Minister for Defence Stephen Smith Interview with Barrie Cassidy, ABC Insiders
BARRIE CASSIDY: Defence Minister Stephen Smith has spent much of the week at a NATO conference in Europe, and he joins us now from Perth.
Minister, good morning, welcome.
STEPHEN SMITH: Good morning Barrie.
BARRIE CASSIDY: Four deaths in the past week, two funerals in consecutive days now; that’s sure to test the nation’s resolve on Afghanistan.
STEPHEN SMITH: It will and it has. Because of my overseas travel I wasn’t able to attend the Marcus Case and Andrew Jones’ funerals, but again our hearts go out to those families. Of course we’ve recently also seen Brett Wood’s funeral and we’ll have Rowan Robinson’s funeral in the course of the next week or so. So, yes, that’s reverberated through the Australian community, and people are entitled to ask the question, why we are in Afghanistan.
But we continue to very strongly believe that under a United Nations mandate, together with a 48-strong International Security Assistance Force, that it remains in our interest to be in Afghanistan to help stare down international terrorism and to make sure that international terrorism doesn’t again become a breeding ground in the Afghanistan-Pakistan border area. Our resolve remains strong, but we understand that the funerals and the fatalities will send a shudder through the Australian community. But we also have to steel ourselves for the potential of further casualties and fatalities into the future.
BARRIE CASSIDY: The way that Angus Houston put it. He said it would be silly to start withdrawing now anyway, because more progress is being made right now than ever before; in what way? I mean, in what way are we progressing?
STEPHEN SMITH: Well we share that assessment. The regrettable reality is that it’s only been in the last 18 months or so where we’ve had — in Australia’ view — the military and the political strategy to get the job done in Afghanistan, together with resources to effect it and the personnel on the ground.
I’ve made the point ever since the parliamentary debate, shortly after I became Defence Minister, that the position we’re in now is regrettably five or six years too long and that view’s shared internationally. It’s taken the international community a long time to get to where we are, but we have made much more progress over the last 18 months in terms of military or combat enforcement, in terms of taking and holding ground, and putting pressure on the Taliban. But we have to continue that.
This will be a tough fighting season, but as we make military and combat or security progress, we also need to make progress on the economic and social front, because in the end the solution in Afghanistan won’t be a military or combat solution alone; it requires a political solution, and the more successful the combat or enforcement actions are, then the more likely it becomes that notions such as political settlement, reintegration and rapprochement come to the fore and we’ve seen some very early signs of that in recent times.
BARRIE CASSIDY: Yes, and yet Angus Houston said in a magazine article published at the weekend that the progress that is being made, well it’s ‘fragile and reversible’. And coincidentally, Leon Panetta, the incoming Defence Secretary in the United States, used precisely that language this week: ‘fragile and reversible’.
STEPHEN SMITH: And that’s the sort of language that Australia has used. It’s the sort of language that we continued to hear in the course of the last few days when I was in Brussels at the NATO ISAF, the International Security Assistance Force meeting.
That’s why we continue to need to keep the pressure on the Taliban, keep the pressure on the insurgency. If we were, for example, to leave now or to see a substantial or wholesale reduction, then we would leave a vacuum, and the gains that we have made in recent times would be reversible and reversed. So we couldn’t-
BARRIE CASSIDY: Yes, but that just seems to be an inconsistency in the argument. The argument is you stay there because you’re making progress, but on the other hand it’s fragile and reversible. If it’s fragile and reversible then what is the point?
STEPHEN SMITH: Well, the point, Barrie, is that if we were to leave now there would be a vacuum into which the Taliban, the Al-Haqqani network, remnants of Al Qaeda, and other terrorist or extremist organisations would fall; that’s the first point.
Secondly, we do believe that in the course of the last 12 or so months we have significantly denuded the Taliban’s capacity, but we continue also to have our fears or our worries that the gains that we have made are reversible. That’s why we need to continue with the operations that we have been effecting. not just in Uruzgan province, but across the board. The Special Forces operations have been particularly effective in denuding the Taliban’s capacity, but we also know that the Taliban continue to get respite across the border into Pakistan in the Pakistan-Afghanistan border area. So we have to keep the pressure on and that’s why our commitment is to do that, and at the same time we know we can’t be there forever, which is why we’re committed to the transition to Afghan-led security responsibility.
