Australia — Stephen Smith on Afghanistan; Libya; Nauru; Labor Party

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.

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

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