Australia — Stephen Smith on Afghanistan and ADF Capability

Min­is­ter for Defence Stephen Smith — Inter­view with Fran Kel­ly, Break­fast, Radio Nation­al
2. June 2011
FRAN KELLY: Right now though, the Defence Min­is­ter Stephen Smith joins us in the Break­fast stu­dio, Min­is­ter, wel­come.
STEPHEN SMITH: Thank you, Fran, good morn­ing.
FRAN KELLY: Yesterday’s hotel attack shows the Tal­iban is still capa­ble of strik­ing any­where, at any time, how does this attack sit with your mes­sage that progress is being made against the insur­gents?

STEPHEN SMITH: Well we think we are mak­ing progress in terms of secu­ri­ty improve­ments, not just in Uruz­gan, but gen­er­al­ly in Afghanistan, and I’ve been say­ing for some time, in this north­ern sum­mer fight­ing sea­son, we have to expect two things, that the Tal­iban will try and fight back to recov­er ground, but also we would see these high pro­file pro­pa­gan­da-type attacks, this is a delib­er­ate tac­tic, or strat­e­gy, by the Tal­iban, it’s not so much aimed at a mil­i­tary effec­tive strat­e­gy, but at the TV sets in the Unit­ed States, Europe and coun­tries like Aus­tralia, it’s just-

FRAN KELLY: And maybe the hearts and minds of the Afghanistan people?

STEPHEN SMITH: It’s to sap polit­i­cal will. In terms of the hearts and minds of the Afghan peo­ple, again I’ve been say­ing for some time, this is not a con­flict that can be won by mil­i­tary force alone, there does have to be a polit­i­cal solu­tion, a polit­i­cal set­tle­ment that requires get­ting the sup­port of the Afghan people. 

But it also requires putting the Tal­iban in a posi­tion where they come to the con­clu­sion they can’t win by mil­i­tary force, and they do have to sue for peace, and we’ve seen very, very ear­ly signs of that.

FRAN KELLY: Well, you say that we see ear­ly signs of that, but at the same time, if they can strike at the heart of the Afghan cap­i­tal as they have, it demon­strates to all con­cerned that they remain a potent force, rather than being on the back foot, as we’re told, does­n’t it?

STEPHEN SMITH: Well, it demon­strates to peo­ple that in Afghanistan, as in oth­er places, there’s an ever-present risk of ter­ror­ism, and that peo­ple can strike. Peo­ple have struck-

FRAN KELLY: But this is not a one-off, there’s been increas­ing catastrophes-

STEPHEN SMITH: Pre­cise­ly the point I’m mak­ing, but we’ve seen ter­ror­ist attacks in the Unit­ed States, in Europe, in cap­i­tals in Europe, and in Jakar­ta in Indone­sia, so first­ly there is a gen­er­al ever-present need to be wary of ter­ror­ist or extrem­ist attacks, that’s the first point.

Sec­ond­ly, we know that we are mak­ing ground over the last 18 months against the Tal­iban in a secu­ri­ty sense, they’re not going to lay down eas­i­ly, but the only way in which they will come to the table, will be when they come to the con­clu­sion they are under com­bat or mil­i­tary pres­sure, and they can’t win mil­i­tar­i­ly, and we believe we’re get­ting — we are mak­ing progress towards that posi­tion, that’s cer­tain­ly the view of out­go­ing Sec­re­tary of State for Defense Gates, and we share that view.

FRAN KELLY: Well that’s true, Robert Gates told the world that the Amer­i­cans are hold­ing talks with the Tal­iban, why on earth are they talk­ing to the Tal­iban, when the Tal­iban is blow­ing up peo­ple, Afghanistan peo­ple, and west­ern peo­ple, willy-nil­ly in Kabul?

STEPHEN SMITH: Well, first­ly, we have a very strong view that this requires a mil­i­tary strat­e­gy, and a polit­i­cal strat­e­gy, that’s the first point. 

It won’t be a con­flict that’s won by mil­i­tary means alone, in the end there has to be a polit­i­cal set­tle­ment. There’ll be some peo­ple run­ning with the Tal­iban, who will nev­er lay down their arms, in terms of rec­on­cil­i­a­tion, or reproach from a polit­i­cal set­tle­ment, you do have to deal with peo­ple who are pre­pared to say yes, we accept the Afghan Con­sti­tu­tion, we’ll lay down our arms and we will seek to resolve mat­ters peacefully. 

