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AUS Minister for Defence - Sky News Interview

Minister for Defence
Stephen Smith, MP
Transcript: Interview With David Speers, Sky News

17 November 2010

DAVID SPEERS: After /Question Time/ tomorrow, the Prime Minister will be heading off overseas again. She's making a 55 hour round trip to Portugal for an important NATO conference on Afghanistan. This Summit will consider what sort of timetable there should be for withdrawal.

Before the Prime Minister arrives there though, the Defence Minister, Stephen Smith will be on the ground. He's leaving Canberra later tonight. But before he does, he joins us in the studio.

Minister, thanks for your time.

STEPHEN SMITH: Pleasure David.

DAVID SPEERS: What exactly is Australia seeking in terms of a timetable for transition from Coalition security control, to Afghan security control?

STEPHEN SMITH
: Well the Kabul Conference on Afghanistan, which was held in our election period, in July/August, set 2014 as the objective for transition to Afghan-led responsibility for security. That's President Karzai and his administration's ambition. It's also the international community's ambition.

So the NATO/ISAF summit, so the International Security Assistance Force Summit, in Lisbon on Saturday, wants to map out the detail of transition to Afghan-led responsibility.

In our own case, the international community timetable matches our own assessment which is a transition in Uruzgan Province over the next two to four years, to Afghan-led security responsibility both in terms of the Afghan national army and the Afghan police.

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DAVID SPEERS: But you want to get particular conditions before that happens don't you? And the Prime Minister's been talking about this. What sort of conditions?

STEPHEN SMITH: Well firstly there's a lot of work being done internationally to seek to get some objective measures - what is called in formal terms, the metrics, because we, of course, don't want to have an illusionary transition. But, at the same time, in addition to those formal metrics, which require a lot of work across 47 different military organisations and countries, it will also be a qualitative judgement.

So one very good sign of progress, in our view, was that in the most recent Parliamentary elections the Afghan National Army and the Security Forces were able to take lead responsibility for the security arrangements for the election. Yes, the International Security Assistance Forces, including Australia, were held in reserve but they weren't called upon.

So it's to get some objective measures. We know...

DAVID SPEERS: And are they going to expand it to the point where the Afghan Security Forces can take that lead role in security more generally...

STEPHEN SMITH: That's right.

DAVID SPEERS: ...patrolling villages, searching for Taliban strongholds...

STEPHEN SMITH: Well, taking lead responsibility for what we currently do in partnership with them.

I think, you know, we're about to see the conclusion of the parliamentary debate. The Prime Minister will wrap that up effectively tomorrow.

But I think one of the good things about that debate has been a greater appreciation that what we're doing is a mentoring and training role, so we're now in partnership with the Afghan National Army in Uruzgan. We want to move from partnership to where they take the lead responsibility. We also know...

DAVID SPEERS: How do you know when they can do that?

STEPHEN SMITH: Well that's why...

DAVID SPEERS: That's the key...

STEPHEN SMITH: That's why we say Lisbon will be very important in terms of trying to build some objective measures. But also it will be a qualitative thing, where people on the ground will say they're ready, they can do this. But you have to...

DAVID SPEERS: Do the Afghans say that, the...

STEPHEN SMITH: No, where the International Security Assistance Force...

DAVID SPEERS: Right, so...

STEPHEN SMITH: We're...

DAVID SPEERS: So Australian military commanders would be part of that, saying...

STEPHEN SMITH: Yes.

DAVID SPEERS: We think they're ready now.

STEPHEN SMITH: Yes. But that won't - there won't be a transition day. That won't occur on 1 January, or the last day in December in 2014. It will occur at a different time district by district, province by province, so it will occur across the country in different phases.

DAVID SPEERS: This gets to the point though whether dates should be set or not. Now Barack Obama did talk about July next year being a time for withdrawals to start. It seems very clear now that the US Generals are backing away from that; focusing, as you say, on the 2014 end date.

STEPHEN SMITH: We've never seen an international community's objective of transition by the end of 2014 as being necessarily inconsistent with starting a draw drawn from 2011. Indeed, Bob Gates made the point, the Secretary of Defence made the point when he was here for AUSMIN that one of the good things about President Obama saying from July of 2011 we will start to look at a draw down, does shift the onus, does shift the weight, does shift the responsibility - it sends a message to the Afghan people that we're not going to be there forever. We're...

DAVID SPEERS: And the Karzai Government.

STEPHEN SMITH: Exactly. We can't and we don't want to be there forever. We can't be there forever. And so that's been a very good feature.

