Australia — Stephen Smith on Death of Shafied Ullah; Afghanistan; Government

Min­is­ter for Defence — Inter­view with Ali Moore, ABC Late­line
ALI MOORE, PRESENTER: Join­ing us from our Par­lia­ment House stu­dio is the Defence Min­is­ter Stephen Smith.
Stephen Smith; thanks for tak­ing the time to talk to Late­line tonight.
ALI MOORE: In the three weeks since the death of Lance Cor­po­ral Andrew Jones and with the inves­ti­ga­tion so far, how much do you know about the moti­va­tion for this killing, why Shafied Ullah did what he did?

STEPHEN SMITH: Well we — from that per­spec­tive obvi­ous­ly have pre­ferred to have cap­tured him to enable us to ques­tion him about his moti­va­tion and so, in very many respects, whilst this will bring some solace or some clo­sure to the fam­i­ly that the per­son respon­si­ble for the death of Lance Cor­po­ral Jones has met his own demise, it does sub­stan­tial­ly make more dif­fi­cult bring­ing to a con­clu­sion the inves­ti­ga­tion that has been com­menced. So, we may well nev­er know. 

In the same oper­a­tion, Ullah’s broth­er was also cap­tured. He is being ques­tioned. He may be able to throw some light on it, but our best wit­ness in that respect is now gone. My instinct has always been a rogue ANA sol­dier rather than a Tal­iban plant, but as I’ve said before: instinct is not a good basis; con­clu­sive evi­dence is, and we still have that inves­ti­ga­tion ongoing. 

ALI MOORE: But has noth­ing come up in the past three weeks in terms of the inves­ti­ga­tion about this man’s back­ground, about how he had oper­at­ed pre­vi­ous­ly in the field? 

STEPHEN SMITH: Well, he had been under­go­ing train­ing with us for about a month, he’d been in the ANA and train­ing in the ANA for three or four months. Suf­fice to say that we don’t have any­thing which would indi­cate infil­tra­tion by the Tal­iban. We had all of the usu­al check­ing and vet­ting, the bio­met­rics and the like, which is why he’s been able to be iden­ti­fied in the course of yes­ter­day and today. 

The Tal­iban, a few days after his ter­ri­ble killing of Lance Cor­po­ral Jones, claimed it, but I put that very much in the cat­e­go­ry of: they would do that, would­n’t they? For pro­pa­gan­da pur­pos­es. So, it may well be the rogue actions of an indi­vid­ual dis­grun­tled sol­dier. But we con­tin­ue to, in a sense, pur­sue the inquiry that the chief of the Defence Force for­mal­ly start­ed at the end of May on his trag­ic death. 

ALI MOORE: Well more broad­ly, US Defense Sec­re­tary Robert Gates has now con­firmed there have been con­tacts between the US and the Tal­iban in recent weeks with an eye to a polit­i­cal solu­tion. How much does Aus­tralia know about the details of these con­tacts, how­ev­er pre­lim­i­nary they are? 

STEPHEN SMITH: Well, we weren’t con­sult­ed or advised in advance and I would­n’t expect to be. But you may recall that a cou­ple of weeks ago, I was in Brus­sels, not just with Sec­re­tary Gates, but with oth­er NATO and Inter­na­tion­al Secu­ri­ty Assis­tance Force Defence Min­is­ters and I said an a num­ber of occa­sions in Brus­sels, includ­ing in my for­mal inter­ven­tion, but also when I returned, that one of the things that we were hope­ful might emerge as a result of pres­sure, mil­i­tary pres­sure, enforce­ment pres­sure on the Tal­iban, was that we might see the ear­ly signs of rein­te­gra­tion and reconciliation. 

It’s only been as a result of the gains that we’ve made mil­i­tar­i­ly in the last 18 months or so that these very first ear­ly signs, what Sec­re­tary Gates has described as very pre­lim­i­nary out­reach, have occurred. I very much agree with the analy­sis that unless there is mil­i­tary and com­bat and enforce­ment pres­sure on the Tal­iban, they won’t come to the table. 