There’ll be some peo­ple who won’t do that, and that’s not nec­es­sar­i­ly lim­it­ed to Afghanistan, we’ve seen that in oth­er con­flicts, in dif­fer­ent places. 

But in the end, we believe that there are suf­fi­cient — that we are mak­ing progress, that we con­tin­ue to need to keep the secu­ri­ty pres­sure on, that’s why for exam­ple, the Unit­ed States, after the draw­down of their surge, will have 68,000 troops there, we’ll con­tin­ue to have 1550, but in the mean­time, we’re grow­ing the Afghan secu­ri­ty forces, army and police, to some­where in the order of 300,000.

FRAN KELLY: We just heard Can­dace Ron­deaux, from the ICG, she’s just fin­ished a report on the secu­ri­ty sit­u­a­tion, in Afghanistan, which is not all that pos­i­tive, she was say­ing quite clear­ly that the Tal­iban talks should stop, because the Karzai Gov­ern­ment can’t deliv­er a deal, it’s too cor­rupt, it’s too inept, it’s too depen­dent on the war econ­o­my. What-

STEPHEN SMITH: Well, at the same time as mak­ing progress on the secu­ri­ty front, we need to make progress on the gov­er­nance front, and both before Pres­i­dent Karzai’s re-elec­tion and after, I have said, and Aus­tralia has said quite strong­ly, we have to see improve­ments in gov­ern­ments, in cor­rup­tion, in the han­dling of nar­cotics, in the treat­ment of women and girls; that is also required. 

And on the ground for exam­ple, in Uruz­gan, we believe that we’re mak­ing progress in terms of the deliv­ery of ser­vices, and try­ing to pro­vide an envi­ron­ment where the peo­ple of Afghanistan can get on with their ordi­nary, every-day lives. 

So yes, progress does have to be made on the secu­ri­ty front, but I strong­ly dis­agree with the notion that there should not be efforts to bring about a polit­i­cal set­tle­ment. Yes- FRAN KELLY: So you, the Aus­tralian Defence Min­is­ter, feel com­fort­able with the notion of peace talks between the Taliban-

STEPHEN SMITH: Well, not just com­fort­able, we have been say­ing for some con­sid­er­able peri­od, there’ve been a range of inter­na­tion­al con­fer­ences on Afghanistan, the Lis­bon Sum­mit the most note­wor­thy in recent times that the Prime Min­is­ter and I attend­ed, where the inter­na­tion­al com­mu­ni­ty com­mit­ted itself to tran­si­tion by 2014. 

But a cou­ple of years ago there was an inter­na­tion­al con­fer­ence in Lon­don, where the inter­na­tion­al com­mu­ni­ty also com­mit­ted itself to notions of rein­te­gra­tion, rec­on­cil­i­a­tion and reproach, in the end they have to be led by the Afghan Gov­ern­ment, rather than oth­er coun­tries, but we strong­ly sup­port efforts to bring about a polit­i­cal settlement.

FRAN KELLY: ‑It’s 11 min­utes to eight, on Radio Nation­al Break­fast. Our guest this morn­ing in the Break­fast stu­dio is Defence Min­is­ter, Stephen Smith.

Min­is­ter, back home, the prob­lems pil­ing up in your depart­ment, we have the Skype sex scan­dal at ADFA, the sex­u­al harass­ment on board HMAS Suc­cess, sig­nif­i­cant delays in major hard­ware acqui­si­tions, the com­plete inop­er­abil­i­ty of the Navy’s amphibi­ous fleet dur­ing Cyclone Yasi, which you clear­ly weren’t hap­py about. 

Defence ana­lyst, Mark Thom­son, from the Aus­tralian Strate­gic Pol­i­cy Insti­tute, said in a report this week that if Australia’s defence mat­ters at all, if armed forces — if armed force has any role in pro­tect­ing our inter­ests in this cen­tu­ry, the present sit­u­a­tion is beyond tolerable.

You’re the Min­is­ter of Defence, can you tol­er­ate it?

STEPHEN SMITH: Well, I’ve made it crys­tal clear from the first moment I became Min­is­ter for Defence, that there has to be reform and I repeat­ed that yes­ter­day at a Defence and Indus­try Con­fer­ence in Ade­laide, and we are rolling out our reform program. 

