Australia — Stephen Smith on Afghanistan

Min­is­ter for Defence Stephen Smith — Inter­view with Leigh Sales, 7:30 Report
LEIGH SALES: Some days, peace in Afghanistan seems a very long way off. As you may have seen in the news, today the Tal­iban launched a major ter­ror­ist attack on one of Kabul’s top hotels, killing 10 peo­ple. It comes just a week after the Unit­ed States Pres­i­dent Barack Oba­ma said he was autho­ris­ing a draw­down of Amer­i­can troops because in Afghanistan, “the tide of war is receding”. 

With me tonight in the Syd­ney stu­dio is Australia’s Defence Min­is­ter Stephen Smith. Min­is­ter, it cer­tain­ly looked like the tide was in today. Does­n’t that attack under­mine Pres­i­dent Obama’s argu­ment that there’ve been sig­nif­i­cant improve­ments in Afghanistan to war­rant a draw-down? 

STEPHEN SMITH: No, in some respect it is rein­forces it. I’ve been say­ing for some time that we have to expect that in the course of this north­ern sum­mer fight­ing sea­son the Tal­iban will strike back try­ing to recov­er ground. That applies in Uruz­gan Province where we are, as it does else­where. But also we would see a series of high pro­file pro­pa­gan­da-type attacks. This is not the first one. This one’s ter­ri­ble, obvi­ous­ly; loss of life in the heart of Afghanistan in Kab­ul. But we have to expect this and we have to expect more. But in some respects it reflects the fact that over the last 18 months we have made up ground and we’re putting pres­sure on the Tal­iban, not just in Uruz­gan, but generally. 

LEIGH SALES: But when we have a sit­u­a­tion like today where the Tal­iban mounts a major ter­ror­ist attack in an urban cen­tre in an area that’s sup­pos­ed­ly under Afghan secu­ri­ty con­trol, does­n’t that show that Afghanistan is a long way off being able to stand on its own two feet when it comes to security? 

STEPHEN SMITH: Well it cer­tain­ly under­lines that we’re still going through a process of tran­si­tion to Afghan led secu­ri­ty respon­si­bil­i­ty. Our timetable is the same as the inter­na­tion­al community’s, which is in the course of 2014. Kab­ul was one of the areas which tran­si­tioned first, so we saw NATO, the Inter­na­tion­al Secu­ri­ty Assis­tance Force and Pres­i­dent Karzai agree on sev­en provinces or dis­tricts and Kab­ul was one of them. 

But, I’ve said before in some respects you have to view this peri­od as in some respects the Afghan equiv­a­lent of the Tet Offen­sive which was not a suc­cess­ful mil­i­tary strat­e­gy, but it was very suc­cess­ful in under­min­ing polit­i­cal will. And that’s what this is aimed at, at the Unit­ed States, in Europe and also here. 

LEIGH SALES: Well, you and oth­er offi­cials have been telling us in Aus­tralia for a long time that we have to stay the course in Afghanistan. Now Pres­i­dent Oba­ma basi­cal­ly says, “Well, we can’t prop them up for­ev­er. It’s time in the US for us to focus on domes­tic nation build­ing.” Was that Australia’s def­i­n­i­tion of stay­ing the course? 

STEPHEN SMITH: Well, we don’t want to be there for­ev­er, but if we left tomor­row that would open up a vac­u­um into which on our analy­sis and on the Unit­ed States’ analy­sis, inter­na­tion­al ter­ror­ism could well move into and flour­ish again. Our pri­ma­ry objec­tive is to stop the Afghanistan, the Afghanistan-Pak­istan bor­der area again becom­ing a breed­ing ground for terrorism. 

LEIGH SALES: But how do you mea­sure that? 

STEPHEN SMITH: Well, in some respects it’s mea­sured in the abstract, and this is one of our polit­i­cal dif­fi­cul­ties. When there are fatal­i­ties, they quite right­ly send a tremor through the Aus­tralian com­mu­ni­ty, as they do in oth­er coun­tries. What we don’t want to see are fur­ther exam­ples of ter­ror­ist atroc­i­ties where Aus­tralians are on the receiv­ing end. And we’ve seen that, whether it’s in the Unit­ed States, whether it’s in South-East Asia or Europe. 

LEIGH SALES: But if it’s mea­sured in the abstract, then how do we know that now is the time to begin a drawdown? 

STEPHEN SMITH: What I say about the abstract is I don’t want to see anoth­er ter­ror­ist atroc­i­ty com­mit­ted in our region or com­mit­ted in Europe or com­mit­ted in the Unit­ed States where Aus­tralians are on the receiv­ing end of it. So that’s why I say it’s in the abstract, because we don’t want peo­ple to visu­alise such an atroc­i­ty. But we do know we’re mak­ing progress. Yes, we’re see­ing a Unit­ed States draw­down of a surge, but they’ll still be left with 68,000 troops. In the course of the peri­od of the surge, we’ve also seen Afghan nation­al secu­ri­ty forces grow by near­ly 100,000. We now have near­ly 300,000 Afghan Army, local and nation­al police. And there is no doubt both in Uruz­gan and else­where, they are on the road to tran­si­tion. But we have to leave Afghanistan in the posi­tion where they can man­age their secu­ri­ty affairs. It may well be that coun­tries like the Unit­ed States and Aus­tralia are there in some capac­i­ty after 2014, whether it’s Spe­cial Forces, whether it’s over watch. It’ll cer­tain­ly be insti­tu­tion build­ing and capac­i­ty assis­tance, but we’ve got to give them the oppor­tu­ni­ty to lead on secu­ri­ty matters. 

