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.
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