Australia — Minister for Defence Stephen Smith on WikiLeaks, North Korea, Afghanistan

SCOTT BEVAN: Inter­pol says Swedish police want to ques­tion the founder of the Wik­ileaks web­site, Julian Assange, about an alleged sex offence which he’s denied.
Mr Assange is in the process of pub­lish­ing about 250,000 clas­si­fied Amer­i­can doc­u­ments. The lat­est batch includes sug­ges­tions that British and Amer­i­can diplo­mats were wor­ried about Pakistan’s nuclear mate­r­i­al falling into ter­ror­ists’ hands.

Well, as we’ve heard, the lat­est release of clas­si­fied US Gov­ern­ment cables by Wik­ileaks is rais­ing eye­brows for their rev­e­la­tions and blood pres­sure in diplo­mat­ic cir­cles. Aus­tralia has had a minor men­tion so far in the cables, but even so, Can­ber­ra is concerned.

Ear­li­er today, I spoke with the Fed­er­al Defence Min­is­ter, Stephen Smith, about the Wik­ileaks furore, as well as two oth­er major issues affect­ing his port­fo­lio: North Korea and Afghanistan.

Min­is­ter, wel­come to The World and thanks for your time.

STEPHEN SMITH: My pleasure.

SCOTT BEVAN: First­ly, on the Wik­ileaks con­tro­ver­sy, when the Attor­ney-Gen­er­al talks about con­cerns for Australia’s nation­al secu­ri­ty in all of this, what does that mean for Australia’s defence forces and what sort of risks could their mem­bers be facing?

STEPHEN SMITH: Well, the risks for Defence are, in some respects, the same as they are gen­er­al­ly. And that is that someone’s safe­ty and well-being may be exposed to dan­ger, or that an oper­a­tional pro­ce­dure might be exposed.

On this occa­sion, I think there is less risk for Defence, per se, than on pre­vi­ous occa­sions. The last two sets of leaks we’ve seen have both been about Iraq and Afghanistan, and so there, the very grave con­cern was for expo­sure of oper­a­tional pro­ce­dures, risk to Aus­tralian troops on the ground but, also, risks to either Iraqi or Afghan nation­als who had assist­ed Australians.

These leaks are more gen­er­al, based on Unit­ed States’ diplo­mat­ic cables. And that’s why, rather than a Defence task force deal­ing with these mat­ters from Australia’s per­spec­tive, it’s a whole-of-gov­ern­ment approach.

SCOTT BEVAN: With those first two that you referred to there, the leaks on the Afghanistan and Iraq con­flicts, there was a Defence task force look­ing through those. And, on Afghanistan, it found most­ly benign. The Iraq one, I believe, is still going. 

Now this one, how much is this a dis­trac­tion, both on the offi­cial lev­el, and how much does it play with the minds of those in the field if they think, well, our com­mu­ni­ca­tions might some­how here be com­pro­mised and, there­fore, that could com­pro­mise me?

STEPHEN SMITH: Well, in our first set of doc­u­ments, we’ve sat­is­fied our­selves there was no breach of secu­ri­ty, so far as Aus­tralians were con­cerned. On the Iraq doc­u­ments, our pre­lim­i­nary assess­ment is that that is the case, but we haven’t finalised our assess­ments of those. So far, so good.

As I say, I think these ones will be less direct­ly engaged or con­cerned with oper­a­tional pro­ce­dures, and so the threat or the risk to our troops on the ground is less. But there is the more gen­er­al point which you iden­ti­fied, which is the sanc­ti­ty and secu­ri­ty of diplo­mat­ic com­mu­ni­ca­tions, which are nor­mal­ly con­fi­den­tial for all of the obvi­ous rea­sons. And that’s why Aus­tralia, whether it’s me, whether it’s the Attor­ney-Gen­er­al, whether it’s the Min­is­ter for For­eign Affairs have again round­ly con­demned what has occurred. And because there are poten­tial risks to our nation­al inter­ests and our nation­al secu­ri­ty inter­ests, we are and we will painstak­ing­ly go through all of the cables which relate to Aus­tralia as and when they’re published.

SCOTT BEVAN: Now, of the 1500 or so men­tions of Aus­tralia so far, appar­ent­ly, in regard to Zim­bab­we, Aus­tralia is referred to as a rock-sol­id ally but not influ­en­tial. More broad­ly, if we’re not influ­en­tial, why is Aus­tralia risk­ing young Aus­tralians’ lives in Afghanistan and else­where in the name of being a rock-sol­id ally to the US?

STEPHEN SMITH: Well, I think here, again, you’ve got to always — when you’re deal­ing with a diplo­mat­ic cable, under­stand its con­text and what it means. You can’t just take a pin prick out of an indi­vid­ual diplomat’s cable and nec­es­sar­i­ly make gen­er­al assessments.