Already we see some now nearly 300,000 Afghan military and Afghan national and local police coming to the fore in terms of security. We believe that we can meet the international community’s timetable of transition to responsibility — lead responsibility — for security to the Afghan security forces by 2014.
BARRIE CASSIDY: America’s about to take a decision on withdrawing some troops, because they sent 30,000 extra troops in, in 2009, as part of the surge. Now they have to take a decision about how many of those will be withdrawn. What’s your sense of where that number will fall?
STEPHEN SMITH: Well, I spoke in the course of the last few days to Secretary of Defence Gates, also to General Petraeus. Secretary Gates and General Petraeus will of course provide their recommendations to the President. I think it’s best to wait until President Obama and the Administration have made a decision, but there’s no inconsistency.
After a surge of United States and ISAF forces of some 30 to 40,000, and also over the same period, importantly, effectively a surge of some 70 to 80,000 Afghan security forces — because we have seen, as I say, a substantial build up on that front too — there’s no inconsistency with transition to Afghan-led responsibility with a draw-down of some United States forces after a 30,000 surge.
My instinct is that it will be modest rather than large, and from our personal perspective, if you like — from Australia’s personal perspective — I’m not concerned that there will be any adverse implications for the work that we do in Uruzgan province, which, since August of last year, we’ve been doing effectively in partnership with the United States.
But we’re best off waiting and seeing, but there’s no doubt that the United States commitment together with the rest of the International Security Assistance Force is to see the job done, to see transition effected and to do that on the timetable agreed with President Karzai.
BARRIE CASSIDY: You mention Robert Gates, of course the outgoing Defence Secretary, he was critical of NATO before he left the conference; that they’re not — well, at least the Europeans are not — contributing enough. It seems the United States is running out of patience. Is there a question mark now over the future of NATO?
STEPHEN SMITH: Well I think the point that Secretary Gates made is twofold. Firstly that — and there’s no point other than being frank about it — there has been some criticism of some NATO countries so far as a willingness to fight or contribute is concerned. Secretary Gates has also made the point that it’s not just the willingness to fight — it’s also a capacity to fight.
And he’s made the point that there has been a falling of commitment in some NATO countries so far as their capability is concerned. Australia, for example, is one of the countries where, throughout NATO and throughout the International Security Assistance Force, we get a lot of credit. Not just for our capacity and the quality of our fighting forces, but also because of the commitment that we are prepared to make.
We’re the largest non-NATO contributor — the tenth largest overall in Afghanistan — and importantly in the most recent context we’re the third largest Special Forces contributor.
But Secretary Gates has sent a message to the European members of NATO that they have to have the political will, but they’ve also got to have the military capacity and capability, and that requires investment into the long term and that’s certainly what Australia has been doing for a long period of time.
BARRIE CASSIDY: Yeah, and to be even more frank about it, what he was really saying is that the Europeans are soft, and they’ve been bludging off the Americans for too long.
STEPHEN SMITH: He made that point, and if you are going to make these sorts of points, it’s always best to make the point before you leave the stage, so at least he’s had the frankness to say it up front. But I’m not saying Australia is making these criticisms — it’s not for us to be giving lectures to NATO countries — but, for example, there has been some criticism within NATO of, for example, Germany’s reluctance or refusal to contribute so far as Libya is concerned.
We also — of the nearly 30 NATO countries — we see less than 10 making a contribution in terms of military assets to Libya. And so the point is there that in the modern world, where we have threats not just from failed states or threats from dictators, but also threats from non-state actors or international terrorism, those countries who want to protect and defend their own citizens’ national security interests do need to make the investment over the long haul, so that they can make a judgement about a political will to fight in a particular issue or dispute. But at the same time you’ve always got to have the capability and the capacity to deliver it.
BARRIE CASSIDY: And is that reluctance in any way jeopardising the operation in Libya?
STEPHEN SMITH: Well the overall assessment of Libya — and it’s the same assessment that Foreign Minister Rudd got at the meeting he attended in the United Arab Emirates over the weekend — is that people are now proceeding on the basis that, so far as Gaddafi’s departure is concerned, it’s not so much if, it’s a question of when.
Now that may be as a result of operational matters; it may be as a result of Gaddafi’s decision to effectively retire from the field; or it may be as a result of some political or diplomatic resolution. And so focus is now turning to if and when — or, rather, when — the NATO operation finishes, what representative of the international community sees a transition to a non-Gaddafi Libya: whether that’s the European Union, whether it’s the Arab League, whether it’s the African Union, whether it’s the United Nations itself.
