Australia — Stephen Smith on Death of Osama bin Laden; ADF in Afghanistan

Min­is­ter for Defence — Inter­view with Fran Kel­ly, ABC Radio Nation­al
FRAN KELLY: Min­is­ter, is the world a safer place now that Osama bin Laden is dead?
STEPHEN SMITH: Well, it’s cer­tain­ly a set-back for Al Qae­da, a set-back for ter­ror­ism, but we have to be clear-sight­ed and cold-blood­ed about this. His place will be tak­en, per­haps not in an icon­ic sense, because he became an icon­ic fig­ure, but oth­ers will take his place in an oper­a­tional sense, and we know that Al Qae­da, its affil­i­ates, its asso­ciates will con­tin­ue. So we have to con­tin­ue to be ever-vig­i­lant, and that’s been reflect­ed with trav­el bul­letins that you’ve seen, both from the Unit­ed States, and also from Aus­tralia, and oth­er coun­tries overnight.

FRAN KELLY: Did you, the Aus­tralian Gov­ern­ment, or our intel­li­gence agen­cies, have any intel­li­gence from the US that Osama bin Laden was in its sights?

STEPHEN SMITH: Well, first­ly I nev­er com­ment about intel­li­gence mat­ters, but as a gen­er­al propo­si­tion, it’s pret­ty clear, I think, from every­thing that’s been said pub­licly, that this was very much a Unit­ed States oper­a­tion, and it was very, very close­ly held, includ­ing in the Admin­is­tra­tion itself.

FRAN KELLY: Well that’s all very well, but we also have sol­diers in Afghanistan, we have had from the very start of the war on ter­ror, 23 Aus­tralian lives have been lost in this long war, it’s appro­pri­ate that our gov­ern­ment is cut in on what’s going on, isn’t it?

STEPHEN SMITH: Well first­ly, I think the Prime Min­is­ter yes­ter­day put on the record that through the rel­e­vant agen­cies we were effec­tive­ly giv­en a heads-up yes­ter­day in advance of the announce­ment, that was a good thing. Secondly-

FRAN KELLY: ‑But not of the operation?

STEPHEN SMITH: ‑And we would­n’t expect to be advised of such an operation.

FRAN KELLY: As it turns out, he was almost in down­town Islam­abad, not that far away. In fact we spoke to a local per­son ear­li­er this morn­ing who lives in the neigh­bour­hood where Osama was cap­tured; let’s just hear from him, because he thinks it’s basi­cal­ly incon­ceiv­able that the Pak­istan mil­i­tary intel­li­gence did­n’t know he was there.

PAKISTANI LOCAL: It is incon­ceiv­able for things to have gone on like this, with­out the knowl­edge of the mil­i­tary or the intel­li­gence, espe­cial­ly in an area so close to the military’s top estab­lish­ment, that for some­body to be liv­ing in a com­pound that has been heav­i­ly for­ti­fied, that has [indis­tinct] parked inside, and know noth­ing in terms of a com­mu­ni­ca­tion sys­tem to sug­gest who might be in there. For them to be not know­ing who’s come in here, is inconceivable.

FRAN KELLY: Do you agree with that? Does it stretch cred­i­bil­i­ty to think that the Pak­istani mil­i­tary intel­li­gence at least, who actu­al­ly have mil­i­tary — Pak­istan mil­i­tary bases sur­round­ing the area where this — Osama bin Laden’s com­pound was, they did­n’t know he was there?

STEPHEN SMITH: Well I think in these areas, it’s always best to be care­ful not to leap or jump to conclusions. 

What do we know? First­ly, we know that the Unit­ed States, through the Pres­i­dent and the Sec­re­tary of State, have put on the record their appre­ci­a­tion of coop­er­a­tion with Pak­istan, on the counter-ter­ror­ism front, which enabled them to see the oper­a­tion that they mount­ed yes­ter­day, suc­cess­ful­ly effected.

Sec­ond­ly, that when Pres­i­dent Oba­ma spoke with Pres­i­dent Zardari, they both wel­comed the out­come and were pleased. 

Now obvi­ous­ly we know that Pak­istan, both as a nation and as a gov­ern­ment, has had its dif­fi­cul­ties with extrem­ism or ter­ror­ism, par­tic­u­lar­ly on the Afghanistan bor­der and the Unit­ed States, Aus­tralia and oth­er nations, have been urg­ing Pak­istan over recent years, to con­front these extrem­ist dif­fi­cul­ties, and whilst there is still a lot more work for Pak­istan to do, it has made progress in recent years, and Aus­tralia has strong­ly and ful­ly sup­port­ed that. 

But on the one hand you will have com­ments like the com­ments you’ve just played to air, but you’ll also see overnight com­ments from Pak­istan offi­cials, essen­tial­ly say­ing that they were pleased to be able to ren­der assis­tance, and that bin Laden was not just a per­son who had brought ter­ror on the Unit­ed States, but had also brought ter­ror on Pak­istan and its people.