ALI MOORE: But does it not seem at this point all the indi­ca­tions are that in fact it’s not them com­ing to the table; it’s the allied forces or the US reach­ing out? 

STEPHEN SMITH: Well, you can’t have a one-way dia­logue and so there has been con­firmed by Sec­re­tary Gates some very pre­lim­i­nary out­reach, a num­ber of con­ver­sa­tions. The Unit­ed States is not the only coun­try or nation involved, but I’m not propos­ing to nom­i­nate those. They can self-nom­i­nate if they want to. 

ALI MOORE: Are we one of them? 

STEPHEN SMITH: No. We have been asso­ci­at­ed or observ­ing some very localised rein­te­gra­tion efforts in Uruz­gan Province, but we regard the rec­on­cil­i­a­tion process or the polit­i­cal set­tle­ment process as very much a mat­ter essen­tial­ly to by Afghan Gov­ern­ment-led, and of course you would expect that the main NATO pow­er, the Unit­ed States, Afghanistan’s main part­ner, the Unit­ed States, would be intri­cate­ly involved in that process. 

But I’ve been say­ing for a num­ber of years: we won’t achieve our mis­sion in Afghanistan of tran­si­tion­ing to Afghan-led secu­ri­ty respon­si­bil­i­ty by mil­i­tary means alone. It will require at some stage a polit­i­cal set­tle­ment, but I think we are a long way from that, but the ear­ly signs to me reflect the fact that we have made, in our view, some sub­stan­tial mil­i­tary progress over the last 18 months or so. 

ALI MOORE: Of course though, the Tal­iban does­n’t speak with one voice. This must be an extreme­ly dif­fi­cult process to even I guess know who you’re talk­ing to. 

STEPHEN SMITH: And Sec­re­tary Gates has made this very point him­self that one needs to be very care­ful about whom one is talk­ing to and whom they are rep­re­sent­ing. And so he’s been at pains — and I make no bones about the fact that I share his analy­sis — he’s been at pains to make that point. But also at pains to make the point that it’s very ear­ly days, but the only way that one might get the appro­pri­ate peo­ple to the table or keep the appro­pri­ate peo­ple at the table is by keep­ing the enforce­ment pres­sure on, by con­tin­u­ing to show the Tal­iban that as a result of the surge both of US and NATO and Afghan Nation­al Secu­ri­ty Force num­bers, and as a result of the suc­cess of the Spe­cial Forces oper­a­tions, that they can’t win mil­i­tar­i­ly, and as a con­se­quence it’s best to sue for peace. 

ALI MOORE: Does that mean though that it makes it even more impor­tant that the Amer­i­can draw­down that pres­i­dent Oba­ma is due to announce in the next cou­ple of weeks — how many troops will come out — that it’s very impor­tant that’s a min­i­mal num­ber to keep the pres­sure on? 

STEPHEN SMITH: Well I’ve made a num­ber of points about that in the past. First­ly, we should wait and see that draw­down, first­ly. Sec­ond­ly, I’ve nev­er seen any incon­sis­ten­cy with the tran­si­tion to Afghan-led secu­ri­ty respon­si­bil­i­ty by the end of 2014 with a draw­down of some of the Unit­ed States’ forces after we’ve seen a surge of some 30 to 40 US and NATO troops. But also over that same peri­od, we’ve also seen — this is very much under­ap­pre­ci­at­ed — a surge of some 70,000 to 80,000 Afghan-trained Army and police officers. 

But what is essen­tial is to con­tin­ue to keep the pres­sure on the Tal­iban. I’ve made the point in the past that Aus­tralia is the largest non-NATO con­trib­u­tor, the 10th largest con­trib­u­tor over­all, but most impor­tant­ly in the cur­rent con­text; we’re also the third largest Spe­cial Forces con­trib­u­tor. And it’s been a com­bi­na­tion of the surge and the suc­cess of the Spe­cial Forces oper­a­tions which has start­ed to degrade and denude the Tal­iban effec­tive­ness in Afghanistan. 

