Australia — Stephen Smith on Afghanistan, progress and troop withdrawals

Min­is­ter for Defence — inter­view with Fran Kel­ly, Break­fast, Radio Nation­al
FRAN KELLY: Stephen Smith joins me now. Min­is­ter, wel­come to Break­fast.
STEPHEN SMITH: Good morn­ing Fran.
FRAN KELLY: Min­is­ter, four Aus­tralian deaths in the past week or so, six fatal­i­ties this year in the Aus­tralian forces yet the CDF says we have the Tal­iban on the back foot. Why do more Aus­tralian deaths sig­nal we are win­ning this war?

STEPHEN SMITH: Well we’ve always known that at the start of this fight­ing sea­son the Tal­iban would fight back and we’ve had a ter­ri­ble cou­ple of weeks for trag­ic deaths. That’s rever­ber­at­ed through the Aus­tralian com­mu­ni­ty and also through the Defence Force.

But the assess­ment that the Chief of the Defence Force and I had when we returned from Afghanistan after Anzac Day was that for the first time we used the word opti­mism and Afghanistan in the same sen­tence, that we believed that we had made ground, we believed that we had start­ed to [indis­tinct] the capac­i­ty of the Tal­iban and we believe that con­tin­ues to be the case.

But they will fight back and we have to steel our­selves for fur­ther casu­al­ties and fur­ther fatal­i­ties but we very strong­ly believe we’re on the right track and that’s cer­tain­ly the shared assess­ment that I’ve had in the course of my meet­ings here today in Brus­sels in advance of our for­mal meet­ing tomor­row.

FRAN KELLY: So that’s your mes­sage to your NATO coun­ter­parts that the Aus­tralian assess­ment is, in the Uruz­gan province, we’re win­ning?

STEPHEN SMITH: Well we believe that through our Spe­cial Forces and Aus­tralia, of course is the tenth largest con­trib­u­tor to Afghanistan, but we’re the third largest Spe­cial Forces con­trib­u­tor — that through our Spe­cial Forces oper­a­tion we have severe­ly erod­ed the capac­i­ty of the Tal­iban to take action in Uruz­gan and that’s the con­sis­tent advice that we have from our NATO and Inter­na­tion­al Secu­ri­ty Assis­tance Force coun­ter­parts.

Now that does­n’t mean that it’s all over. We’re a long way from that but I do believe we’ve got our­selves into a posi­tion where with anoth­er suc­cess­ful fight­ing sea­son in the course of this north­ern hemi­sphere sum­mer we may well start to put pres­sure on the Tal­iban where they come to the con­clu­sion that they can’t win a mil­i­tary con­flict and that will then start to put pres­sure on the notions of rein­te­gra­tion, rec­on­cil­i­a­tion and polit­i­cal rap­proche­ment which in the end is what will bring an endur­ing solu­tion to Afghanistan.

FRAN KELLY: Do you think the Aus­tralian pub­lic is los­ing patience? A Galaxy poll this week on Australia’s com­mit­ment says 62 per cent of us want Aus­tralian troops brought home, 35 per cent said they should stay for as long as nec­es­sary. What’s your polit­i­cal take out on this issue?

STEPHEN SMITH: That does­n’t sur­prise me. I think there are two fac­tors. First­ly there’s always going to be an ebbing or a less­en­ing of sup­port for a con­flict in the face of the ter­ri­ble human and fam­i­ly tragedy that fatal­i­ties bring.

Sec­ond­ly, as I’ve said on your show before and said to the par­lia­ment, regret­tably it has tak­en the inter­na­tion­al com­mu­ni­ty far too long to get us in the posi­tion that we are in now. We saw for exam­ple-

FRAN KELLY: So we wast­ed years and lives?

STEPHEN SMITH: We have wast­ed, in my view, and by we I mean the roy­al we so to speak-

FRAN KELLY: Yeah.

STEPHEN SMITH: ‑the inter­na­tion­al com­mu­ni­ty. It’s tak­en the inter­na­tion­al com­mu­ni­ty five or six years too long to get to a posi­tion where we’ve got a decent mil­i­tary and polit­i­cal strat­e­gy with the resources and the per­son­nel on the ground to affect it.

The regret­table truth is that we’ve made more ground up in the last 18 months to two years than we had pre­vi­ous­ly. We’ve seen the surge — now the surge is both a Unit­ed States and NATO surge of some 30,000 to 40,000 troops but we’ve also seen which is under-appre­ci­at­ed and in very many respects, an unno­ticed surge of Afghan Nation­al Secu­ri­ty Forces as well. We’ve now got about 300,000 Afghan Nation­al Secu­ri­ty Forces, more army than local and nation­al police and over the peri­od of the surge where we’ve seen an increase of about 40 Inter­na­tion­al Secu­ri­ty Assis­tance Force troops we’ve seen an increase of Afghan troops with­in the order of 70,000 to 80,000 and that’s — that is con­sis­tent with the approach that we’ve tak­en over the last cou­ple of years which is we have to tran­si­tion to Afghan-led secu­ri­ty respon­si­bil­i­ty.

