TRANSCRIPT: INTERVIEW WITH DAVID SPEERS, SKY NEWS
TRANSCRIPTION: PROOF COPY E & OE
DATE: 26 OCTOBER 2011
TOPICS: Release of the Inquiry Officers Report; Afghanistan; CHOGM.
DAVID SPEERS: Minister, thanks for your time this afternoon. Can I just start on this-
STEPHEN SMITH: Pleasure.
DAVID SPEERS: -inquiry into the death of Nathan Bewes. Are you satisfied with what's in this report, that all was done appropriately in relation to that patrol?
STEPHEN SMITH: Well, the Vice Chief of the Defence Force has released the report today. That's done with my authority. The report recommends that there's no need for a further commission of inquiry, and I agree with that recommendation and accept it.
There are a range of issues which the Inquiry Officer's report has methodically gone through, and those recommendations or observations have been accepted and taken up by Defence and by Army. None of the areas that have been drawn attention to in any way impacted upon the terrible death of Private Bewes which was as a result of a roadside bomb or an IED. And so whilst there are a number of recommendations which are adopted, none of them go to causal effect or go to the heart of his death. So those recommendations are accepted and adopted but they don't go to the heart of the matter.
It's of course a terrible day for his family, so our condolences again go to Private Bewes' family. It will also be a terrible reminder to other families who have lost loved ones in Afghanistan. The family have requested privacy and of course we want to respect that.
DAVID SPEERS: Are you able to explain to us, because a lot of this was kept confidential, I think, in the report why Australian soldiers patrol on their own without the Afghan National Army colleagues with them? They're supposed to be a mentoring taskforce. Why would they be doing a patrol without the Afghans?
STEPHEN SMITH: Well, that's the general approach. Indeed, we've moved from partnering to Afghan National Army now going on their own patrols, not just in Uruzgan but throughout Afghanistan.
This was special circumstances. There had been a particularly heavy engagement, a particularly robust response by the Taliban, and at Command level it was decided that a further patrol was required or necessary. There was some discussion on the ground as to whether it should be partnered with the Afghan National Army or an Australian-alone patrol. In the event, a decision was made on the ground that it be an Australia-alone patrol. And the Inquiry Officer's report-
DAVID SPEERS: Is that because the Afghans aren't considered to be up to it, up to the fight if it's particularly hostile?
STEPHEN SMITH: No, it was, if you like, the special circumstances of the day. There had been a patrol, there had been a particularly hostile push back or engagement. There was a decision made on the ground that a further patrol was required to essentially try and work out the cause of that. There was some suspicion or suggestion that there would be a particularly attractive Taliban target who was being protected by that patrol. And the judgement was made on the ground to put out a further patrol, to do that quickly.
But the Inquiry Officer's report comes to the conclusion that all of that was done in an appropriate Command way. There was clearly discussion on the ground as to whether the patrol should occur, whether it should be partnered. In the event, a Command decision was made and the Inquiry Officer indicates that that was an appropriate decision.
Importantly, it's also the case-
DAVID SPEERS: Okay, but you've said there that there was a concern-
STEPHEN SMITH: It's also the case, clearly, that Private- I was just going to say it's also importantly the case that Private Bewes clearly volunteered for and was enthusiastic about taking part in that patrol, which reflects his quality as an Australian soldier and also reflects the regard that he was held in by his mates.
DAVID SPEERS: Indeed. But, as you said there, there was a concern that the Afghan National Army patrol may have protected the Taliban target they were after. How worried should we be about that?
STEPHEN SMITH: No, no, I didn't say that and you can't take that from any of the information that has been made available.
The point I was making was that one of the suspicions, one of the beliefs for why there had been such a strong push back by a Taliban patrol is that maybe they were protecting a particularly high level Taliban target. And that was one of the factors which caused, at Command level, for a further patrol to be instituted and to be done at short notice, which was one of the reasons why it was an Australia-only patrol.