ALI MOORE: So in your view, what would be the bench­mark for a polit­i­cal solu­tion? What would be the min­i­mum? Because it would appear that any final peace nego­ti­a­tion, for exam­ple, would have to involve the Tal­iban leader Mul­lah Omar, but is that not dif­fi­cult? He’s cur­rent­ly on the most want­ed list of terrorists. 

STEPHEN SMITH: Well, Mul­lah Omar is dif­fi­cult per se, but what are some of the essen­tial pre-con­di­tions, and Aus­tralia has made these points clear over the last cou­ple of years. We strong­ly sup­port the Lon­don con­fer­ence on Afghanistan where the cen­tre piece of that con­fer­ence a cou­ple of years ago was to give and bring sup­port to the notion that we had to have a polit­i­cal strat­e­gy not just a mil­i­tary strat­e­gy; that in the end it would not be won by mil­i­tary means alone. 

But some of the pre­con­di­tions are fun­da­men­tal — that an indi­vid­ual has to renounce vio­lence that an indi­vid­ual has to agree to abide by the Afghan con­sti­tu­tion. And hard­core inter­na­tion­al ide­o­logues and ter­ror­ists won’t give that under­tak­ing and won’t pro­ceed down that path, because their view is that deci­sions can only be made through the force of a bar­rel of a gun. But there will be peo­ple who want to take part in Afghan soci­ety, either at the low lev­el — and we’re see­ing as I say some ear­ly signs of rein­te­gra­tion where peo­ple who have ran with the Tal­iban — run with the Tal­iban are now see­ing that there is a bet­ter alter­na­tive for them, a bet­ter eco­nom­ic and social life for them and they are dis­avow­ing the Taliban. 

But equal­ly, at the high­er lev­el, at the senior lev­els, there has to be an appre­ci­a­tion that there may well be a role for them to play in Afghan soci­ety, but they have to abide by the Afghan con­sti­tu­tion, dis­avow ter­ror­ism as an act of pub­lic pol­i­cy and lay down their arms. 

ALI MOORE: Just a ques­tion on the tim­ing of this, because of course Amer­i­ca has con­sis­tent­ly refused to con­firm or deny any con­tact with the Tal­iban and the rea­son that Gates had to make the admis­sion was because pres­i­dent Karzai in fact con­firmed the talks. Why do you think he did that now and is there a risk that it under­mines the attempts to build trust? 

STEPHEN SMITH: Well there’ve been a num­ber of spec­u­la­tive pieces in a range of inter­na­tion­al news­pa­pers, not just in the Unit­ed States, but also in Europe. 

ALI MOORE: But was it up to Karzai to con­firm them? 

STEPHEN SMITH: Well first­ly, I don’t think that, if you like, the sto­ry came as a sur­prise. Indeed, if you have a look at my gen­er­al remarks in Brus­sels a cou­ple of weeks ago, I made this point on a num­ber of occa­sions that the change in what Aus­tralia regards as the change in cir­cum­stances so far as Tal­iban effec­tive­ness was con­cerned might well have the end result of rec­on­cil­i­a­tion, rein­te­gra­tion and polit­i­cal rap­proche­ment talks begin to emerge. So I don’t think it’s come as a sur­prise. Whether — and I haven’t obvi­ous­ly had the con­ver­sa­tion with Sec­re­tary Gates. Whether he was respond­ing to Pres­i­dent Karzai or whether he was just putting it out there as one of his final acts of Sec­re­tary of State for Defence, you’d have to ask them. 

In the end, I frankly don’t think it much mat­ters. I think there are some sig­nif­i­cant fun­da­men­tal points to be made about the fact that the sto­ry has emerged. One fun­da­men­tal point is we can’t achieve our objec­tives in Afghanistan by mil­i­tary means alone, so we have to get into a polit­i­cal con­ver­sa­tion at some stage; and sec­ond­ly, the only basis on which the Tal­iban, any of their rep­re­sen­ta­tives, would come to the table is if they are start­ing to believe they’re under mil­i­tary or com­bat pressure. 

