Australia — Stephen Smith on Afghanistan and the loss of Sapper Rowan Robinson

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.

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

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