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.
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