When I speak to my Amer­i­can coun­ter­parts, to Sec­re­tary of Defense, Gates, or to Sec­re­tary of State, Clin­ton, not only do they very gen­uine­ly appre­ci­ate the effort that we make in Afghanistan, which Aus­tralia regards as being in our nation­al inter­est, help­ing to stare down inter­na­tion­al ter­ror­ism, but they also very much wel­come the gen­er­al role that we play in the inter­na­tion­al com­mu­ni­ty, and that was absolute­ly crys­tal clear from their pri­vate remarks at the recent AUSMIN in Melbourne.

SCOTT BEVAN: But in the pub­lic per­cep­tion though, they take it for grant­ed that we are a rock-sol­id ally of the US. But to hear terms like not influ­en­tial or not pack­ing a punch, could you blame the Aus­tralian pub­lic for think­ing, well why are we there sup­port­ing the US in some­where like Afghanistan?

STEPHEN SMITH: Well, if the com­ment had been made by a pres­i­dent or a sec­re­tary for defence or a sec­re­tary of state, one might have cause for con­cern. But, as I say, this is a com­ment by an indi­vid­ual diplo­mat in a con­fi­den­tial cable. And that’s why you can’t take pin pricks from cables and draw gen­er­al assess­ments. And one of the things which will nat­u­ral­ly occur as a result of the leak­ing of this series of cables will be a focus on poten­tial­ly sala­cious remarks made about indi­vid­u­als. I’ve even heard the phrase voyeuris­tic used. 

I think it’s much more impor­tant to focus on the fun­da­men­tals and the substance.

SCOTT BEVAN: Min­is­ter, in regard to North Korea and the ongo­ing ten­sion there, you had a con­ver­sa­tion with your South Kore­an coun­ter­part, Defense Min­is­ter Kim late last week. What was dis­cussed and what was asked by him of Australia?

STEPHEN SMITH: Well, first­ly, it was with for­mer Min­is­ter Kim, who resigned last week. It was a pre-arranged con­ver­sa­tion, which we con­tin­ued, despite his res­ig­na­tion. But he said to me, as he had when I’d met him on pre­vi­ous occa­sions, that, first­ly, the Repub­lic of Korea very much appre­ci­at­ed its bilat­er­al rela­tion­ship with Aus­tralia, which has grown con­sid­er­ably in the last few years, par­tic­u­lar­ly on the defence and mil­i­tary coop­er­a­tion and secu­ri­ty and strate­gic coop­er­a­tion front. And I indi­cat­ed to him, as I have pub­licly, as the Prime Min­is­ter has pub­licly, as the Min­is­ter for For­eign Affairs has indi­cat­ed pub­licly, we stand shoul­der to shoul­der with the Repub­lic of Korea at this dif­fi­cult time.

We pro­vid­ed Aus­tralian assis­tance in the inves­ti­ga­tion into the Cheo­nan. We’ve made it clear that we believe that the con­duct of North Korea has been both provoca­tive and con­temptible, and we’ve also indi­cat­ed that if the Unit­ed Nations Com­mand Mil­i­tary Armistice Com­mis­sion wants to con­duct an inves­ti­ga­tion, then we would make one or more of our offi­cers avail­able to assist in that process.

We’ve also pro­vid­ed one of our attachés as an observ­er to the exer­cis­es between the Unit­ed States and the Repub­lic of Korea, again, as a show of sup­port in a most dif­fi­cult time for the Repub­lic of Korea. Both those things, of course, being done under the aus­pices of Aus­tralia being a mem­ber of the Unit­ed Nations Com­mand Mil­i­tary Armistice Commission.

SCOTT BEVAN: It’s one thing to show sup­port for South Korea and to praise, as you’ve done, South Korea’s restraint. From your per­spec­tive, what can — what can be done against North Korea, par­tic­u­lar­ly giv­en it is so opaque and, seem­ing­ly, so imper­vi­ous to these com­ments and calls for restraint on their part?

STEPHEN SMITH: Well, opaque and imper­vi­ous are phras­es I’ve used myself, as have oth­er defence min­is­ters, or for­eign min­is­ters or sec­re­taries of state. We know that we’re deal­ing with a very dif­fi­cult cus­tomer. But we do need to have an inter­na­tion­al com­mu­ni­ty con­tin­u­ing to put pres­sure on North Korea, both on its breach, its fla­grant breach of the armistice agree­ment, but also, its nuclear program.

And so, as a gen­er­al propo­si­tion, Aus­tralia con­tin­ues to sup­port efforts with­in the Unit­ed Nations before the Secu­ri­ty Coun­cil to help bring North Korea to account on its nuclear pro­gram, for example.

Whilst it would cer­tain­ly not be appro­pri­ate at this stage for the Six-Par­ty Talks to recon­vene, because one can­not reward bad behav­iour, at some point in the cycle, it may well be appro­pri­ate for those talks to resume, and also Aus­tralia, both pub­licly and pri­vate­ly, has been say­ing to Chi­na that Chi­na needs to use its influ­ence on North Korea to try and bring North Korea to account on these matters.

