Australia/NATO — Minister Smith transcript doorstop Lisbon

STEPHEN SMITH: Thanks very much for turn­ing up. I’m very pleased to be here in Lis­bon for the NATO ISAF sum­mit. The Prime Min­is­ter of course will arrive lat­er today. This of course is the sec­ond NATO ISAF Lead­er­ship sum­mit that Aus­tralia has attend­ed, the last one in Bucharest.

This is a very impor­tant sum­mit. It will con­sol­i­date the notion of tran­si­tion to Afghan respon­si­bil­i­ty for secu­ri­ty in Afghanistan by the end of 2014. The sum­mit will see the estab­lish­ment of a joint NATO-ISAF-Afghan tran­si­tion group to deter­mine over time the province by province, dis­trict by dis­trict tran­si­tion to Afghan secu­ri­ty respon­si­bil­i­ty. In the NATO for­mat we’ll also see an endur­ing part­ner­ship between NATO and Afghanistan mak­ing the point, as the Prime Min­is­ter did in the Par­lia­men­tary debate in Aus­tralia, that once the tran­si­tion has occurred there will still be things for the inter­na­tion­al com­mu­ni­ty to do. There will cer­tain­ly be a long-term require­ment for devel­op­ment assis­tance and civ­il capac­i­ty building. 

Of course in addi­tion to the for­mal NATO/ISAF ses­sion tomor­row, the Prime Min­is­ter and I will be engag­ing in a range of bilat­er­al meet­ings. In my own case with rel­e­vant coun­ter­parts but also with Unit­ed Nations offi­cers, with Gen­er­al Petraeus from ISAF, with Ambas­sador Sed­will on the civil­ian front, also Pres­i­dent Karzai. And all of these meet­ings will under­line Australia’s commitment. 

We are the largest non-NATO mil­i­tary con­trib­u­tor. We’re in the top ten mil­i­tary con­trib­u­tors. We are in the top twen­ty devel­op­ment assis­tance and civil­ian capac­i­ty build­ing con­trib­u­tors. We are in the top twen­ty train­ers. And in terms of spe­cial forces, we are in the top three after the Unit­ed States and the Unit­ed Kingdom. 

So we con­tin­ue to make a sub­stan­tial and endur­ing con­tri­bu­tion to Afghanistan. Our nation­al inter­est rea­son for being there is, of course, that we want to ensure that Afghanistan does not again become a breed­ing ground for inter­na­tion­al terrorists. 

I’m hap­py to respond to your questions.

JOURNALIST: There have been reports in the media that the Amer­i­cans have repeat­ed­ly asked you or your depart­ment for more troops over sev­er­al years. Do you absolute­ly deny that that’s occurred?

STEPHEN SMITH: These reports are absolute­ly with­out any basis what­so­ev­er. And I don’t know what the jour­nal­ists con­cerned were doing this morn­ing, but as I was fly­ing with the Chief of the Defence Force who again, not for the first time, made the point to me that there is no basis for these sug­ges­tions, some of which I’ve seen in the past, indeed our Ambas­sador to NATO made the same point to me as well. We’ve seen these sug­ges­tions in the past. There is no basis for them.

I think there are three very impor­tant points to make here. First­ly it is the extent of our com­mit­ment. As I said ear­li­er we are the largest non-NATO con­trib­u­tor in terms of mil­i­tary con­tri­bu­tion, in the top ten. We’re in the top twen­ty when it comes to train­ing effort, and the top twen­ty when it comes to civil­ian devel­op­ment assis­tance capac­i­ty build­ing, and in the top three when it comes to the use of spe­cial forces. 

If you look at what the Amer­i­cans have said on and off the record, we saw it again when Sec­re­tary of State Clin­ton and Sec­re­tary of Defense Gates were in Mel­bourne a cou­ple of weeks ago for AUSMIN, again laud­ing the con­tri­bu­tion that we make. That’s the first point.

Sec­ond­ly, from time to time there are gen­er­al or gener­ic requests that are made through NATO or through ISAF and from time to time we respond to these. As I have recent­ly, for exam­ple, when I was in Kab­ul with Gen­er­al Petraeus: we received an express request for artillery train­ers, we respond­ed to that request. We are now the lead artillery train­er. We’ve also received requests for fur­ther con­tri­bu­tion to the so-called Cen­tre Field Oper­at­ing Train­ing Cen­tre in Afghanistan. We will, in the course of this sum­mit, make a fur­ther con­tri­bu­tion to that. 

So from time to time we get express requests and we do what we can to meet these requests. Gen­er­al McChrys­tal did make a very impor­tant request of the Chief of the Defence Force. It was to sup­ply a senior offi­cer to be embed­ded in Gen­er­al McChyrstal’s head­quar­ters which we respond­ed to pos­i­tive­ly very quickly.

I’ve read the sto­ries. There is no basis to them. They are with­out foun­da­tion. And the Unit­ed States has not made repeat­ed requests. What the Unit­ed States has repeat­ed­ly done is to tell us pub­licly and pri­vate­ly how much they appre­ci­ate the con­tri­bu­tion that Aus­tralia makes.