FRAN KELLY: Okay, let’s go to the impact of this now, of the oper­a­tion in Afghanistan, do you think that this short­ens the deploy­ment, the length of time our troops will be in Afghanistan, cer­tain­ly if the junc­ture of the cap­ture of the world’s most want­ed man is not a chance to pause and recon­sid­er that deploy­ment, what would be? STEPHEN SMITH: Well, as I say, it’s cer­tain­ly the removal of the icon­ic head. It’s a set-back for inter­na­tion­al ter­ror­ism that Al Qae­da, its affil­i­ates, oth­er ter­ror­ist groups who oper­ate with­in Afghanistan, or the Afghanistan/Pakistan bor­der area, will con­tin­ue. More gen­er­al­ly, inter­na­tion­al ter­ror­ism is not restrict­ed to Afghanistan or Pak­istan as we know, from whether it’s South East Asia or the Horn of Africa. 

But our assess­ment overnight is that our com­mit­ment in Afghanistan will con­tin­ue on the same timetable and approach that we have pre­vi­ous­ly outlined. 

I returned from Afghanistan last week, it’s the first time I’ve returned from a vis­it to Afghanistan with some cau­tious opti­mism that we might be mak­ing progress, so we’re con­fi­dent about tran­si­tion to Afghan secu­ri­ty forces, the army and the police in Uruz­gan Province, just as there is a grow­ing con­fi­dence about tran­si­tion in Afghanistan gen­er­al­ly, but that will occur over the timetable that the inter­na­tion­al com­mu­ni­ty, and Pres­i­dent Karzai have set out, which is effec­tive­ly the end of 2014. So whilst there is, if you like, a vic­to­ry overnight, the hard slog and the dif­fi­cult and dan­ger­ous work continues.

FRAN KELLY: Sure, but the vic­to­ry overnight, does it not — is it not cause for pause, I mean if we’re in Afghanistan to pre­vent in large part Al Qae­da re-estab­lish­ing a ter­ror­ist strong­hold there, mean­while, the head of Al Qae­da, is liv­ing in Pakistan?

STEPHEN SMITH: And I’m say­ing to you that just because the icon­ic founder and head of Al Qae­da has been killed, the organ­i­sa­tion itself will not auto­mat­i­cal­ly dis­band, it has a num­ber of affil­i­ates, a num­ber of asso­ciates, it has a struc­ture in place and it will not dis­ap­pear overnight. 

Yes, it is a con­sid­er­able set-back for Al Qae­da, but it and oth­er net­works will con­tin­ue to pose a threat, both in the Afghanistan/Pakistan bor­der area, and also more gen­er­al­ly, so we need to con­tin­ue our efforts to stop Afghanistan again becom­ing a safe haven for inter­na­tion­al ter­ror­ist groups, includ­ing the ongo­ing Al Qae­da structure.

FRAN KELLY: Min­is­ter, does this change the tem­po, do you think, or the dan­ger of the mis­sion for our sol­diers in Afghanistan? Greens Leader Sen­a­tor Bob Brown says vio­lent retal­i­a­tion is inevitable in response to the cap­ture and killing of Osama bin Laden, is he right?

STEPHEN SMITH: Well, two things. First­ly I made the point both before and after my vis­it to Afghanistan that we are steel­ing our­selves for a tough sum­mer fight­ing sea­son, not just efforts by the Tal­iban to recov­er ground that our forces have tak­en in Uruz­gan, but also recov­er ground that oth­er forces have tak­en through­out the country. 

But sec­ond­ly, we are expect­ing high pro­file, high­ly pro­pa­gan­da-based sui­cide attacks and the like. We’ve seen that, for exam­ple, with the assas­si­na­tion of the Kan­da­har Police Com­mis­sion­er, and the attack upon the Min­istry of Defence in Kab­ul, so we’re steel­ing our­selves for that.

In addi­tion, as we’ve made clear overnight, we do have to be wary of retal­i­a­tion so far as bin Laden sup­port­ers are con­cerned, and whilst we have not increased either the domes­tic or over­seas threat lev­els, we have issued a trav­el bul­letin to make peo­ple aware that that is in prospect, or a prospect. 

So yes, we are wary of retal­i­a­tion, and that can as eas­i­ly occur in a cap­i­tal city in the Unit­ed States or Europe, as it can occur in Afghanistan. So for both of those rea­sons, we’re steel­ing our­selves for a dif­fi­cult peri­od ahead.

FRAN KELLY: Stephen Smith, thanks very much for join­ing us.

STEPHEN SMITH: Thanks, Fran. Thanks very much.

FRAN KELLY: Defence Min­is­ter, Stephen Smith. 

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

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