But I don’t think Chi­na nec­es­sar­i­ly believes that it has a mag­i­cal solu­tion to North Korea either. This is, you know, a rogue state, it’s very dif­fi­cult to get inside its inner think­ing and work­ings, and one has to always pro­ceed with cau­tion, because it can react in a man­ner in which mis­cal­cu­la­tion or cri­sis can very quick­ly emerge and escalate.

SCOTT BEVAN: Min­is­ter, on Afghanistan, if we could briefly turn to that. Giv­en the US will be com­menc­ing its with­draw­al in just over six months time from Afghanistan, Prime Min­is­ter Gillard has com­mit­ted to the Aus­tralian peo­ple and recent­ly at the Lis­bon Con­fer­ence to Afghan Pres­i­dent Karzai again that Aus­tralia will be there for years, for at least a decade. How hard does that make your job to sus­tain belief in this, both among the troops that are sent over there and to the Aus­tralian pub­lic, giv­en there is no end date?

STEPHEN SMITH: Well, there’s no end date, but there is now, for the first time, a coher­ent mil­i­tary and polit­i­cal strat­e­gy with the peo­ple on the ground to imple­ment it. And this was the very good thing about the recent Lis­bon Summit. 

We’ve got inter­na­tion­al com­mu­ni­ty agree­ment that the only way to suc­ceed in Afghanistan is to tran­si­tion to Afghan respon­si­bil­i­ty for secu­ri­ty; to see the Afghan secu­ri­ty forces lead­ing in the secu­ri­ty task. In Uruz­gan Province, we believe we can effect that over the next two to four years. The inter­na­tion­al community’s tar­get is the end of 2014, which is also the Afghan Government’s and Pres­i­dent Karzai’s target.

SCOTT BEVAN: Is it realistic?

STEPHEN SMITH: Absolute­ly, absolute­ly. And we think, over the last six months, not just on the train­ing front, but on the secu­ri­ty front, that we’ve made progress. Next year will be a most influ­en­tial year. When the fight­ing sea­son resumes after the win­ter, every­one will be watch­ing very care­ful­ly for how strong­ly the Tal­iban return and whether the Inter­na­tion­al Secu­ri­ty Assis­tance Force has been able to con­sol­i­date its gains.

But on the train­ing front, we’ve been pleased with the progress, both on the army front, to a less­er extent the police front. But one anec­do­tal sign, which was very impor­tant, was dur­ing the 2010 Par­lia­men­tary elec­tions, for the first time, the Afghan Secu­ri­ty Force has both planned and had respon­si­bil­i­ty for secu­ri­ty on the day of the elec­tion. Aus­tralia and oth­er Inter­na­tion­al Secu­ri­ty Assis­tance Forces were held in reserve but not called upon. So that was a very good sign in terms of devel­op­ment. But the big weak­ness in Afghanistan is that it has tak­en the inter­na­tion­al com­mu­ni­ty far too long to come to the coher­ent mil­i­tary, polit­i­cal strat­e­gy that we have now, which can be imple­ment­ed on the ground. 

We had the dis­trac­tion of Iraq and that saw in the event five or six years where the resources on the ground and the strat­e­gy was not one which could make progress. Now we’ve got a strat­e­gy where we can make progress.

SCOTT BEVAN: You’ve men­tioned there’s progress. Is this a winnable war?

STEPHEN SMITH: Well, I define it in terms of can we leave the Afghan Gov­ern­ment, the Afghan insti­tu­tions, the Afghan peo­ple in a capac­i­ty of man­ag­ing their own affairs in terms of secu­ri­ty. Can we train the Afghan Nation­al Army, can we train the Afghan Nation­al Police, can we train the Afghan local police? I believe the answer to that ques­tion is yes. That’s not to say that it does­n’t con­tin­ue to be very dif­fi­cult and very dan­ger­ous. That’s not to say that we should­n’t steal our­selves for the prospect of future casu­al­ties. Not just Aus­tralians, but the 47 oth­er coun­tries involved in the inter­na­tion­al effort.

When casu­al­ties occur, it’s a ter­ri­ble thing for the nation. When you mix casu­al­ties with not enough progress on cor­rup­tion, or gov­er­nance or anti-nar­cotics work, then the Aus­tralian com­mu­ni­ty, quite right­ly, is questioning.

But the Aus­tralian com­mu­ni­ty also under­stands that when we’re on the receiv­ing end of ter­ror­ist attacks, whether it’s in Jakar­ta, or Bali, or New York or Lon­don, that they want to believe that Aus­tralia, as part of the inter­na­tion­al com­mu­ni­ty, has done every­thing it could have to pre­vent that from occur­ring, and that’s what we’re doing in Afghanistan. That’s why we’re there.

SCOTT BEVAN: Defence Min­is­ter Stephen Smith, thanks so much for your time.

STEPHEN SMITH: Thank you. Thanks very much. 

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

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