TOPICS: Australia-United Kingdom Ministerial Consultations; Australian Defence Force support to Queensland flood relief and recovery effort
VIRGINIA TRIOLI: Topics up for discussion at the AUKMIN talks will include Afghanistan, China and global counterterrorism efforts. For more, Defence Minister Stephen Smith joins us now from Sydney. Stephen Smith, good morning and Happy New Year to you.
STEPHEN SMITH: Good morning, Virginia, and Happy New Year to you as well.
VIRGINIA TRIOLI: The UK is now talking about a 2011-2012 withdrawal timeline. What, if anything, does that mean for us? Talking about Afghanistan here, of course.
STEPHEN SMITH: The United Kingdom, like Australia and the international community, is committed to a transition to Afghan-led and Afghan responsibility for security purposes. So, we’re both committed to that transition at the end of 2014.
Australia continues to believe that we’re on track for our training effort in Uruzgan Province where we’re training the Afghan 4th Brigade to take responsibility for those security arrangements. So that reflects the NATO-ISAF Meeting in Lisbon at the end of last year where the international community agreed to that effective strategy.
VIRGINIA TRIOLI: Yes, but the UK is talking now specifically dates and a timeline for withdrawal. We don’t really have one yet.
STEPHEN SMITH: Well, the UK has indicated a point in time where they’re looking to a drawdown, and the United States has done exactly the same. There’s never been an inconsistency with a drawdown and the transition strategy and the commitment that the Afghan Government has and the international community has to a 2014 transition.
We’ve always known, for example, that that transition would be at a different time in different places, that various parts of the country would be appropriate and right for a transition earlier than others. So there’s no inconsistency with such a drawdown.
The key thing is that the international community, including Australia, including the United Kingdom, is absolutely committed to a transition to Afghan-led responsibility in Afghanistan. Australia can’t be there forever, nor can the United Kingdom, nor can the international community. But what we do know is we can’t leave tomorrow and that’s why we’re all committed to that transition strategy.
VIRGINIA TRIOLI: Sure. It’s not about trying to point out inconsistencies here, it’s more that they’ve got dates and we don’t.
STEPHEN SMITH: As we’ve made clear, as the Prime Minister has made clear, the Foreign Minister’s made clear, as I’ve made clear during the Parliamentary debate, we are committed to a conditions-based transition in Uruzgan Province to Afghan National Security Forces – the police, the army and the like. We believe we’re on track to effect that by 2014.
But we’ve also made the point that as that transition comes, we don’t see Australia leaving Afghanistan overnight. We believe there will be things for us to continue to do, particularly on the long-term development assistance front, and that view is also shared by the international community. And that was also reflected at the Lisbon Conference that the Prime Minister and I attended at the end of last year.
VIRGINIA TRIOLI: On that score, and asking you, I guess, as a representative of that international coalition that all has the same ambition here for Afghanistan, are we creating a sustainable Government there? Are we getting the politics right?
STEPHEN SMITH: We believe that we’ve got the strategy right. I mean, I made the point in the Parliamentary debate, and I think I’ve made it on your program in the past that, regrettably, it’s taken the international community a long time to get the correct political and military strategy so far as Afghanistan is concerned. That wasn’t helped by diversion into Iraq. But we’re now very confident that we have the right military strategy, the right political strategy and the correct allocation of resources from the international community to enable the Afghan people, the Afghan Government, the Afghan Security Forces to take that responsibility. It has taken way too long. And when people look back on this period, that will be one of the analyses. But we deal with the cards as they fall for us, and we’re now confident that we’ve got the correct policy, the correct political and military strategy in place to effect that transition.
VIRGINIA TRIOLI: Yes. But still, even taking account of the fact that, as you say and others acknowledge, it’s taken too long. Right now, there’s still so little Afghan administrative presence in the provinces that when that time comes for withdrawal, what can you really be confident about what you’re leaving behind?
STEPHEN SMITH: Well, that’s not true. Across Afghanistan, as a whole, we know it is uneven. We know the capacity of the Afghan Security Forces across the country is at different levels. We know the capacity of the Afghan Government, both at the central level and the provincial level is uneven, but we are, for example, pleased with progress that is being made in Uruzgan Province. We’re also pleased with the progress that’s being made on the security front in the south of Afghanistan, and that’s been reflected not just by what the United States and the United Kingdom and Australia say about progress, but also by international observers as well.
So yes, governance, governmental capacity is uneven, but that’s the reason why we are now, and the international community, absolutely committed, not just to a military strategy but to a political strategy, growing the capacity of the Afghan institutions to take care of these matters for themselves.
And last year, for example, we saw the Afghan Parliamentary elections, and one of the pleasing features of that was the capacity of the Afghan authorities to take responsibility for security arrangements of that Parliamentary election on the day. That was significant progress. And we’ve seen the Afghan Election Commission there and the Afghan Election Complaints Commission also taking responsibility for those matters. But we, obviously, acknowledge – and I’ve made the point publicly and privately to Afghan officials – that we do need to see substantial progress on these fronts: on governance, on corruption, on the treatment of women and girls, on governance, corruption matters, narcotics and the like.
Yes, it’s clear that a lot of progress needs to be made on these fronts, and that is very important to, ultimately, success in Afghanistan and making sure that Afghanistan doesn’t again become a breeding ground for international terrorism.
VIRGINIA TRIOLI: Minister Smith, turning now to China, it’s been described, of course, as a great power that wants a great armed force to go with that. Does the UK and Australia have a similar view in regard of that ambition?
STEPHEN SMITH: We know that this is the century of the Asia-Pacific, and one of the reasons that Foreign Secretary Hague and Defence Secretary Fox are coming to Australia is to send the message that that influence, that economic growth, political growth, military growth influence is moving to our part of the world. Yes, a lot of that is about the rise of China, but it’s also the rise of India, the rise of the ASEAN economies combined.
On the Chinese military front, we absolutely accept, as does the international community, that as China grows, as its economy grows, it’s entitled to grow its military capacity.
What we do say to China, as we say again when we meet with them formally, but as we also say publicly, all we expect from China is that they are transparent about their military strategy. And we were very pleased recently to see what we regarded as a successful visit by US Defense Secretary Gates to China. It’s very important that not only is there economic and political cooperation between China and the United States, but also defence and military cooperation.
VIRGINIA TRIOLI: Minister, I know you’re under pressure and I’ve got to let you go, but just very quickly, does the Defence Force have any more capacity to spare if Queensland needs even more help with the clean up of these monstrous floods?
STEPHEN SMITH: Well, we’ve committed ourselves to 1200 personnel on the ground dealing with the clean up and the early stages of recovery, but we’re also seeing a transition.
Today, as we speak, we’ve got around 1600 people on the ground there, some continuing to do the search and rescue and recovery effort, particularly in the Lockyer Valley, some continuing to engage in transportation. But the vast bulk are now engaged in the clean up in Brisbane and Ipswich and the early stages of recovery.
So we’re very confident that we’ve got the right resources on the ground. That will eventually, over the period of the next few days and weeks, come down to around 1200. But as we’ve made clear, whatever is required, we’ve got the capacity to do it. And I’m very pleased with the terrific work that Defence Force personnel have been doing in Queensland generally all of this year. It’s been a terrific effort on their part, and we’re very pleased and proud of the effort they’ve been making.
VIRGINIA TRIOLI: Stephen Smith, good to talk to you again, thanks so much.
STEPHEN SMITH: Thanks very much, Virginia, thank you.
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