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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