LEIGH SALES: But 20 years ago, Amer­i­ca made a cal­cu­la­tion that, “OK we think it’s time to pull out of Afghanistan, to with­draw sup­port for the Mujahidin,” and then 9/11 showed that had been a major mis­cal­cu­la­tion. It’s entire­ly pos­si­ble, isn’t it, that the deci­sion to with­draw by 2014 could also be a miscalculation? 

STEPHEN SMITH: Well, it’s con­di­tions-based in this sense: that 2014, we believe, the inter­na­tion­al com­mu­ni­ty believes, most recent­ly at the Lis­bon sum­mit which the Prime Min­is­ter and I attend­ed, that we’re on track and on course for that. We’re cer­tain­ly on track and on course- 

LEIGH SALES: But that does­n’t address my ques­tion. It could be a mis­cal­cu­la­tion. There’s real­ly no way of telling because all of the mea­sures that you point to are just so dif­fi­cult to assess. 

STEPHEN SMITH: Which is why, even in the course of his speech to the Amer­i­can peo­ple indi­cat­ing a draw­down of the surge troops, Pres­i­dent Oba­ma made it clear that fur­ther draw-downs would effec­tive­ly be con­di­tions-based; in oth­er words, we’ve got to see the improve­ment. I make two points- 

LEIGH SALES: OK, well if its con­di­tions — no, could I inter­rupt you there. If it’s con­di­tions-based, then, could we see a rever­sal, that there won’t be a draw­down by 2014? 

STEPHEN SMITH: Well, you’ve seen in recent times the ear­ly signs of what Sec­re­tary of Defense Gates described as out­reach in terms of polit­i­cal rap­proche­ment, polit­i­cal set­tle­ment. We know that our mis­sion in Afghanistan can’t be suc­cess­ful­ly com­plet­ed by mil­i­tary force alone. In the end, like any counter-insur­gency, there has to be a polit­i­cal set­tle­ment. The only time that the Tal­iban will come to the table will be when they are under enor­mous pres­sure so far as secu­ri­ty is con­cerned, and we’re see­ing the ear­ly signs of that. There’ll be a long way to go, but we are see­ing the ear­ly signs of that. And that’s why it’s impor­tant we keep the mil­i­tary and secu­ri­ty pres­sure on at the same time as con­tin­u­ing to do the hard task of train­ing the Afghan Army and police to be able to take respon­si­bil­i­ty for these matters. 

LEIGH SALES: OK. Min­is­ter, if we can turn to a dif­fer­ent sub­ject before we’re out of time. The Labor Party’s nation­al con­fer­ence lat­er this year is expect­ed to dis­cuss gay mar­riage. Can I ask what your per­son­al view is on that? 

STEPHEN SMITH: Well I’m a mem­ber of the Gov­ern­ment and the Government’s view is that mar­riage is a mat­ter for a man and a woman under the Mar­riage Act. 

LEIGH SALES: But what’s your per­son­al view? 

STEPHEN SMITH: The Government’s not propos­ing to dis­turb that. My per­son­al view will be expressed at the nation­al con­fer­ence ‘cause that’s the appro­pri­ate place to express it. 

LEIGH SALES: Do you have a strong­ly formed per­son­al view? 

STEPHEN SMITH: Well I’ve been doing what very many mem­bers of Par­lia­ment have been doing which is to lis­ten to the views of their elec­torate. In the end I regard it essen­tial­ly as a per­son­al mat­ter, but as a Cab­i­net min­is­ter it’s not the sort of issue that I would be artic­u­lat­ing a view about in advance of what I regard as the appro­pri­ate par­ty-in-gov­ern­ment process and that’s the nation­al con­fer­ence. I’ll have no qualms what­so­ev­er about putting my view at the nation­al con­fer­ence, either as a del­e­gate if the West­ern Aus­tralian branch wish­es me to be a del­e­gate or as a mem­ber of the par­lia­men­tary par­ty turn­ing up. 

LEIGH SALES: And can I ask what you think the dom­i­nant view is of peo­ple in your elec­torate of Perth? 

STEPHEN SMITH: I would’ve thought the major­i­ty view was that this is that a union or a mar­riage between a same sex cou­ples was some­thing which was essen­tial­ly a mat­ter for them and the com­mu­ni­ty or the state should­n’t inter­fere with that. That’s cer­tain­ly, in terms of a major­i­ty view, I think that would be the over­whelm­ing major­i­ty view of the peo­ple in my electorate. 

Hav­ing said that, this is an area where there are strong views per­son­al­ly held, and it’s not the sort of area where irre­spec­tive of what view peo­ple hold, one should form or hold a crit­i­cal view of any­one else just because they have a dif­fer­ent view. 

LEIGH SALES: Stephen Smith, thank you very much for join­ing us tonight. 

STEPHEN SMITH: My plea­sure, thanks very much. 

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

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