Stephen Smith MP
Minister for Defence
KERRY O’BRIEN: Defence Minister Stephen Smith joins me now from our Parliament House studio.
Stephen Smith, Julia Gillard revealed today that she expects an Australian presence to remain in Afghanistanuntil 2020 at least.
Do you think the Australian public has understood and understands now how open ended this involvement really is?
STEPHEN SMITH: I think one has to very carefully understand what the Prime Minister said, and indeed what I have said in the past, what the Chief of the Defence Force has said in the past and what my predecessor, Minister Faulkner, has said.
The Prime Minister made it clear that we believe we can meet our time table of two to four years in terms of training the Afghan National Security Forces, the army and the police in Uruzgan Province over the next two to four years. That also meets the international community's ambition of transition to Afghan-led responsibility for security matters by 2014.
What the Prime Minister quite openly and honestly said, and it's something I've said before, that Minister Faulkner said before, is that won't of itself see the withdrawal of all our assets or personnel from Afghanistan.
KERRY O'BRIEN: But have you said before that they will be there until 2020, at least?
STEPHEN SMITH: Well, listen carefully to the answer, Kerry. What the Prime Minister said today was we expect there will be, and the CDF has said this before, Minister Faulkner said it before, some carryover in terms of our Defence or Military personnel, for example in an embedded or overwatch position. Now we have seen this occur in the past in Iraq, but also for example in East Timor and the Solomon Islands.
The Prime Minister also made it very clear that she sees Australia's engagement in Afghanistan, particularly on the civilian development assistance capacity building front, extending for a number of years to come. And I think that is where the so-called 2020 deadline, or timetable has come from.
And I expect the international community to be involved in development assistance in Afghanistan for a long period, but we need to take this step by step. Our transition to Afghan-led security responsibility has to be conditions based. In other words we have got to be persuaded that they have got the capacity to do it. Because if we leave too early then we run the very grave risk of ending up where we started, which is Afghanistan being a breeding ground for international terrorism.
KERRY O'BRIEN: But even though Australian military involvement takes on a different stance by 2014, you expect Australian lives will still be at risk in Afghanistan to 2020 at least, according to what the Prime Minister said today, so it is potentially open ended beyond 2020?
STEPHEN SMITH: I wouldn't characterise it or categorise it in that way. I think it is the case that there will be, after the transition to Afghan security forces, some call upon Australian Defence personnel to be there in some manner or form. It is, I think, way too early to determine what that might be.
For example, the Defence personnel that we have embedded into the International Security Assistance Force Headquarters, run by General Petraeus in Kabul, are very, very highly regarded. That is certainly something which we would give consideration to doing. There may be other training aspects that could be done in an institutional sense in and from Kabul.
I think it's premature to contemplate that. I think we do have to take it step by step, let's make sure we get the training effort completed successfully then look at where we go.
KERRY O'BRIEN: But there is still a vagueness and an open ended nature to this whole enterprise, is there not?
STEPHEN SMITH: In the course of today I think it was the Leader of the Opposition - and just without digressing, I thought the start of the Parliamentary debate was a very good one, with the Prime Minister and the Leader of the Opposition making very good contributions - was that the exit strategy is determined by success.
Our mission is to successfully transition security capacity and lead responsibility to the Afghan people through the Afghan National Army and their police force. That is why for the last two or three years our effort has been and our mission has been on training.
KERRY O'BRIEN: But just to come to that point, the Prime Minister said in her statement today that the growth of the Afghan National Army and the Afghan National Police were ahead of their October goals. But the question is, how real are those figures? How effectively trained are they as a force?
STEPHEN SMITH: We want to and have to make that judgment objectively, to use the jargon, it has to be conditions based or metrics based. In other words, we have got to have the qualitative capacity there.
But when I was in Kabul recently and spoke to Minister Wardak, the Afghan Defence Minister, and to the Afghan Interior Minister, they were both optimistic and wanted to meet the 2014 transition timetable ahead of schedule...
KERRY O'BRIEN: But there is the military aspect to this and there is the political aspect and there is still the question of how real the situation is.
The celebrated American investigative journalist Bob Woodward revealed in his latest book on the Obama Administration's prosecution of the Afghanistan war that President Obama had been told by his senior advisers that 80 per cent of the Afghan Police were illiterate - this was just at the end of last year - were illiterate, drug addiction was common and many police were ghosts who cashed their pay cheques but never turned up for duty. Is this the reality that Australian forces are fighting and dying for?
STEPHEN SMITH: Well, I don't think anyone who has been involved in a deployment overseas of their nation's own troops will gild the lily in Afghanistan. There is more work to be done.
It is also the case I think that on all the evidence, the training of the police force is substantially behind the training of the Afghan National Army.
I was most encouraged - and I made this point at the time - that in the recent Parliamentary elections, whilst we expected and we expressed this point of view both before and after, expected there to be any number of complaints to the Afghan Electoral Complaints Commission about the conduct of the election itself, the Afghan National Army, primarily of the Afghan National Security Forces was responsible for the security arrangements, for the planning and arrangements and effecting security on the day of the election.
We know the Taliban sought to disrupt and prevent the election from occurring but it was a very good sign that the security forces, led by the Afghan National Army, were in a position to both plan and effect that with the International Security Assistance Force, including Australia, in reserve.
That is a qualitative improvement. That shows good progress. I think the key thing here is that the transition of responsibility for security to the Afghan Government and security forces has to be real. That's why we say it has to be conditions based and objectively assessed.
STEPHEN SMITH: Okay. The former Australian Defence Force Chief General Peter Gration has described as "overblown" the Government's ongoing claims of direct links between the security of Afghanistan and terrorist threats to Australians. To quote him directly he said "To say that what we are doing in Afghanistan is defending Australians is drawing a very long bow." How do you respond?
STEPHEN SMITH: I don't agree with that part of General Gration's assessment overnight. He is held and I hold him in very high regard and a range of things he's had to say today I've said myself before and I agree with. But we are in Afghanistan because it is in our national interests to be there. Yes, we're there as a supporter of the United Nations under a UN mandate. Yes, we're there as an Alliance partner of the United States but we're there because Afghanistan was a breeding ground for international terrorists, a shelterer of al Qaeda...
KERRY O'BRIEN: But hasn't al Qaeda moved on? Hasn't al Qaeda moved on to other bases in other countries from which it can plan and launch its terrorist attacks?
STEPHEN SMITH: Regrettably al Qaeda does have other bases in other parts of the world. I have never asserted and don't deny that the threat of international terrorism is in one location. Yes, we have done substantial damage and inhibited al Qaeda in Afghanistan substantially, but they are still there.
They are not the only potential terrorist threats – the Haqqani group is another one. But the grave fear is if we leave too early we open up the potential and the prospect of what previously existed. That is why we have to stay the course but, most importantly, why our mission has to be to transfer responsibility to the Afghans themselves because we can't be there forever.
KERRY O'BRIEN: Okay. Stephen Smith, I am sorry but we're out of time. Thanks for talking with us.
STEPHEN SMITH: Thanks, Kerry. Thanks very much.
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