So some thought and planning is now given effectively to that transition, and Australia’s view is quite clear — the sooner Gaddafi walks off the stage then the better things will be for the people of Libya and also for North Africa generally.
BARRIE CASSIDY: A couple of domestic issues. Tony Abbott, as you’ve just heard, is now in Nauru making a case for the reopening of the detention centre there. Is he wasting his time, or is that something that maybe the government will eventually get around to doing?
STEPHEN SMITH: Well we have in the past made the point — and we continue to make it — that Nauru we regard very much as a failed effort. People stayed in Nauru for a very long period of time, and in the event the vast bulk of people who were sent to Nauru by the Howard government came to Australia.
It’s not supported in any regional sense; it’s not supported by the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees; so that’s not an option that we are proposing to take up. We want to make sure that we’ve got regional support for what we do; we want to make sure that we’ve got the support of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees; so Nauru, in the end, saw only people staying there for a long period of time and then almost all of them coming to Australia in any event. So that’s not an option that we’ll be taking up.
BARRIE CASSIDY: Now, John Faulkner kick-started a debate this week, as a former state secretary of the party, is there a need for reform within the ALP, and is the party capable of reforming itself?
STEPHEN SMITH: Well absolutely, and our next national conference will be the first starting point of that. The party has to respond to the challenge of the modern day. I mean, we’ve effectively had a quarter of a century of continuous economic growth in Australia; the Cold War’s over; so a lot of the old attachments to political parties, a lot of the old attachments to institutions, have loosened or lessened.
We’re also now in a modern communications world where people can get much more information from TV or online than they can from attending a branch meeting or a trade union meeting or a town hall meeting. And the party has to adopt and adapt to those circumstances.
From a personal point of view, I’m very attracted to the notion of having registered ALP party members to whom the party can deliver — in the modern communication world, in social media — can communicate our message to them. I think that’s something that we should seriously consider and adopt. We’ve got to find a new way into the hearts and minds of the vast bulk of Australians who have no interest these days in joining political parties or being active in a formalised, traditional historical sense.
BARRIE CASSIDY: But of course the test, I suppose — can you do that without tearing yourselves apart? The early signs are not good.
STEPHEN SMITH: Well we’ve always been a reform party, and the challenge is ahead of us. But I very strongly believe that unless we modernise the make up and the framework of the party, accept the fact that the Australian Labor Party has always adapted to change, then we will be left by the wayside, which is the point that John Faulkner has made.
But this is not a challenge which is unique to the Australian Labor Party; the Liberal Party faces the same challenge in Australia; and comparable social democratic parties face the same challenge overseas. So we have to be absolutely serious about making sure that we get our structures right.
But at the same time we have to govern and govern well. And the government itself is facing a series of political challenges, which we are well aware of, and we have to work our way through those as well. But we also believe that we can deal with issues of long-term party reform through our national conference process, at the same time as managing the economy well and dealing seriously and competently with the national security issues that we face on a regular basis.
BARRIE CASSIDY: Just finally, I know you’re a keen cricket fan, and Simon Katich, like you, is a West Australian; any comment on the Australian selectors?
STEPHEN SMITH: Well, historically of course, there have been a series of atrocities committed by the Australian Cricket Board, or Cricket Australia, or the Australian selectors, against Western Australian cricketers, but this one’s extraordinary. This one is very high at the top of the list.
I mean this is a bloke who over the last 30 Tests he has played has got nearly 3000 runs, an average of 50, and done better than Ponting and Mike Hussey, so it’s an extraordinary decision and regrettably, whilst it’s always easy to take a shot at selectors, I think it says a lot more about the selectors than it does about Simon Katich.
And I think, frankly, it has sent very much a message which has undermined confidence in the selectors that they’re really up to the task in terms of managing a transition to the next generation of Australian cricketers. Simon Katich has got the resolve and the grit and the determination that you want to have during hard times. So it’s an extraordinary decision. If he’s not in the top 25 Australian cricketers — and I can’t find one better opener than him on that list, let alone two — then I’ll go hee for chasey.
BARRIE CASSIDY: Middle stump, Minister. Thanks for your time.
STEPHEN SMITH: Thanks Barrie. Thanks very much.
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