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.
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