process. Importantly, both the Government has said and Defence have said that the three soldiers concerned will have every support, not just legal assistance in terms of their defence, but also, counselling and other support as their families go through, obviously, a very difficult time as they now have to go through a legal and judicial process.
FRAN KELLY: Minister, thank you very much for joining us on Breakfast.
STEPHEN SMITH: Thanks Fran, thanks very much.
FRAN KELLY: Stephen Smith is the new Defence Minister. And last week, he was in Tarin Kowt in Uruzgan Province speaking with the Australian soldiers there.
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