We don’t want to be in Afghanistan for­ev­er, we have to tran­si­tion the respon­si­bil­i­ty and the role to them and that’s why our focus now in addi­tion to the com­bat and the Spe­cial Forces oper­a­tions is the train­ing and men­tor­ing role and we believe we’re on track to com­plete that in the course of 2014.

FRAN KELLY: Well Greens leader Bob Brown has again called for Aus­tralian troops to be with­drawn from Afghanistan, point­ing to the Cana­di­an expe­ri­ence. Let’s have a lis­ten.

[Excerpt]

BOB BROWN: Cana­da is with­draw­ing its troops after 156 deaths of young Cana­di­ans in Afghanistan, on the oth­er side of the world. I don’t want to see Aus­tralia hav­ing a death toll of that order.

[End of excerpt]

FRAN KELLY: Min­is­ter, will the timetable for Australia’s with­draw­al be linked to the num­ber of Aus­tralians killed?

STEPHEN SMITH: No and I cer­tain­ly don’t want to see a ter­ri­ble fatal­ly list in the order of the Cana­di­ans.

The Cana­di­ans suf­fered ter­ri­ble fatal­i­ties and it’s to their great cred­it that they stayed and when they deter­mined as a result of their polit­i­cal process­es to with­draw their com­bat troops they decid­ed at the same time that they would con­tin­ue their pres­ence in Afghanistan with a 1000-strong train­ing role.

That’s very impor­tant because what that has effec­tive­ly enabled to occur is that as 1000 Cana­di­an train­ers come on stream it’s released a com­pa­ra­ble num­ber of Unit­ed States com­bat troops to per­form a com­bat or an enforce­ment role.

So yes we’ve seen some coun­tries with­draw or change their con­tri­bu­tion, the Cana­di­ans and the Dutch in par­tic­u­lar giv­en that we work very close­ly with the Dutch in Uruz­gan province but the Dutch are now con­tribut­ing by way — propos­ing to con­tribute by way of a police train­ing role which is very impor­tant.

So, yes, we’ve seen some coun­tries change or with­draw their con­tri­bu­tion but we still have a Unit­ed Nation’s man­date which sees 48 coun­tries in an Inter­na­tion­al Secu­ri­ty Assis­tance Force seek­ing to pre­vent Afghanistan and in par­tic­u­lar the Afghanistan/Pakistan bor­der area from again becom­ing a breed­ing ground for inter­na­tion­al ter­ror­ists and Aus­tralians have been regret­tably on the receiv­ing end of that as well.

FRAN KELLY: Min­is­ter, in all coun­tries con­cerned and in Amer­i­ca par­tic­u­lar­ly at the moment the debate is all about how far and how fast to pull out troops from Afghanistan.

The US Pres­i­dent said this week and I quote it’s time to recog­nise we have accom­plished a big chunk of our mis­sion, we have sta­bilised much of the coun­try and yet the US Sec­re­tary of Defense Robert Gates said from Kab­ul this week I think we should­n’t let up on the gas too much at least for the next few months.

What mes­sage are you get­ting from Wash­ing­ton sources there in Brus­sels about plans for the timetable and inten­si­ty of the US [indis­tinct]-

STEPHEN SMITH: Well I met for­mer­ly with Sec­re­tary Gates today and I’ve met with oth­er US offi­cials in the course of the last cou­ple of days. I think a num­ber of points first­ly we have to wait for the Unit­ed States Admin­is­tra­tion to make its deci­sion in terms of the imme­di­ate draw­down but Pres­i­dent Oba­ma made it clear when he com­mit­ted to an addi­tion­al 30,000 troops that he want­ed to see a draw­down com­menc­ing in the mid­dle of this year.

Now he also indi­cat­ed that would effec­tive­ly be to use the jar­gon con­di­tions-based. And it’s a mea­sure of the suc­cess that we’ve been hav­ing which has enabled the Unit­ed States to say in the face of an increase of com­bat con­tri­bu­tion in the order of 30,000 and a NATO increase of 40,000 and an Afghan Nation­al Army increase of between 70,000 and 80,000 that they can effect a draw­down.

Now we’ll wait and see what the detail of that is but two points; first­ly my impres­sion here from dis­cus­sions is that will be mod­est rather than large or sig­nif­i­cant, first­ly.

Sec­ond­ly from our per­son­al per­spec­tive if you like if I can put it that way we don’t believe there is any risk or dan­ger that the draw­down will have any adverse impli­ca­tions for what we’re doing in Uruz­gan giv­en that in Uruz­gan we work under what is described as com­bined-task­force Uruz­gan effec­tive­ly in part­ner­ship with the Unit­ed States.

FRAN KELLY: Min­is­ter thank you very much for join­ing us on Break­fast.

STEPHEN SMITH: Thanks Fran. Thanks very much.

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

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