Australia — Stephen Smith on Withdrawal of US troops from Afghanistan

TOPICS: With­draw­al of US troops from Afghanistan; DLA Piper review; Force Pos­ture Review
Min­is­ter for Defence Stephen Smith — Inter­view with Wendy Kingston, Nine News
WENDY KINGSTON: US Pres­i­dent Barack Oba­ma is poised to announce the with­draw­al of up to 15,000 troops from Afghanistan. Defence Min­is­ter Stephen Smith joins us now from our Can­ber­ra stu­dios, this after­noon; Min­is­ter, thank you for your time.
STEPHEN SMITH: A plea­sure.
WENDY KINGSTON: Will Aus­tralia fol­low suit here on this?

STEPHEN SMITH: Well, no, we don’t believe that the draw-down, what­ev­er the num­ber is — and we need to wait until tomor­row to see that — we don’t believe that will have any impli­ca­tions for us in Uruz­gan province. We’ve got 1550 peo­ple there, on aver­age — we think that’s the right amount to do our job, which is to train the Afghan Nation­al Army to be able to take respon­si­bil­i­ty for secu­ri­ty in 2014.

But as Pres­i­dent Oba­ma said, when he announced the 30 to 40,000 surge back in 2009, that he would draw down from about this time, so it’s no sur­prise. But we do want to see the detail tomor­row.

WENDY KINGSTON: And what’s your response to the talk around today that Aussie sol­diers could be adverse­ly affect­ed if the US does pull num­bers out?

STEPHEN SMITH: Well we don’t believe that will be the case. As I say, we don’t believe it will have any adverse impli­ca­tions for our troops in Uruz­gan province. But there’s noth­ing incon­sis­tent with what the Pres­i­dent is propos­ing to do in terms of a draw-down, after a sub­stan­tial surge — we saw a surge of US and NATO forces of some 40,000.

At the same time we’ve seen a growth in the Afghan Nation­al Army forces of some 70 to 80,000 — and so the judge­ment is that, as we’ve made secu­ri­ty progress, you can real­lo­cate resources. But we will have the chance tomor­row to look at the fine detail, but for the present, as a result of the con­ver­sa­tions we’ve had with our US coun­ter­parts and US offi­cials, we don’t believe it will have any adverse con­se­quences for our troops in Uruz­gan province.

WENDY KINGSTON: Okay, Min­is­ter, just mov­ing onto anoth­er issue now. The law firm that’s run­ning the gov­ern­ment-ordered inquiry into the Defence Force at the moment — it’s come out and claimed that more than 1000 peo­ple have now come for­ward with alle­ga­tions of bul­ly­ing and sex­u­al abuse. Are you shocked by that num­ber?

STEPHEN SMITH: Well, cer­tain­ly, it’s a large num­ber, but in the after­math of the Skype inci­dent I received innu­mer­able emails, phone calls, mes­sages and the like, to my own office — so I estab­lished an exter­nal review, led by the law firm DLA Piper, and they announced yes­ter­day that, at the close of busi­ness on 17 June, they had received some 1000 alle­ga­tions.

They vary from anony­mous, gen­er­al alle­ga­tions, to detailed, spe­cif­ic alle­ga­tions; the key thing now is for the law firm to work through all of those alle­ga­tions and make a judge­ment and report to me by the end of August about which ones might be plau­si­ble cas­es, or which need to be pur­sued, so that the Gov­ern­ment and I can make a judg­ment about the best way of pro­gress­ing these mat­ters.

There are seri­ous alle­ga­tions, and they need to be dealt with prop­er­ly, but we need to do it method­i­cal­ly and care­ful­ly, and do it in an order­ly way, and that’s what we’re doing.

WENDY KINGSTON: Okay, Min­is­ter, just final­ly — just quick­ly — you’ve actu­al­ly launched a major review into Defence Force assets; can you quick­ly tell us about that?

STEPHEN SMITH: Well, we need to make sure that what we call our force pos­ture is right — that we’ve got the geo­graph­ic dis­po­si­tion of our forces right — and all of the secu­ri­ty and strate­gic chal­lenges are to our north; the growth of the Asia Pacif­ic region, the grow­ing impor­tance of the Indi­an Ocean rim.

So it does mean into the future that we may well be look­ing at a greater allo­ca­tion of assets in West­ern Aus­tralia — for the Indi­an Ocean; in the north-west and north­ern approach­es to Aus­tralia, par­tic­u­lar­ly with emerg­ing ener­gy secu­ri­ty issues, with an expo­nen­tial­ly grow­ing ener­gy belt of petro­le­um resources to our north; and also the poten­tial that fur­ther bases or assets might be allo­cat­ed to north-east Queens­land.

But this review — which I’ve asked to be done effec­tive­ly inde­pen­dent­ly — will feed in to our next White Paper in the first quar­ter of 2014, but it helps make sure that we get our mod­ern secu­ri­ty and strate­gic chal­lenges right. It’s the first time in a long while that we’ve done one, but it just makes sure that we are look­ing in a clear-sight­ed way to the future about the secu­ri­ty and strate­gic chal­lenges that we face.

WENDY KINGSTON: Okay, Defence Min­is­ter Stephen Smith, thanks very much for your time this after­noon, we appre­ci­ate it.

STEPHEN SMITH: Thank you.

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

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