Australia — Minister for Defence on Afghanistan, Collins Class Submarines, Newspoll

Stephen Smith — Inter­view with Philip Clark, Radio Nation­al Break­fast
PHILIP CLARK: Well, the sit­u­a­tion in Afghanistan will be the top pri­or­i­ty when Defence Min­is­ter Stephen Smith meets his US coun­ter­part lat­er this week and the Defence Min­is­ter has just arrived in the Unit­ed States from where he joins us now.

Min­is­ter, good morning.

STEPHEN SMITH: Good morn­ing, Philip.

PHILIP CLARK: What’s on the agen­da in Washington?

STEPHEN SMITH: Well, I’ve just arrived in New York. It’s Sun­day evening here so tomor­row morn­ing, Mon­day, I’ll have a series of calls at the Unit­ed Nations, meet­ing in par­tic­u­lar with UN Sec­re­tary-Gen­er­al Ban Ki-moon where we’ll dis­cuss the role that Aus­tralia plays in peace-keep­ing and peace-building.

East Tim­or will be an area of obvi­ous inter­est but you’ve just spo­ken about Afghanistan. There’s been a Unit­ed Nations man­date for Afghanistan for near­ly a decade and it was recent­ly renewed by the Secu­ri­ty Coun­cil so obvi­ous­ly we’ll have a con­ver­sa­tion about Afghanistan as well and then Tues­day and Wednes­day I’ll be in Wash­ing­ton and there the lead meet­ing will be with my US defence coun­ter­part, Leon Panet­ta, who’s recent­ly start­ed his job.

PHILIP CLARK: Yes, he is. He is new in the job. What are you satis- [indis­tinct] or what’s your sat­is­fac­tion lev­el with — in rela­tion to the tran­si­tion to Afghan secu­ri­ty con­trol over the last week?

STEPHEN SMITH: Well, we are strong­ly com­mit­ted to the tran­si­tion which has been agreed by the inter­na­tion­al com­mu­ni­ty at the Lis­bon sum­mit late last year, which the Prime Min­is­ter and I attend­ed. We saw the first round of dis­tricts and provinces in the last week or so, includ­ing Bamiyan where our New Zealand col­leagues are.

We believe in Uruz­gan, where we are, that we’re on track for tran­si­tion by the end of 2014. We have nev­er expect­ed to be in the ear­ly tranch­es.
We’re also sat­is­fied and con­fi­dent that the whole of the coun­try is on track for tran­si­tion and that’s the inter­na­tion­al community’s aspi­ra­tion and com­mit­ment. We can’t be there for­ev­er. We do need to make a tran­si­tion to Afghan-led secu­ri­ty respon­si­bil­i­ty and that’s the very strong com­mit­ment of the Inter­na­tion­al Secu­ri­ty Assis­tance Force which, as I say, is there under a Unit­ed Nations man­date through the Secu­ri­ty Council.

PHILIP CLARK: But despite assur­ances that things are pro­ceed­ing in an order­ly fash­ion, that the situation’s improv­ing, our Tarin Kot base came under Tal­iban rock­et fire just last Fri­day — no one injured.

STEPHEN SMITH: Well, we’ve always known, and I’ve made this point con­sis­tent­ly in the course of this year, that in the last 18 months we have made up ground. We now have in place a polit­i­cal and a mil­i­tary strat­e­gy which — which we think is work­ing, with the appro­pri­ate per­son­nel and resources on the ground.

But we’ve always known that in the course of this so-called north­ern fight­ing sea­son that the Tal­iban would strike back, they’d strike back on the ground to try and recov­er ground but also engage in the high pro­file pro­pa­gan­da based or aimed attacks and we’ve — we saw — we’ve seen a series of those in recent times and you referred to a cou­ple. They’re aimed at try­ing to sap polit­i­cal will in the Unit­ed States, in Aus­tralia, in Europe, and one of the points I’ll make tomor­row when I meet with the Sec­re­tary-Gen­er­al is that with­out Unit­ed Nations con­sis­tent Secu­ri­ty Coun­cil sup­port for the mis­sion in Afghanistan, then I think polit­i­cal will would have sapped a long time ago.

PHILIP CLARK: But the attacks do seem to indi­cate that they still have — the Tal­iban have the capac­i­ty to mount these attacks, seem­ing­ly at will, which would sug­gest that far from a sit­u­a­tion that’s improv­ing it’s a sit­u­a­tion that seems to be deteriorating.

STEPHEN SMITH: Well, that’s not our assess­ment and it’s not the assess­ment that’s shared by our Inter­na­tion­al Secu­ri­ty Assis­tance Force col­leagues. Most recent­ly when I met with NATO and ISAF defence min­is­ters in Brus­sels a month or so ago, there is a gen­er­al view amongst the inter­na­tion­al com­mu­ni­ty that we have made progress but we know that for exam­ple if we vacat­ed the field now that the vac­u­um would be filled again. 