ALI MOORE: Min­is­ter, if we can turn to events clos­er to home. This week of course marks the anniver­sary of the knif­ing of Kevin Rudd. You’ve just come from a Cab­i­net meet­ing tonight. What was the mood inside that meeting? 

STEPHEN SMITH: Well I nev­er talk about Cab­i­net meet­ings. In fact tech­ni­cal­ly I’m not even sup­posed to con­firm I’ve been at one, but yes, I have been at one. We were get­ting on with the busi­ness of gov­ern­ment. We’re get­ting on with the hard slog of governing. 

ALI MOORE: And the hard slog — how do you explain why the Gov­ern­ment is so on the nose right now? 

STEPHEN SMITH: Well, we are deal­ing with a range of dif­fi­cult and com­plex issues that we are try­ing to — and in the face of those dif­fi­cult and com­plex issues we’re try­ing to effect reform that we very strong­ly believe is in our nation­al inter­est. We very strong­ly believe that there is too much car­bon in our econ­o­my and in our atmos­phere, and as a con­se­quence of that we have to effect a large reform. 

ALI MOORE: Do you think that as a gov­ern­ment you’ve han­dled that process the right way — announc­ing a car­bon tax, but then no detail, allow­ing the Oppo­si­tion to come in and fill in the blanks? 

STEPHEN SMITH: Well, it’s a long-haul race; it’s a long-haul race. And whether it’s emis­sions trad­ing and too much car­bon or pol­lu­tion in our atmos­phere, whether it’s a min­er­al resources tax, in the end, once these reforms are effect­ed by the Par­lia­ment and once they start to become part of Aus­tralian life and Aus­tralian soci­ety, then the Aus­tralian com­mu­ni­ty will make its own judg­ment about whether the scare cam­paigns that Tony Abbott is run­ning are real or illusory. 

We have more than two years to go in this cur­rent term of Par­lia­ment. The next elec­tion will be the third quar­ter of 2013 — Sep­tem­ber, Octo­ber and Novem­ber. There’s a lot of water to go under the bridge between now and then, and we will just do the tough job of work­ing through these issues in a calm way, and in the end the com­mu­ni­ty will make its own judg­ment about the per­for­mance of the Government. 

ALI MOORE: Two things to put to you from two senior mem­bers of the par­ty. Do you agree with Peter Beat­tie, who wrote this morn­ing that, ‘…what is killing the Gov­ern­ment elec­toral­ly is con­tin­u­ing divi­sion over the lead­er­ship change.’ He says, ‘Kevin Rudd should spend some time on the back­bench before mak­ing a dig­ni­fied exit.’ 

STEPHEN SMITH: Well, I think Kevin Rudd’s a very hard­work­ing For­eign Min­is­ter and he’s doing that job very well. Kevin him­self over the last two or three days has made the point very strong­ly that we’re all ful­ly sup­port­ive of the Prime Min­is­ter. There’s no vacan­cy for the posi­tion and we’re all propos­ing just to get on with it. So, there’s plen­ty of what I’d describe as — what I would describe as idle spec­u­la­tion. My atti­tude, the Prime Minister’s atti­tude, the Government’s atti­tude is that we’re get­ting on with the hard and tough work of reform and we’re very hap­py in a cou­ple of years’ time for the com­mu­ni­ty to make their judg­ment about that. 

ALI MOORE: Inter­est­ing; you call it idle spec­u­la­tion, but I guess the point about what Kevin Rudd was say­ing in var­i­ous week­end media appear­ances was that he has learnt from his mis­takes. Many were see­ing that as putting his hand up because why else would you need to say that you’ve learnt from your mis­takes as Prime Minister? 

STEPHEN SMITH: Well, you only put your hand up when there’s a vacan­cy and there’s no vacan­cy, first­ly. Secondly- 

ALI MOORE: That’s not what hap­pened last time round; there was no vacancy. 

