Australia — Stephen Smith press conference at ISAF HQ, Afghanistan

STEPHEN SMITH: My vis­it to Afghanistan is in a sense in three parts, first­ly my meet­ings today with Afghan Min­is­ters, my brief­in­gs this evening, in par­tic­u­lar tonight, din­ner with Gen­er­al Patraeus on ISAF mat­ters and then third­ly tomor­row, a vis­it to Tarin Kowt and Uruz­gan Province to see on the ground what we’re actu­al­ly doing.

First­ly, I’ve had today two meet­ings with Afghan min­is­te­r­i­al coun­ter­parts, Inte­ri­or Min­is­ter Moham­ma­di and Defence Min­is­ter War­dak. A num­ber of points, first­ly both Min­is­ters under­lined very much the great grat­i­tude of the Afghan Gov­ern­ment and Afghan peo­ple for the con­tri­bu­tion that Aus­tralia is mak­ing to secu­ri­ty in Afghanistan and they par­tic­u­lar­ly make the point of acknowl­edg­ing the sac­ri­fice and the pain that Aus­tralian sol­diers, Aus­tralian fam­i­lies, and Aus­tralia has suf­fered in recent times with 10 deaths in a few short months. Sec­ond­ly, the con­tri­bu­tion that Aus­tralia makes is very much appre­ci­at­ed; not just the qual­i­ty of the work but the man­ner in which Aus­tralian sol­diers go about it. 

I think it’s true to say that in the meet­ings I had with the two Min­is­ters, there is a very strong com­mit­ment, a very strong resolve, to the pro­gram of tran­si­tion, of tran­si­tion­ing secu­ri­ty arrange­ments from the Inter­na­tion­al Secu­ri­ty Assis­tance Force to the Afghan Nation­al Army and the Afghan Police Force. A very strong com­mit­ment and resolve to see that train­ing effect­ed. That of course is in Uruz­gan Province, Australia’s mis­sion to train Kan­daks to enable the Afghan secu­ri­ty ser­vices to be in a posi­tion to take care of secu­ri­ty mat­ters themselves. 

I of course arrive in the after­math of the Afghan par­lia­men­tary elec­tions, and whilst there will be a range of issues that the Afghan Elec­tion Com­mis­sion and Com­plaints Com­mis­sion need to deal with, my analy­sis from afar has been rein­forced by the analy­sis of the Afghan Min­is­ters which is very pleased that for the first occa­sion that we see secu­ri­ty for the Afghan elec­tion planned and imple­ment­ed by Afghan secu­ri­ty ser­vices, in par­tic­u­lar the Afghan Nation­al Army and police. 

So I am, of course, very grate­ful for the mes­sage of sol­i­dar­i­ty and con­do­lences that I received from the two Min­is­ters. They are also very pleased to hear that strong com­mit­ment and resolve to the tran­si­tion. The meet­ing, the so-called Kab­ul Con­fer­ence, was held here a cou­ple of months ago where the inter­na­tion­al com­mu­ni­ty resolved to effect that tran­si­tion by 2014. My judg­ment after the brief­in­gs I have received and meet­ings I have held to date is that slow progress is being made. No-one is over­stat­ing the dif­fi­cul­ty of the task, but I think it is the case on the train­ing front and the secu­ri­ty front, par­tic­u­lar­ly in Kab­ul itself, progress is being made. 

QUESTION: Giv­en the focus is so square­ly now focused on the tran­si­tion and on the train­ing front in par­tic­u­lar, have you received any requests dur­ing your talks so far today for Aus­tralia to do more? 

STEPHEN SMITH: Well oth­er than on the ques­tion of train­ing of police, whether it is pos­si­ble for us to add to the con­tri­bu­tion we are mak­ing on the police front, no. Of course our increase in con­tri­bu­tion has come in two ways. First­ly, the [inaudi­ble] surge where we have seen a sig­nif­i­cant increase in Unit­ed States and NATO forces, we increased our con­tri­bu­tion from 1100 to 1550 some 18 months ago. That’s effec­tive­ly as 40 per cent increase. More recent­ly we have, of course, sub­stan­tial­ly increased our civil­ian con­tri­bu­tion, devel­op­ment assis­tance and also police train­ing so, for exam­ple, the num­ber of Aus­tralian Fed­er­al Police offi­cers engaged in train­ing has been increased in recent times from 20 to about 28. 