There has to be improve­ment in acqui­si­tion and capa­bil­i­ty, there has to be improve­ment in cul­tur­al issues and matters.

There’s also very much a lag effect. We are now find­ing that in projects that we’re deal­ing with in terms of capa­bil­i­ty devel­op­ment, that projects that have been sub­ject to the reforms that we have insti­tut­ed, for exam­ple, the Mor­timer Reforms, we’re find­ing a 20 to 25 per cent improve­ment on slip­page of time in par­tic­u­lar, but also cost. 

So we are mak­ing inroads and improve­ments, but there is a long way to go, and in the near future, I’ll be rolling out fur­ther reforms off the back of the Riz­zo Report into our amphibi­ous fleet, and also the so-called Black Review into Accountability. 

FRAN KELLY: What reforms, because the Department’s Sec­re­tary, Ian Watt, said yes­ter­day at that same con­fer­ence, I think, that the aver­age pro­gram where equip­ment is made for the Depart­ment, for the ADF, for the Defence Depart­ment, is on aver­age 60 per cent behind sched­ule? What are you offer­ing or threat­en­ing to try and change that?

STEPHEN SMITH: The point that Ian was mak­ing yes­ter­day, is that if you buy some­thing off-the-shelf, it’s low­est risk, if you pro­duce it your­self, it’s high­est risk, and so where you buy some­thing off-the-shelf-

FRAN KELLY: High risk is one thing, 60 per cent behind schedule?

STEPHEN SMITH: Well, it’s not accept­able but the point I’m mak­ing, you buy some­thing off-the-shelf, like a C17, or you buy some­thing which is a proven capa­bil­i­ty, like a Bush­mas­ter, then you have less risk, and you can get the thing into the field, with less delays than high risk mat­ters which you pro­duce yourself. 

And so we’ve made it crys­tal clear that every time we have a capa­bil­i­ty, we need to have that assessed, as against an off-the-shelf item.

FRAN KELLY: You announced yes­ter­day a mea­sure you said Defence com­pa­nies could be frozen out of future ten­ders if they fail to meet guide­lines and require­ments on exist­ing projects. How many chances will a com­pa­ny get, before they’re off the list altogether?

STEPHEN SMITH: We intro­duced in 2008 a so-called Projects of Con­cern list, to medi­ate projects of con­cern. Now the pub­lic pol­i­cy objec­tive here is not to get projects on a Projects of Con­cern list, it’s to have a suc­cess­ful project, so I announced, with Jason Clare, our Defence Materiel Min­is­ter yes­ter­day, a range of fur­ther improve­ments to the Projects of Con­cern process. 

But what we’re say­ing is, if you’re a com­pa­ny, and you have a project on the Projects of Con­cern list, if you are not work­ing close­ly with Defence to reme­di­ate that pro­gram and bring it to a suc­cess­ful con­clu­sion, that will mark you down, if you’ve got ten­ders or bids in for oth­er projects, and it may well, in extreme cir­cum­stances, mean you are exclud­ed from fur­ther ten­der­ing until you fix that project. 

There’s an oblig­a­tion here, not just on the part of Defence to get it right, but on the part of indus­try to get it right as well.

FRAN KELLY: And very briefly, Min­is­ter, Labor’s woes in the polls, in a ter­ri­ble state, lead­er­ship is always being talked about, your name is bob­bing up, do you have ambi­tion to become PM?

STEPHEN SMITH: This is a long haul race, we’ve got our Prime Min­is­ter, she’s doing in my view a very good job, but she’s also got the right approach, which is the next elec­tion will be Sep­tem­ber, Octo­ber, Novem­ber of 2013, a lot of water to go under the bridge between now and then, we’re work­ing our way through a range of tough reforms, in the end she’ll be the Prime Min­is­ter who’ll take us to the next poll, and I would­n’t be mak­ing judge­ments about our polit­i­cal fate quite just yet.

FRAN KELLY: Do you have your own ambitions?

STEPHEN SMITH: I have my ambi­tion to be a mem­ber of the Cab­i­net, Defence Min­is­ter, mem­ber of the ERC, and help­ing Antho­ny Albanese run the House as Deputy Leader, I’m very hap­py doing what I’m doing.

FRAN KELLY: Stephen Smith, thank you very much for join­ing us on Breakfast.

STEPHEN SMITH: Thanks Fran, thanks very much.

FRAN KELLY: Defence Min­is­ter Stephen Smith. 

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

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