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-


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.


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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