TRANSCRIPTION: PROOF COPY AND E & OE
DATE: 5 MARCH 2013
TOPICS: Defense Secretary Hagel; Afghanistan; WA State election.
STEPHEN SMITH: Thanks very much for turning up, sorry I'm a bit late.
This morning I spoke to United States Secretary of Defense Hagel. This was the first conversation that we've had since his nomination and appointment to the position of Secretary of Defense. Secretary of Defense Hagel has previously visited Australia, he is of course a Vietnam veteran, and he fondly remembered his time in Sydney. He also drew to attention that his father was a World War II veteran who had spent time both in the Pacific, but also in Australia. So the new Secretary of Defense for the United States has a very clear appreciation of the long-standing importance of the relationship between Australia and the United States, and the long-standing importance of our Alliance.
We spoke about the importance our Alliance, and the enhanced practical cooperation that we have seen in recent years. This includes the rotation of Marines through Darwin, and proposals down the track for enhanced aerial access to United States air fleet through the Northern Territory, and also as I've previously described it, last cab off the rank, the prospect of greater naval access to our Indian Ocean port, HMAS Stirling in Western Australia.
We also spoke about transition in Afghanistan. Secretary Hagel made the point that he, like his predecessors, Secretary Panetta, and Secretary Gates, has been most impressed with the way in which Australia has stood shoulder to shoulder with the United States throughout our mission in Afghanistan. I briefed the Secretary on progress so far as transition is concerned in Uruzgan province. We also spoke about the importance of the United States rebalance. And I made the point to Secretary Hagel how, in Australia's eyes, for the last half dozen years, we've been arguing that the world is moving in our direction, moving in the direction of the Asia-Pacific, moving in the direction of the Indian Ocean. The rise of China, the rise of India, the ongoing expansion of the ASEAN economies, the emergence of Indonesia as a global influence, not just a regional influence, and the ongoing economic and strategic importance of Japan and South Korea.
We spoke about the importance for Defence Ministers, and Defence Secretaries of the Shangri-La Dialogue, which is held in Singapore every year, and Secretary Hagel reminded me of his involvement in the early Shrangri-La Dialogues. He invited me to visit Washington, and we've agreed that to pursue the consolidation of our ongoing practical cooperation, that I should visit Washington in the next couple of months. So I look forward to meeting Secretary Hagel in Washington in the course of the next couple of months.
We also spoke of the importance of AUSMIN, you'll recall that in the last three years we've had AUSMIN in Perth in 2012, in San Francisco in 2011, and in Melbourne in 2010. So in the course of my visit to Washington to meet formally with Secretary Hagel, we'll discuss the timing and the location for this year's AUSMIN. It's of course the United States’ turn, so AUSMIN this year will be held in the United States.
Before responding to your questions, can I just make some remarks about the tragic civilian casualty incident that we've seen in Afghanistan over the last few days. This is the first opportunity I've had to make public remarks. Firstly, you'll be aware that COMISAF, General Dunford, and General Hurley, the Chief of the Defence Force, have both issued public apologies for this terrible and tragic incident. ISAF and the Australian Defence Force, ISAF and the ADF, have accepted responsibility for this incident, and it's a tragedy for the families concerned, and both ISAF and the ADF have apologised to the families. An ADF investigation is underway, as is an ISAF investigation, and until these investigations are complete, I'm not proposing to be drawn on the details of the incident. What we do know is that a terrible tragedy has occurred, the ADF and ISAF have accepted responsibility, and make that point to Afghan authorities and to the families concerned.
The Australian Defence Force has a long and proud history of doing everything it can to avoid civilian casualties or civilian involvement in the course of military operations, or in warlike operations. We have very strict rules of engagement, and the reputation of the Australian Defence Force is first class in the manner in which it seeks to avoid the involvement of civilians in combat operations. This incident involved our Special Operations Task Group, but as I've said earlier, and as General Hurley has said over the last couple of days, we're not proposing to comment on speculation or be drawn on details of the incident until those two reviews that I've referred to, the ADF review and the ISAF review, have been concluded.
I'm happy to respond to your questions on those or other matters.
JOURNALIST: In regards to the WA election, what hope does Mark McGowan have for actually winning the election?
STEPHEN SMITH: Well I said before the campaign began that Colin Barnett started favourite, and I don't think it would surprise anyone if I said, as the last week of the campaign commences he's still the favourite. Having said that, I think Mark McGowan has done a very good job. He's done a very good job of seizing the initiative in the campaign. I think he's had a better campaign than Colin Barnett. He's got up public transport and Metronet, as one of the absolutely essential reforms required to take Perth and Western Australia's transport arrangements into the second half of this century. So if you want to use some racing parlance, Mark's rounded into the straight for the last stretch of the campaign, he's performed very well, and I think he will finish very strongly. Unlike others, I don't believe that the election result is pre-ordained, or pre-determined. I think it's going to be a competition, and I think Mark McGowan, to his great credit, has made it a competition.