STEPHEN SMITH: In any walk of life, after a peri­od of reflec­tion, you’re enti­tled to put on the pub­lic record if you want to the mis­takes that you’ve made. Kevin has indi­cat­ed that in the course of his time as Prime Min­is­ter, he made a range or a series or a num­ber of mis­takes. It’s entire­ly a mat­ter for him how he reflects upon that. But Prime Min­is­ters in the past have done that in their own way. In my view, he’s enti­tled to do that. In recent times he said that as prime min­is­ter, he made what he regard­ed were a range of mis­takes, from minor to seri­ous. That’s a mat­ter for his own reflection. 

ALI MOORE: What about Sen­a­tor Faulkn­er, who says that the party’s become too reliant on focus groups and it’s lost a gen­er­a­tion of activists and risks los­ing a gen­er­a­tion of vot­ers as well if it does­n’t become more inclu­sive and brook dissent? 

STEPHEN SMITH: Well, a range of issues there. First­ly, if we were focus research exclu­sive­ly-dri­ven then I would be on your show tonight say­ing that we weren’t on propos­ing to stick the course in Afghanistan. And in a dif­fer­ent con­text, we would­n’t be out there say­ing that we were mak­ing rep­re­sen­ta­tions to Indone­sia about cap­i­tal pun­ish­ment. We would be say­ing that we weren’t propos­ing to con­tin­ue our long­stand­ing objec­tion to cap­i­tal pun­ish­ment. So I make no apol­o­gy for a polit­i­cal par­ty using mod­ern cam­paign­ing tools to try and win elections. 

And Tony Abbott did that very well last time and near­ly won. There’s a fun­da­men­tal dif­fer­ence between hav­ing a clear-sight­ed view of pub­lic pol­i­cy and the course that you need to chart for a nation’s future and try­ing to win a poll. Tony Abbott is out there- 

ALI MOORE: Is Sen­a­tor Faulkn­er out of line? 

STEPHEN SMITH: Absolute­ly not. I’ve said in the past: I very strong­ly believe that the great chal­lenge for the par­ty in the mod­ern era is: how do we turn a par­ty that con­tin­ues essen­tial­ly to be based on an indus­tri­alised soci­ety as we knew it in the last cou­ple of cen­turies, how do we change that par­ty into a par­ty which is rel­e­vant to the mod­ern world, to mod­ern communications? 

In the old days, peo­ple who sup­port­ed Labor or vot­ed Labor or who looked to the Labor Par­ty as their insti­tu­tion in soci­ety would go to a town hall meet­ing, a branch meet­ing or a trade union meet­ing to get their infor­ma­tion and in some respects to get their advice. Now if it’s a choice between watch­ing ABC24 or going online at 7.30 on a Mon­day night or going to a branch meet­ing, then I know what peo­ple do. 

They vote with mod­ern com­mu­ni­ca­tions and mod­ern means of infor­ma­tion. So my view is that to try and tap into the vast num­bers of peo­ple in Aus­tralian soci­ety who con­tin­ue to look to Labor as their polit­i­cal par­ty, we need to engage them. I would move to a sys­tem of reg­is­tered par­ty sup­port­ers so that we could have an online com­mu­ni­ca­tion with them- 

ALI MOORE: A sys­tem of pri­maries in essence? 

STEPHEN SMITH: Yep, absolute­ly. And I’d give them a role in pre-selec­tion. I think you’ve got to roll the dice in a lat­er­al and a cre­ative way. Because John’s cen­tral point is right: if the par­ty does not adapt and adopt to mod­ern cir­cum­stances, then we will fall by the wayside. 

ALI MOORE: Well, thank you very much, Stephen Smith, for your time. All issues will be dis­cussed at the nation­al con­fer­ence no doubt lat­er in the year. Many thanks for join­ing us. 

STEPHEN SMITH: Absolute­ly. Would­n’t miss it for the world. 

ALI MOORE: Thanks for join­ing us. 

STEPHEN SMITH: Thanks very much. 

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

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