Now I have been asked to look at if there is more we can do on that front. Obvi­ous­ly that is a con­ver­sa­tion that I need to have with the For­eign Min­is­ter, Mr Rudd, and also the Gov­ern­ment in gen­er­al, but from my own point of view, giv­en we need to ensure train­ing not just of the Afghan Nation­al Army but also the police that is some­thing that I am very hap­py to take back to the Gov­ern­ment to see if there is more we can do on that front. 

QUESTION: So you have not had a request for addi­tion­al mil­i­tary per­son­nel, artillery, engineers? .

STEPHEN SMITH: No and I wouldn’t expect that. As I say, I’ve had some brief­in­gs today with Aus­tralian offi­cials includ­ing those involved with the Inter­na­tion­al Secu­ri­ty Assis­tance Force. I’m about to go and have a meet­ing and din­ner now with Gen­er­al Petraeus but giv­en we made that sub­stan­tial increase in our con­tri­bu­tion some time ago to 1550, we have nei­ther been expect­ing nor received any request for an increase to the 1550 and the point that I’ve made and my pre­de­ces­sors have made is that our con­tri­bu­tion is about right. We are the largest non-NATO con­trib­u­tor and come in the top dozen con­trib­u­tors and we are mak­ing a sub­stan­tial con­tri­bu­tion to the train­ing of Afghan secu­ri­ty ser­vices in Uruz­gan Province. 

QUESTION: Mr Smith, in dis­cus­sions we have had here in the back­ground, we’ve been told it is like­ly that you will get a request specif­i­cal­ly for artillery instruc­tors for the Afghan Army, and a total num­ber of around 30 police and army per­son­nel may be sought. 

STEPHEN SMITH: Well in these mat­ters I don’t deal in hypo­thet­i­cals as I say, the only con­ver­sa­tion I have had today which goes to those mat­ters, to fur­ther assis­tance in the police train­ing area. If I do receive a request from the Afghan author­i­ties, then obvi­ous­ly I will con­sid­er that and car­ry it back. I take these things very much step by step, stage by stage. For some time now as a gen­er­al propo­si­tion the Aus­tralian view is that we are mak­ing a sig­nif­i­cant con­tri­bu­tion and that that con­tri­bu­tion is about right. 

QUESTION: Has it been put to you, or is it your view that with­out extra train­ing sup­port, things could be on a knife edge here in terms of the progress con­tin­u­ing or stalling or going backwards? 

STEPHEN SMITH: Well I’m very much look­ing for­ward to my con­ver­sa­tion with Gen­er­al Petraeus, but as I say, the basis of con­ver­sa­tions I’ve had, there is a view that slow but steady progress is being made. We have seen, for exam­ple over the last 12 months or so, a sub­stan­tial increase in the num­ber of Unit­ed States forces on the ground and NATO forces, but the one thing that has if you like impressed me in con­ver­sa­tions with Afghan Min­is­ters has been a steely resolve to effect the tran­si­tion of secu­ri­ty respon­si­bil­i­ty and a very clear under­stand­ing that train­ing is the key. 

Just going back to the ques­tion of pro­vid­ing addi­tion­al con­tri­bu­tions. With­in our 1550 cap of course on a reg­u­lar basis we review what those forces are doing, so it is pos­si­ble, for exam­ple, from time to time to swap the func­tion or swap the role. If, for exam­ple, if I receive a request on the artillery front, that is some­thing that could be in that con­text, but in say­ing that I have not received such a request yet. 

QUESTION: Does it sur­prise you that clear­ly NATO offi­cials are push­ing for more train­ers from a whole bunch of coun­tries to sup­port the effort, but at the same time Barack Obama’s strat­e­gy is to start with­draw­ing mid next year? 

STEPHEN SMITH: There are two points to make here. First­ly we know that Pres­i­dent Oba­ma has asked Gen­er­al Petraeus to effect a review by Decem­ber this year to see how the surge is going, how the effects of the secu­ri­ty tran­si­tion are going. I have always tried to advise peo­ple to be wary of con­fus­ing a draw­down with a with­draw­al and the Pres­i­dent, Gen­er­al Petraeus, and his pre­de­ces­sor always made it clear that any such draw down has to be con­di­tions based, so again my approach is, let’s await the out­come of the review that Gen­er­al Petraeus will effect on the President’s behalf by Decem­ber this year and then see, what if any, draw­down occurs in July of next year. Pres­i­dent Oba­ma him­self has made that point that these mat­ters do need to be con­di­tions based, and cer­tain­ly Gen­er­al Petraeus has made that point as well. 

