STEPHEN SMITH: My visit to Afghanistan is in a sense in three parts, firstly my meetings today with Afghan Ministers, my briefings this evening, in particular tonight, dinner with General Patraeus on ISAF matters and then thirdly tomorrow, a visit to Tarin Kowt and Uruzgan Province to see on the ground what we’re actually doing.
Firstly, I’ve had today two meetings with Afghan ministerial counterparts, Interior Minister Mohammadi and Defence Minister Wardak. A number of points, firstly both Ministers underlined very much the great gratitude of the Afghan Government and Afghan people for the contribution that Australia is making to security in Afghanistan and they particularly make the point of acknowledging the sacrifice and the pain that Australian soldiers, Australian families, and Australia has suffered in recent times with 10 deaths in a few short months. Secondly, the contribution that Australia makes is very much appreciated; not just the quality of the work but the manner in which Australian soldiers go about it.
I think it’s true to say that in the meetings I had with the two Ministers, there is a very strong commitment, a very strong resolve, to the program of transition, of transitioning security arrangements from the International Security Assistance Force to the Afghan National Army and the Afghan Police Force. A very strong commitment and resolve to see that training effected. That of course is in Uruzgan Province, Australia’s mission to train Kandaks to enable the Afghan security services to be in a position to take care of security matters themselves.
I of course arrive in the aftermath of the Afghan parliamentary elections, and whilst there will be a range of issues that the Afghan Election Commission and Complaints Commission need to deal with, my analysis from afar has been reinforced by the analysis of the Afghan Ministers which is very pleased that for the first occasion that we see security for the Afghan election planned and implemented by Afghan security services, in particular the Afghan National Army and police.
So I am, of course, very grateful for the message of solidarity and condolences that I received from the two Ministers. They are also very pleased to hear that strong commitment and resolve to the transition. The meeting, the so-called Kabul Conference, was held here a couple of months ago where the international community resolved to effect that transition by 2014. My judgment after the briefings I have received and meetings I have held to date is that slow progress is being made. No-one is overstating the difficulty of the task, but I think it is the case on the training front and the security front, particularly in Kabul itself, progress is being made.
QUESTION: Given the focus is so squarely now focused on the transition and on the training front in particular, have you received any requests during your talks so far today for Australia to do more?
STEPHEN SMITH: Well other than on the question of training of police, whether it is possible for us to add to the contribution we are making on the police front, no. Of course our increase in contribution has come in two ways. Firstly, the [inaudible] surge where we have seen a significant increase in United States and NATO forces, we increased our contribution from 1100 to 1550 some 18 months ago. That’s effectively as 40 per cent increase. More recently we have, of course, substantially increased our civilian contribution, development assistance and also police training so, for example, the number of Australian Federal Police officers engaged in training has been increased in recent times from 20 to about 28. Now I have been asked to look at if there is more we can do on that front. Obviously that is a conversation that I need to have with the Foreign Minister, Mr Rudd, and also the Government in general, but from my own point of view, given we need to ensure training not just of the Afghan National Army but also the police that is something that I am very happy to take back to the Government to see if there is more we can do on that front.
QUESTION: So you have not had a request for additional military personnel, artillery, engineers?
STEPHEN SMITH: No and I wouldn’t expect that. As I say, I’ve had some briefings today with Australian officials including those involved with the International Security Assistance Force. I’m about to go and have a meeting and dinner now with General Petraeus but given we made that substantial increase in our contribution some time ago to 1550, we have neither been expecting nor received any request for an increase to the 1550 and the point that I’ve made and my predecessors have made is that our contribution is about right. We are the largest non-NATO contributor and come in the top dozen contributors and we are making a substantial contribution to the training of Afghan security services in Uruzgan Province.
QUESTION: Mr Smith, in discussions we have had here in the background, we’ve been told it is likely that you will get a request specifically for artillery instructors for the Afghan Army, and a total number of around 30 police and army personnel may be sought.
STEPHEN SMITH: Well in these matters I don’t deal in hypotheticals as I say, the only conversation I have had today which goes to those matters, to further assistance in the police training area. If I do receive a request from the Afghan authorities, then obviously I will consider that and carry it back. I take these things very much step by step, stage by stage. For some time now as a general proposition the Australian view is that we are making a significant contribution and that that contribution is about right.
QUESTION: Has it been put to you, or is it your view that without extra training support, things could be on a knife edge here in terms of the progress continuing or stalling or going backwards?
