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.
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