QUESTION: Hav­ing now been here and had some brief­in­gs, are you still com­fort­able with the time­frame of two to four years where­by Aus­tralia can start wind­ing back? 

STEPHEN SMITH: That con­tin­ues to be the advice from the Chief of the Defence Force and I have to say that in the course of my dis­cus­sions today and I don’t over­state, I have had sug­ges­tions from Afghan offi­cials that pos­si­bly the train­ing could be done more quick­ly. Now I don’t over­state that, I think the advice we have received from the Chief of the Defence Force, which has been con­sis­tent advice now for a peri­od of time, is that we believe on the basis of that advice that our train­ing job can be done in two to four years. 

QUESTION: Are the Afghan offi­cials and Afghan Defence Min­is­ter sug­gest­ing that in Uruz­gan those troops might be ready, or near­ly ready to take control? 

STEPHEN SMITH: Once again, I don’t want to over­state that. There was a bit of opti­mism expressed that it could be done in a short­er peri­od of time but still with­in the two to four year period. 

QUESTION: So clos­er to two years than four? 

STEPHEN SMITH: You might want to split the difference. 

QUESTION: Were any oth­er con­cerns raised by the Afghan Inte­ri­or Min­is­ter or Defence Min­is­ter about the way Aus­tralian sol­diers are per­form­ing; about civil­ian casualties? 

STEPHEN SMITH: On the con­trary, both Min­is­ters have made the point that they high­ly val­ue the way in which Aus­tralian troops con­duct them­selves and they believe the Aus­tralian peo­ple mixed well with the Afghan com­mu­ni­ty; go out of their way to ensure good rela­tions there. We know that from time to time, some­times regret­table and ter­ri­ble inci­dents occur which involve civil­ians, but the Army, the Chief of Defence Force and the Gov­ern­ment have always been strong­ly of the view that when these inci­dents occur they are rig­or­ous­ly and exten­sive­ly and exhaus­tive­ly exam­ined, and if mis­takes have been made then we are upfront, open and trans­par­ent about it. 

On the con­trary, the regard with which our forces are held is not just one of exper­tise and qual­i­ty, but of the way they car­ry them­selves, the way they con­duct them­selves, and go out of their way to ensure they get on with the local peo­ple and that is con­sis­tent with the gen­er­al approach. This is not a con­flict which can be one by mil­i­tary force alone and that is why in addi­tion to a mil­i­tary and secu­ri­ty effort there also has to be a polit­i­cal and civil­ian and a devel­op­ment assis­tance con­tri­bu­tion, and in the course of my dis­cus­sions with the two Afghan Min­is­ters and more gen­er­al­ly we have also dis­cussed the peace and rec­on­cil­i­a­tion plan and the need for rec­on­cil­i­a­tion, the need for rein­te­gra­tion but ulti­mate­ly for a polit­i­cal solu­tion that is respect­ed not just in Afghanistan but in the region. 

QUESTION: While you have been here, have you had any brief­ing on that bat­tle in Deh Rawood, the email? 

STEPHEN SMITH: No, but I am expect­ing that tomor­row when I am in Tarin Kowt and Uruz­gan Province and I will have the oppor­tu­ni­ty to speak to some of the Com­man­dos involved. I cer­tain­ly won’t walk away if that occurs, but I make this very impor­tant point, irre­spec­tive of what I hear tomor­row, I will wait patient­ly for the out­comes of the exhaus­tive and com­plete inves­ti­ga­tion by the Aus­tralian Defence Force into that inci­dent and that death. I don’t think it is appro­pri­ate for me to be sec­ond guess­ing or mak­ing a judg­ment in advance. I think every­one should wait for that exhaus­tive report that takes place in the course of nor­mal events. I have made clear and Gen­er­al Evans has made clear and CDF has made clear to me that all the asser­tions out there in the pub­lic are­na will be tak­en into account dur­ing the course of the inves­ti­ga­tion includ­ing the views of the email. 

QUESTION: So if that inves­ti­ga­tion found that Aus­tralians do need more fire sup­port in Uruz­gan would that be some­thing that you would consider? 

STEPHEN SMITH: As I don’t sec­ond guess in advance let’s await the inves­ti­ga­tion and the report. 

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

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