JOURNALIST: We're seeing lavish attention on Western Sydney, can Western Australia expect the same treatment?
STEPHEN SMITH: Well as you might expect, I've got a weakness, a fondness, and a love of all matters west, whether it's the western side of a country or a continent, or the western part of a city. And you would have seen yesterday the announcements that the Prime Minister and the Minister for Transport and Infrastructure made deeply significant, for transport and infrastructure so far as the people of Western Sydney are concerned. In the course of the time between now and 14 September, I'm sure in Western Australia and in Perth, you will see a focus on the great things which the Government has done in Western Australia.
And in the course of the last couple of weeks, Anthony Albanese and I have been in Perth, making the point that the largest single infrastructure, or roads-infrastructure project that we've seen in Western Australia, the so-called Gateway project, fixing the roads up around the airport, a billion dollar project, where the Commonwealth is paying two thirds over $660 million. A deeply significant infrastructure project for Perth and Western Australia, both for our economy and socially. The opening of the second terminal, T2 at Perth Airport.
So there's a considerable amount of infrastructure work that's been done by the Government for the west, and you'll see a focus in Western Australia of these achievements and promises for the future, just as you see them in Western Sydney, and elsewhere in the country.
JOURNALIST: Just back to the death of the two boys in Afghanistan. Do you think that this put further strain on the relationship with the Afghan President?
STEPHEN SMITH: President Karzai has obviously expressed his disappointment in very strong terms, and we understand that. The last thing we want to see, and the last thing President Karzai wanted to see is civilian involvement and civilian casualties. It is a regrettable fact of war that from time to time these terrible things occur. The Governor of Uruzgan Province, Governor Akhundzada, has made the point publicly on a number of occasions, and it's to his credit that he's done so, that he very much regards this as an inadvertent event, an accident, he understands that it was unintentional. And his comments have been appreciated, not just by me, but by the ADF and Australian personnel in Uruzgan generally.
So it's a terrible tragedy, it's a terrible accident, but we want to make sure we have a very complete understanding of the facts, other than that, I don't think it will get in the way of what has been a very good relationship between Afghanistan authorities, whether it's at the central or [indistinct] level, or Afghan authorities at the provincial or Uruzgan level. That continues to be a very good working relationship between Australia and the Afghan authorities.
JOURNALIST: President Karzai did say, though, that this attack is further proof that the battle against the Taliban shouldn't be fought in Afghan villages, what's your response to that?
STEPHEN SMITH: Well, he's made that point before, and you would've seen in recent times agreement between President Karzai and the new commander of ISAF, General Dunford, about the calling in by Afghan authorities or the Afghan National Security Forces of ISAF or United States air support. So that has been worked through between President Karzai and his officials and General Dunford.
I entirely understand President Karzai making these points in the strongest possible terms. It's in the fact of terrible civilian tragedies, and we feel for the Afghan people and the families concerned. That's why we take these matters very seriously, that's why we're not drawn in advance of having a complete understanding of the facts of individual circumstances.
So we understand the firmness and the passion of President Karzai's views. He's made his point about this particular terrible incident very strongly, he's made his point well-known in the past, but we continue to see a productive working relationship between General Dunford and President Karzai and his officials, just as we see a productive relationship between Afghan officials, both at Uruzgan level and at Kabul level, with Australian Defence Force personnel.
JOURNALIST: Is the Australian Government extending any help to the families of these two boys which were killed in Uruzgan Province?
STEPHEN SMITH: Well, it has become very much the practice, either for ISAF or for an individual defence force, once an apology has been made to look to a payment to the family concerned, that's also part of Afghan culture. So without going into any of those details at this point in time, one should expect that in the normal course of events, at some stage some form of payment, some form of compensation payment, will be made to the families concerned. That's occurred in the past, and it will no doubt occur in these circumstances as well. That reflects the acceptance of responsibility and reflects the seriousness with which both ISAF and Australia take these matters.
JOURNALIST: Do they have any idea who is directly responsible for the two deaths of these civilians?
STEPHEN SMITH: I'm not going to comment on the speculation, and I've seen different speculation in print as to who was responsible. I simply make this point - so far as Australia is concerned, this was an operation, this was an International Security Assistance Force operation in Uruzgan Province. We have the lead responsibility in Uruzgan Province, so we have lead responsibility for ISAF operations. So Australia, through the Australian Defence Force and ISAF through General Dunford have made it clear that we accept responsibility. We accept responsibility for what has occurred. We've seen the terrible and tragic death of two young boys. The precise detailing of the operation and the precise circumstances needs to await both Australian Defence Force investigation and the ISAF investigation.
JOURNALIST: Can you reveal anything else about the two boys who were killed? Do we know any other details about them?
STEPHEN SMITH: Other than those which are already on the public record, no.
JOURNALIST: With the appointment of the US Defense Secretary, what implications does this have for Australia overall?