The Afghan secu­ri­ty forces are not yet in a posi­tion to take the respon­si­bil­i­ty them­selves but they are grow­ing both in terms of quan­ti­ty and also qual­i­ty, not just the Afghan army but also the Afghan nation­al and local police.

So we believe we’re on track but we are fac­ing a very resilient and a very deter­mined adver­sary but one of the dis­cus­sions I will have with Defense Sec­re­tary Panet­ta will be recent­ly we’ve also seen the ear­ly signs which Leon Panetta’s pre­de­ces­sor, Bob Gates, drew atten­tion to of very ear­ly signs of the prospects of polit­i­cal out­reach talks.

I’ve argued ever since I’ve been a min­is­ter that the solu­tion in Afghanistan can’t just be a mil­i­tary one alone. It also needs to be a polit­i­cal solu­tion and the fact that we have made ground in recent times I think has best been shown by the very — the very ear­ly signs of sug­ges­tions that the Tal­iban and the Afghan gov­ern­ment are look­ing at hav­ing polit­i­cal talks to see whether a rec­on­cil­i­a­tion or a rap­proche­ment can be effected.

The Tal­iban would only do that once they’re under mil­i­tary or com­bat pressure.

PHILIP CLARK: Defence Min­is­ter Stephen Smith is my guest, just land­ed in Wash­ing­ton for talks with the US gov­ern­ment about the Tal­iban and oth­er mat­ters. On those oth­er mat­ters, Min­is­ter, there are reports today that you’ll be seek­ing US help to try and build 12 new sub­marines. There’ve been ongo­ing issues with the Collins Class subs. If we can’t build them there, do we have to get them built in the Unit­ed States? If we can’t build them here.

STEPHEN SMITH: Well, a cou­ple of things. We work very close­ly with the Unit­ed States on a range of very impor­tant capa­bil­i­ty projects so far as defence is con­cerned and the two in par­tic­u­lar on this trip that I’ll be hav­ing con­ver­sa­tions with will be our pro­pos­al or our pro­gram for a new sub­ma­rine fleet which we com­mit­ted our­selves to in the 2009 white paper but also the joint strike fight­er project which is essen­tial­ly a Unit­ed States project which we have a very keen inter­est in.

On sub­marines we have long­stand­ing and well under­stood sus­tain­ment and main­te­nance dif­fi­cul­ties so far as our Collins Class sub­marines are con­cerned and last week I announced that I’d asked John Coles, a Unit­ed King­dom expert, to effect a review of the sus­tain­ment and main­te­nance of our Collins Class submarine. 

We have to do bet­ter there in terms of get­ting subs into the water but his­tor­i­cal­ly, of course, the Unit­ed States have had their own very large sub­ma­rine pro­gram. They’re very expe­ri­enced in this area. I obvi­ous­ly want to have a strate­gic con­ver­sa­tion but also there are a range of — of things in respect of new sub­ma­rine pro­gram that the Unit­ed States, a dis­cus­sion with the Unit­ed States can and will be of assis­tance and they go to — to com­bat sys­tems, to com­mu­ni­ca­tions sys­tems, propul­sion systems.

The Unit­ed States, of course, has a nuclear sub­ma­rine fleet, not a con­ven­tion­al sub­ma­rine fleet and I have ruled out any notion or prospect or pos­si­bil­i­ty of a nuclear sub­ma­rine fleet so far as Aus­tralia is concerned.

We’ll have a con­ven­tion­al fleet but it’ll be the largest sin­gle defence capa­bil­i­ty project that the Com­mon­wealth of Aus­tralia has ever seen so we’re work­ing very hard at the ear­ly plan­ning stages. It’s a project that we need to get right and that’s not just because of the expe­ri­ence we’ve had with Collins.

PHILIP CLARK: The expe­ri­ence with the Collins, exact­ly, which might­n’t inspire confidence.

All right, Min­is­ter, we’ll leave it there. You might not have seen the papers this morn­ing and I’m not ask­ing for com­ment on it for you but it might cheer your day to know that there’s at least one poll this morn­ing, the Newspoll, indi­cat­ed that sup­port for the car­bon tax has increased slight­ly. So you may be hope­ful that that sup­port will continue.

STEPHEN SMITH: Well, Philip, you’re right. I’ve haven’t seen any Aus­tralian news­pa­pers but I sim­ply make this point, it’s a cliché, yes, but in the end there’ll only be one poll that counts and that’ll be the one some time in Sep­tem­ber, Octo­ber, Novem­ber of 2013.

PHILIP CLARK: Thank you for that. 

Press release
Min­is­te­r­i­al Sup­port and Pub­lic Affairs,
Depart­ment of Defence,
Can­ber­ra, Australia 

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