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Minister for Defence Stephen Smith, MP

Minister for Defence Stephen Smith, MP




ANNE BARKER: Stephen Smith, will Australia be committing more troops to Afghanistan if NATO or the US asks it to?

STEPHEN SMITH: Well, we’re not expecting to receive such a request either from NATO, from ISAF or from the United States. We are the tenth largest contributor in military terms. We’re the largest non-NATO contributor.

In April 2009 we increased our contribution from 1,100 to 1,550 on average. That was a 40 to 50 per cent increase and that, six months in advance, matched the subsequent surge that we saw from the United States and other NATO countries.

ANNE BARKER: Is it true the US has repeatedly asked Australia for more troops but Australia keeps saying no?

STEPHEN SMITH: No, there’s no basis whatsoever for that assertion. I’ve seen those reports. They are baseless and without foundation.

ANNE BARKER: Where have they come from then?

STEPHEN SMITH: Well, you’d need to ask the journalist who relied on three unnamed sources. I prefer to rely upon the fact and the reality.

Whenever I meet with my American counterparts, they warmly compliment Australia for its contribution – its military contribution, its training contribution.

The truth is the United States very much appreciates what we do.

ANNE BARKER: How realistic is the 2014 handover date when you consider the war is still escalating, the Taliban still does have the upper hand?

STEPHEN SMITH: I’m not sure that characterisation is right. We’ve been very pleased with the progress we’ve made in the last six months or so.

We are quietly, cautiously optimistic that we have been making ground, that the Taliban are not as well placed now as they were six months ago. The test of that will be I expect in the new year when the winter goes and the new fighting season starts in the course of the first half of next year.

But we believe we’ve made progress on the security front, denying as our military advisers say, denying ground and space to the Taliban.

It’s also the case that the so called night raids or the special operations, which is not just Australians, but other countries as well – the United States, United Kingdom – are being very effective.

ANNE BARKER: Any exit strategy, of course, would require the Afghan forces themselves to be up to scratch, but how would you rate their own forces now, or their capability milestones, as they’ve been called, in terms of their skills and their readiness to take over the job?

STEPHEN SMITH: One of the good things about this Summit will be an agreement between NATO, and ISAF and the Afghanistan Government that we have a joint NATO, ISAF, Afghan group to go through the transition process to essentially assess on a province by province, district by district basis where we are ready to make the transition.

There’ll be an assessment on the ground as to whether they’re ready or not, but I did see the fact that the Afghan forces could take responsibility for the planning and the delivery of security on the day of the Parliamentary elections as being a very good sign.

But we know we need more time in Uruzgan Province. Our military advisers continue to say that a two to four year period will see the job done in Uruzgan.


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