DAVID SPEERS: This issue about the quality of the Afghan National Army and the Afghan National Police is really central to the timetable for withdrawal. Now, post-2014 the Afghan Security Forces are supposed to be stepping up and taking security control.
We've had in Australia this week the former US Ambassador to Afghanistan, Karl Eikenberry here and he's raised a couple of the challenges that are going to be faced. One of them is a financial one. The cost of maintaining the Security Forces - the Afghan National Army, Afghan National Police - estimated at $7 billion to $8 billion; Afghanistan's national income only $2.5 billion dollars. Will Australia be prepared to contribute to the ongoing costs of funding these Security Forces?
STEPHEN SMITH: Well, Ambassador Eikenberry has put his finger on a number of the issues which NATO and ISAF Defence Ministers discussed in Brussels recently. I attended that meeting; in both from Brussels and when I returned to Australia I made some of the same points.
We're now starting to focus on what the post-2014, what the post-transition international contribution will look like, and all countries are now thinking very carefully about that, including Australia. And I have said in Australia's case that may well be ongoing training in the sense of niche or high level training officers or artillery. It may well include military or army advisers. It may well include Special Forces.
But in other issues seized by the Defence Ministers' Meeting was the ongoing resources by the international community to the Afghan National Army or the Afghan National Security Forces, including the Police. That's one of the issues that the international community is now working its way through.
In Australia's case, we are in the top three contributors to the Afghan National Trust, which makes a contribution to Afghan National Security Forces' ongoing and upkeep. And so one of the things we have to work our way through, together with our international community colleagues, is what post-2014 contribution the international community, including Australia, might make.
Ambassador Eikenberry also makes the point that the transition to Afghan-led responsibility for security can't be a time-based thing; it's got to be conditions-based. And we're confident that we're making good progress in Uruzgan to be able to hand over by 2014. And that's also the view shared by my Defence Ministerial colleagues that across Afghanistan, whilst the transition will occur in a staged way at different times in different provinces or districts, we are on track to meet the ambition of President Karzai and the Afghan Government which is transitioned to Afghan's security responsibility by 2014.
DAVID SPEERS: And, Minister, just finally can I ask you about CHOGM - the Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting - taking place in your city this week, of course.
The Prime Minister this afternoon will be meeting the Sri Lankan President. He is someone who has been accused of war crimes during Sri Lanka's civil war. He denies those accusations. But will the Prime Minister be delivering a message on human rights to the Sri Lankan President this afternoon?
STEPHEN SMITH: Well, a number of things: firstly, CHOGM already has been a tremendous and terrific success story, both generally and for Perth, and the CHOGM Business Forum has started off in very fine fashion. So it's a great thing for Perth, and one of the reasons I suggested Perth as an Indian Ocean capital for this year's CHOGM.
So far as Sri Lanka is concerned, we have of course seen the United Nations' report on human rights in the final or concluding stages of the civil war. We've also seen the publication by Sri Lanka of their own report, their so-called learning and reconciliation report.
Australia has made it clear, both publicly and privately, to Sri Lanka and to the United Nations and to the international community that there needs to be a frank and robust response by Sri Lanka to all of the issues raised by its own report and the United Nations' report.
The Prime Minister was asked about these issues earlier today when I was with her at a factory in my electorate. She made the obvious point that she's having a formal meeting, a formal bilateral, with President Rajapaksa later this afternoon, and it would inappropriate to indicate in advance the substance of that conversation.
So she'll have her conversation with him, as is appropriate. But, as a general proposition, Australia has made it clear in the past to Sri Lanka that it's very important that there is a robust response by Sri Lanka to the [indistinct] raised in the report in its so-called learning and reconciliation report which it commissioned in the aftermath of the civil war.
DAVID SPEERS: Alright, we'll see what comes from that. Defence Minister Stephen Smith, thank you for joining us this afternoon.
STEPHEN SMITH: Thank you.