JOURNALIST: So someone’s lying somewhere?

STEPHEN SMITH: You would need to ask the jour­nal­ists which of the three un-named sources that the sto­ry relies upon might want to pop out publicly.

JOURNALIST: Would Aus­tralia send more troops to Afghanistan if they did receive a request from NATO lead­ers at this summit?

STEPHEN SMITH: We’re not expect­ing to receive such a request and we don’t believe we will. One of the very impor­tant items that will be con­ceived in the course of this sum­mit will be a NATO and ISAF request for a fur­ther train­ing effort. We’ve already respond­ed to that with our response to artillery train­ers. We’re also giv­ing fur­ther con­sid­er­a­tion to addi­tion­al police for police train­ing purposes. 

So we increased our con­tri­bu­tion from 1,100 to 1,550. We did that in April last year, some six months before the so called surge. So we increased our mil­i­tary con­tri­bu­tion by between 40 and 50 per cent in April of 2009. We saw a com­pa­ra­ble increase as a result of the McChrys­tal-Oba­ma review, the new strat­e­gy, at the end of last year from oth­er countries. 

So we are mak­ing a con­tri­bu­tion that is appro­pri­ate for the job that we have to do in Uruz­gan, and it stands very well when com­pared with oth­er coun­tries, both NATO and non-NATO countries.

JOURNALIST: Can you clar­i­fy Min­is­ter, what’s the dif­fer­ence between a gen­er­al or gener­ic request and a spe­cif­ic request? Are you say­ing you haven’t received for­mal­ly or infor­mal­ly a spe­cif­ic request for ground troops, but you’ve received a request for trainers?

STEPHEN SMITH: Since we increased our com­pli­ment to 1,550 on aver­age, we have not received a request from the Unit­ed States for addi­tion­al troops. That’s the first point. And the asser­tions that we have had, quote repeat­ed requests from the Amer­i­cans for addi­tion­al troops, is base­less and with­out foun­da­tion. That’s the first one. 

Sec­ond­ly, from time to time either NATO or ISAF will pro­duce what are called Gen­er­al Force Require­ments. They are pub­lished to all of the pre­vi­ous­ly 47, now 48 with the addi­tion of Ton­ga, all of the ISAF and NATO coun­tries. And peo­ple respond accord­ing­ly. And from time to time we have respond­ed to such gen­er­al requests for niche or par­tic­u­lar areas of operation. 

From time to time we’ve also received express or par­tic­u­lar­ly requests either from Gen­er­al Petraeus or from some­one in ISAF or NATO and where we have been able to do this we have respond­ed pos­i­tive­ly and favourably. The most recent exam­ple is the addi­tion­al artillery train­ers that we are pro­vid­ing for the Kab­ul Artillery School.

JOURNALIST: Could it be that there have been less for­mal sound­ings out with Australians….

STEPHEN SMITH: When you are talk­ing about the com­mit­ment of a country’s troops to war­fare there is no such thing as an infor­mal request. You are either asked advis­ed­ly by our ally the Unit­ed States, you are either asked advis­ed­ly by NATO, you are either asked advis­ed­ly by the Inter­na­tion­al Secu­ri­ty Assis­tance Force, or you are not asked at all. When it comes to the com­mit­ment of troops to a for­eign land there is no such thing in the eyes of the Aus­tralian Gov­ern­ment as an infor­mal request.

JOURNALIST: Min­is­ter, what should we expect at this NATO meet­ing, it’s out­come in terms of the tran­si­tion, the exit strategy?

STEPHEN SMITH: Well the out­come I’ve referred to in pass­ing, it will be the estab­lish­ment of a NATO-ISAF-Afghan group respon­si­ble for pro­cess­ing the tran­si­tion, mak­ing judge­ments about province to province, dis­trict to dis­trict, when and where the tran­si­tion to Afghan-led secu­ri­ty respon­si­bil­i­ty can occur. And we expect that by the end of this year the pre­lim­i­nary work for that would have been done. We expect by the mid­dle of next year that group will have been able to make deci­sions on the first provinces where a tran­si­tion can occur. In our own case we are not expect­ing on any mea­sure that Uruz­gan will be part of the first tranche or the first group.

JOURNALIST: There was a sug­ges­tion of mov­ing into Kan­da­har Province. Can you clar­i­fy whether there’s any sug­ges­tion of shift­ing our contribution?

STEPHEN SMITH: Two things, first­ly we are, of course, based in Uruz­gan Province. I have seen sug­ges­tions in the after­math of AUSMIN that we were request­ed by the Unit­ed States to con­tem­plate mov­ing our spe­cial forces to Kan­da­har. This is not the case. No such request was received by us from the Unit­ed States to move our spe­cial forces from Tarin Kowt in Uruz­gan Province to Kan­da­har. That’s the first point.