DAVID SPEERS: Do you think though, because the emphasis has clearly shifted from that July 2011 date, to 2014 now…

STEPHEN SMITH: I've never seen the two as inconsistent, because underneath all of this has been the phrase that's been used consistently by President Obama, by the Prime Minister, by the Foreign Minister, by me, by the international community, this has to be so-called conditions-based. We're not setting a withdrawal date. We are saying we have to transition. We can't leave Afghanistan tomorrow, but we can't be there forever.

So how do we make sure that we're not there forever? We shift in a sensible, methodical way the responsibility and the capability to the Afghan Government and people themselves, through their Security Forces to manage these matters themselves. If they can manage the security arrangements, then that eliminates, or reduces, or minimises the risk of Afghanistan again becoming a hotbed for international terrorism.

DAVID SPEERS: Barack Obama is expected at this Lisbon conference to call on allies to do more, particularly on training. When you were there recently, last month, you did announce more artillery trainers.

STEPHEN SMITH: Yes.

DAVID SPEERS: But they're being drawn from within our existing presence there, and you were going to consider sending more police trainers. Has a decision been taken on that?

STEPHEN SMITH: No, we're still having a very careful look at that. But within our complement of 1550, on average, from time to time we do get...

DAVID SPEERS: So it won't be additional?

STEPHEN SMITH: No. From time to time - well the police may be additional. We're looking at the possibility of a further police contribution, but we're still working our way through that.

DAVID SPEERS: Will there be an announcment in Lisbon?

STEPHEN SMITH: Unlikely. Just as we're in the top 10 military contributors overall, we're also comfortably in the top 20 trainers. So from time to time we get a request either from General Petraeus, International Security Assistance Force Commander, or from NATO itself, to think about areas where we can make an additional contribution. And with the artillery trainers we were able to make adjustments within the 1550 group that we have there.

DAVID SPEERS: Minister, I want to ask you about Hamid Karzai's recent comments, where he's been calling on Coalition troops to be “less intrusive in the lives of Afghans”. He's particularly concerned about the special operations night raids. But these have been successful haven't they?

STEPHEN SMITH: Well they have been - they've been very successful. I think it's important to put President Karzai's reported remarks - because we haven't seen the original commentary, it was a print interview - but his presidential spokesman made it very clear the following day that these were comments he made within the context of everyone's desire to transition to Afghan-led responsibility. It has been the case and we've been very conscious of this ourselves.

President Karzai, for a long time, has been very strong on the need to absolutely reduce the chance of civilian casualties and we are very, very strong on this as well. So very many of his remarks about operations go to the need to take the greatest care we can for the civilian population.

DAVID SPEERS: You don't detect a growing unease on the part of Karzai and the Karzai Government about what Coalition forces are doing there and the impact that it is having on the local community?

STEPHEN SMITH: No, because on any any measure, it's quite clear that we are starting to see some positive results as a result of the surge, the additional numbers; also getting the strategy right. I've made the point in the Parliament, and to you before, when we look back on this period historically, we'll see that it took us a very long time. We weren't helped by the Iraq distraction. But it took the international community a very long time to get the strategy right - a mix of a military and political strategy. We now know that the so-called night raids, the use of the Special Forces - not just Australia's but generally - is being very effective in reducing the capacity of the Taliban to do the job that they want to do.

DAVID SPEERS: Will that role - I mean the Government talks about our mentoring and training role lasting two to four years is the estimate - will the special operations role, given the success that it's achieving, will that last longer?

STEPHEN SMITH: Well, again, I think one of the very good things about the Parliamentary debate was the Prime Minister being very upfront about the fact that when our training role finishes, people should not expect that we walk away the next day. Just as was the case in Iraq, there is the potential for use of Special Forces, or in an over watch capacity. There will certainly be a role, I think, for longer term civilian capacity building and development assistance.

DAVID SPEERS: And Special Forces?

STEPHEN SMITH: Special forces is a possibility. We discussed this with Secretary Clinton and Gates in general terms in AUSMIN. But I've made the point, again in the Parliament, we are too far away from that point.

As we get closer to effecting the transition, because of the job we're doing in training, we can then make a judgement about what we might be able to do.

It will also, I think, include the potential for an ongoing training role, particularly what's described as national training, where we are essentially in the training schools themselves, as we are currently in the artillery training school, which was the expressed request that General Petraeus made of me when I was last in Kabul itself.

DAVID SPEERS: All right. Defence Minister Stephen Smith, good luck in Lisbon. Thanks for joining us.

STEPHEN SMITH: Thank you. Thanks very much.

ENDS

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