STEPHEN SMITH: We have an Alliance with the United States which has been, in practical terms, operating since the end of World War II or the course of World War II, in formal terms for over 60 years, and as Defence Minister for Australia I've worked closely with two of Secretary Hagel's predecessors, Secretary Panetta and Secretary Gates, and whenever there is a change of personality, whether it's an Australian Minister or Ministers or United States Secretaries, whether Secretary of State, in this case Secretary Kerry, or Secretary of Defense, then individual Ministers concerned make their personal contact.
So Secretary Hagel and I have made that personal contact today, a matter of days after he assumed his responsibilities. We had a good conversation, we spoke about the importance of the Alliance, the importance of our ongoing practical cooperation, and we've agreed, because we haven't met previously, that I should visit Washington to establish a good personal relationship, and I look forward very much to that. I work closely with Secretaries Gates and Panetta, and I look forward to doing likewise with Secretary Hagel.
JOURNALIST: Has anything been altered in Australia's operations in Afghanistan as a result of this incident in Uruzgan Province?
STEPHEN SMITH: No, no. Alright-
JOURNALIST: And - sorry, one final question, Mr Smith. When you were in Brussels the document that you signed with the other officials hinted at Australia having an ongoing presence in Afghanistan after 2014. Are there any other further details as to how many people - if we'll be keeping people behind, how many people we'll be keeping behind?
STEPHEN SMITH: Sure. Two separate points. I think you might be referring to the agreement that I signed with NATO Secretary General Rasmussen. This was essentially the individual practical cooperation agreement between Australia and NATO. That of itself doesn't relate to Afghanistan.
When the Prime Minister went to the Chicago Summit back in 2012, she agreed with the NATO Secretary General that we would sign a joint political declaration, to use NATO's terms, or a strategic partnership, to use Australian terms. What we found in our relationship with NATO is, in addition to inter-operability so far as operational matters are concerned, arising out of Afghanistan, we also share a range of similar strategic views with NATO. So we see some long-term benefit in continuing to have a relationship with NATO post-Afghanistan's operations, and what I signed with Secretary General Rasmussen was the individual cooperation agreement between - for practical measures, between NATO and Australia.
What NATO and ISAF Defence Ministers discussed in the Defence Ministers' meeting in Brussels was, of course, transition in Afghanistan, but we focused on the need now to look to not just transition but to the post-2014 transition presence by the international community in Afghanistan. Australia has made it clear that we believe the international community, whilst it will be under a different mission and a different mandate, and would be restricted essentially to advice and training, but there continues to be a need for ongoing assistance.
So, Australia's made clear we will continue to support the Afghan National Security Forces, we've made it clear in our commitment at Chicago that we would provide $100 million per year from 2015 for the Afghan National Security Forces, for three years. We've also made it clear we will provide a training component, made it clear that that would include officer training. We're also looking at other training possibilities, and in addition to that we've also made it clear that if there's an appropriate mandate then we would provide a Special Forces contribution. That might be for training purposes, for training the Afghan Special Forces, but it might also be for counter-terrorism operations if that was appropriate and under an appropriate mandate.
That discussion is now bound to commence in earnest, and one of the things that I spoke to Secretary Hagel about was transition in Uruzgan, and in general terms we also spoke about the need for a post-2014 contribution. The details of Australia's contribution and international community's contribution will become clearer by, I suspect, the middle of this year. Indeed, Secretary General Rasmussen has recently, in the last couple of days, had a visit to Afghanistan and he's made the same point, that he expects precise detail of those arrangements to be clearer by the middle of this year.
JOURNALIST: So there will be trips on the ground post-2014?
STEPHEN SMITH: Well, we've always made it clear that, as we draw down from our current mission in Afghanistan and we change from a mentoring role, which concluded effectively at the end of last year, to a trained support and assisting role. Our personnel in Afghanistan are now back at our major base, our multi-national base in Tarin Kot. The Afghan Kandaks or infantry battalions are doing patrols, doing the work in the forward-operating bases and patrol bases, so we are back of house doing back of house training and advice work.
As that occurs, which is the object of transition itself, to transfer responsibility on the ground to Afghan forces, but our role could change. That would also see a reduction in the number of personnel we have in Afghanistan. Again, the precise draw-down will become clearer by the second half of this year, but we've always made clear that we do see Australia playing a role in the post-2014 Afghanistan.
JOURNALIST: So you don't have a rough figure of how many Australian troops will-
STEPHEN SMITH: No, it'll be a much smaller number than the current 1550, much smaller than that. But, again, as I said earlier, we expect the precise details of that to be known by the middle of this year, but we're talking here of a much smaller mission, different mission, a training and advice mission, officer training, back of house training, high level training, and also the potential for a Special Forces contribution. The precise detail will be clearer in the middle of the year, once we've had the conversations with our international partners, but as we've always done on these things, when we know with precision what our proposed contribution will be, we will obviously make that public and transparent.
Okay, thanks very much. Thank you.