Minister for Defence, Stephen Smith – Interview with Kieran Gilbert, Sky News
KIERAN GILBERT : Minister, thank you very much for your time. I want to ask you that you and the CDF have described recently the winter is the most successful winter the ISAF has had against the Taliban and yet we’ve more than – well four Australians killed in just over a fortnight. It doesn’t look like the capacity of the Taliban has been too diminished.
STEPHEN SMITH: Well a couple of things. Firstly yes, we have been saying over recent months that we believe that we have made substantial progress in denoting the Taliban’s capacity but I’ve been saying as has the Chief of the Defence Force for weeks that in the run up to the start of the northern fighting season, the summer fighting season, that we had to steel ourselves for the Taliban to fight back. We had to steel ourselves for fatalities and we had to steel ourselves for high profile attacks by the Taliban and tragically it’s been a very bad fortnight for us with four fatalities in two weeks and of course the terrible death of Sapper Rowan Robinson.
We’ve been steeling ourselves for bad news but it has been terrible news. But we continue to very strongly believe that we have made progress, indeed Sapper Robinson was involved in an operation which was taking away from the Taliban the capacity to make further IEDs, the road side booby-traps and that’s been one of the most dangerous aspects of our time in Uruzgan province in Afghanistan.
KIERAN GILBERT : The Prime Minister and the CDF and yourself remain resolute in the wake of this latest facility. We’re hearing reports out of the United States, out of the White House that President Obama’s actually looking to increase the size of his withdrawal beyond the 5000 figure that was mentioned before the death of bin Laden, are there two different approaches here that we’re seeing that our Government remains resolute but the United States looking at starting the pullout?
STEPHEN SMITH: No I don’t believe that’s right. I mean I’ve made the point before we should simply wait until President Obama and his administration make their decision over the next few weeks about the size of this drawdown but that needs to be put in the context of a surge by US troops of some 30,000 to 40,000 in the last 12 to 18 months to help put us in the position that we are in.
We have 1550 on average troops in Afghanistan and we believe that’s the right complement for us to do our job in Uruzgan province which is to train and mentor the Afghan National Army 4th Brigade. We’re training some 3500 members of that 4th Brigade.
But as we make progress we can utilise resources to do other things and the training and the mentoring role is most important because in the end we’ve got to put the Afghan security forces, police and army, in a position where they can take control of and responsibility for security matters.
So yes we’ll see a drawdown of some forces so far as the United States is concerned but that’s in the context of a substantial increase of 30,000 to 40,000 over the last 12 to 18 months.
KIERAN GILBERT : The CDF Angus Houston says that the troops believe they’re winning on the ground in Afghanistan, from your talks at ISAF and the NATO meeting there in Brussels, do you think we’re winning?
STEPHEN SMITH: Well I started my talks today. I was in the Netherlands yesterday and spoke with their Deputy Prime Minister, the Netherlands of course we work very closely within Uruzgan province. They’ve since withdrawn their combat forces and they’re now looking at police training.
Today I had lengthy conversation together with the Chief of the Defence Force Designate, General Hurley with the Commander of Allied Forces in Europe in NATO Admiral Stavridis and the assessment that NATO forces in Europe have is exactly the same as ours which is we believe we’ve made substantial progress, we believe that the operations over the winter months have been very successful and the work that Australian forces does, particularly our Special Forces who’s very, very highly regarded.
But we’ve seen consistently United States analysis, the ISAF International Security Assisance Force analysis and our own analysis that we are making progress. It will continue to be tough but we do believe that we are making progress.
I’ll be seeing for example in the course of Wednesday, Brussels time, I’ll be seeing General Petraeus, seeing a range of my defence ministerial colleagues but I believe that our assessment is one which is overwhelmingly shared by the rest of the 48-strong International Security Assistance Force.
KIERAN GILBERT : Defence Minister Stephen Smith from Brussels, appreciate your time, thank you.
STEPHEN SMITH: Thank you, thanks very much.
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