STEPHEN SMITH: Well I’m very much looking forward to my conversation with General Petraeus, but as I say, the basis of conversations I’ve had, there is a view that slow but steady progress is being made. We have seen, for example over the last 12 months or so, a substantial increase in the number of United States forces on the ground and NATO forces, but the one thing that has if you like impressed me in conversations with Afghan Ministers has been a steely resolve to effect the transition of security responsibility and a very clear understanding that training is the key.
Just going back to the question of providing additional contributions. Within our 1550 cap of course on a regular basis we review what those forces are doing, so it is possible, for example, from time to time to swap the function or swap the role. If, for example, if I receive a request on the artillery front, that is something that could be in that context, but in saying that I have not received such a request yet.
QUESTION: Does it surprise you that clearly NATO officials are pushing for more trainers from a whole bunch of countries to support the effort, but at the same time Barack Obama’s strategy is to start withdrawing mid next year?
STEPHEN SMITH: There are two points to make here. Firstly we know that President Obama has asked General Petraeus to effect a review by December this year to see how the surge is going, how the effects of the security transition are going. I have always tried to advise people to be wary of confusing a drawdown with a withdrawal and the President, General Petraeus, and his predecessor always made it clear that any such draw down has to be conditions based, so again my approach is, let’s await the outcome of the review that General Petraeus will effect on the President’s behalf by December this year and then see, what if any, drawdown occurs in July of next year. President Obama himself has made that point that these matters do need to be conditions based, and certainly General Petraeus has made that point as well.
QUESTION: Having now been here and had some briefings, are you still comfortable with the timeframe of two to four years whereby Australia can start winding back?
STEPHEN SMITH: That continues to be the advice from the Chief of the Defence Force and I have to say that in the course of my discussions today and I don’t overstate, I have had suggestions from Afghan officials that possibly the training could be done more quickly. Now I don’t overstate that, I think the advice we have received from the Chief of the Defence Force, which has been consistent advice now for a period of time, is that we believe on the basis of that advice that our training job can be done in two to four years.
QUESTION: Are the Afghan officials and Afghan Defence Minister suggesting that in Uruzgan those troops might be ready, or nearly ready to take control?
STEPHEN SMITH: Once again, I don’t want to overstate that. There was a bit of optimism expressed that it could be done in a shorter period of time but still within the two to four year period.
QUESTION: So closer to two years than four?
STEPHEN SMITH: You might want to split the difference.
QUESTION: Were any other concerns raised by the Afghan Interior Minister or Defence Minister about the way Australian soldiers are performing; about civilian casualties?
STEPHEN SMITH: On the contrary, both Ministers have made the point that they highly value the way in which Australian troops conduct themselves and they believe the Australian people mixed well with the Afghan community; go out of their way to ensure good relations there. We know that from time to time, sometimes regrettable and terrible incidents occur which involve civilians, but the Army, the Chief of Defence Force and the Government have always been strongly of the view that when these incidents occur they are rigorously and extensively and exhaustively examined, and if mistakes have been made then we are upfront, open and transparent about it.
On the contrary, the regard with which our forces are held is not just one of expertise and quality, but of the way they carry themselves, the way they conduct themselves, and go out of their way to ensure they get on with the local people and that is consistent with the general approach. This is not a conflict which can be one by military force alone and that is why in addition to a military and security effort there also has to be a political and civilian and a development assistance contribution, and in the course of my discussions with the two Afghan Ministers and more generally we have also discussed the peace and reconciliation plan and the need for reconciliation, the need for reintegration but ultimately for a political solution that is respected not just in Afghanistan but in the region.
QUESTION: While you have been here, have you had any briefing on that battle in Deh Rawood, the email?
STEPHEN SMITH: No, but I am expecting that tomorrow when I am in Tarin Kowt and Uruzgan Province and I will have the opportunity to speak to some of the Commandos involved. I certainly won’t walk away if that occurs, but I make this very important point, irrespective of what I hear tomorrow, I will wait patiently for the outcomes of the exhaustive and complete investigation by the Australian Defence Force into that incident and that death. I don’t think it is appropriate for me to be second guessing or making a judgment in advance. I think everyone should wait for that exhaustive report that takes place in the course of normal events. I have made clear and General Evans has made clear and CDF has made clear to me that all the assertions out there in the public arena will be taken into account during the course of the investigation including the views of the email.
QUESTION: So if that investigation found that Australians do need more fire support in Uruzgan would that be something that you would consider?
STEPHEN SMITH: As I don’t second guess in advance let’s await the investigation and the report.
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