The sec­ond point, in accor­dance with the flex­i­ble oper­at­ing arrange­ments that we have, and this has been the case for some time, from time to time at the request of ISAF, at the request of the Inter­na­tion­al Secu­ri­ty Assis­tance Force through Gen­er­al Petraeus’s head­quar­ters, from time to time we do agree to allow our spe­cial forces to oper­ate with­in Kan­da­har when they can pro­vide some spe­cial assis­tance. That occurs in accor­dance with the flex­i­ble oper­at­ing arrange­ments and pro­ce­dures that we have put in place. They’ve been in place for some time.

JOURNALIST: How much con­flict is there in terms of the tran­si­tion strat­e­gy between the sort of ideas that Pres­i­dent Karzai has put for­ward for a time­line, a dead­line, and the ideas that Aus­tralia and oth­er forces have put for­ward about a con­di­tions-based exit? 

STEPHEN SMITH: I think the impor­tant point is that both the Afghan Gov­ern­ment and the Inter­na­tion­al Secu­ri­ty Assis­tance Force, the inter­na­tion­al com­mu­ni­ty, want to tran­si­tion to Afghan respon­si­bil­i­ty. Aus­tralia does not want to be in Afghanistan for­ev­er. We know we can’t leave tomor­row because we know we need to effect that tran­si­tion to the Afghan Nation­al Army, the Afghan Nation­al Police, the Afghan Secu­ri­ty Forces, to enable them to man­age these mat­ters by them­selves. And we have seen in recent times con­sid­er­ably improvement. 

So there is a shared view, the inter­na­tion­al com­mu­ni­ty has a view that we want to tran­si­tion to Afghan respon­si­bil­i­ty. And the Afghan Gov­ern­ment and the Afghan nation and the Afghan peo­ple also want to take, for sov­er­eign­ty rea­sons, respon­si­bil­i­ty for these mat­ters. It needs to be con­di­tions-based which is why one of the things we’ve been work­ing very hard on is to put our­selves in the posi­tion of being able to mea­sure both quan­ti­ta­tive­ly and qual­i­ta­tive­ly improve­ment in capac­i­ty on the part of the Afghan Secu­ri­ty Forces. One of the very impor­tant point­ers I believe in recent times has been that when the Par­lia­men­tary elec­tions were held this year, for the first time the Afghan Secu­ri­ty Forces took lead respon­si­bil­i­ty for the secu­ri­ty arrange­ments, for the plan­ning, the on-the-day arrange­ments for that par­lia­men­tary elec­tion. We know the Tal­iban tried to dis­rupt the elec­tion. Aus­tralia and oth­er Inter­na­tion­al Secu­ri­ty Assis­tance Forces were effec­tive­ly held in reserve on that day. We weren’t required. 

So that was a sig­nif­i­cant improve­ment and a sig­nif­i­cant pos­i­tive sig­nal of the grow­ing capac­i­ty of the Afghan Secu­ri­ty Forces. And in recent times in Uruz­gan Province, as you would have seen from releas­es issued from time to time by Defence, we are now becom­ing much more effec­tive in the joint oper­a­tions we do with the Afghan Nation­al Army, includ­ing recent­ly a very suc­cess­ful patrol which the Afghan Nation­al Army itself effec­tive­ly led.

JOURNALIST: The British Gov­ern­ment has said by 2015 we are out of here and that is an immove­able date. Is that too pre­scrip­tive and why hasn’t Aus­tralia done the same thing?

STEPHEN SMITH: Well what the British Gov­ern­ment does and says is a mat­ter of course for the British Gov­ern­ment. What Aus­tralia has said is that we believe we can meet in Uruz­gan Province the inter­na­tion­al timetable, the inter­na­tion­al ambi­tion set by the end of 2014 to make a tran­si­tion. We con­tin­ue to get advice, not just from the Chief of the Defence Force, but also from Gen­er­al Cantwell and our oth­er senior offi­cers on the ground, that we are on track to effect our train­ing mis­sion in Uruz­gan Province over the next two to four years. 

But we also very impor­tant­ly, and this will also be part of the Sum­mit, we’ve also very impor­tant­ly made the point that once that train­ing oper­a­tion has been suc­cess­ful­ly com­plet­ed, there will be oth­er things for Aus­tralia to do. It might be an over­watch capac­i­ty as was the case in Iraq, it might be some use of spe­cial forces. Cer­tain­ly there will be the need for longer-term civil­ian capac­i­ty build­ing and devel­op­ment assis­tance. And you’ll see in the Sum­mit com­mu­niqué tomor­row the ref­er­ence to the tran­si­tion­al invest­ment, invest­ing the pro­ceeds of tran­si­tion. In oth­er words, once the train­ing oblig­a­tion has been com­plet­ed, what is the capac­i­ty for a coun­try to make a fur­ther contribution? 

You’ve seen a cou­ple of exam­ples. The exam­ple that I have just giv­en in Australia’s case where we’ve made it quite clear that once the train­ing job is over, we see a role for us to do oth­er things, the detail of that to be deter­mined into the future. But also take Cana­da. Cana­da has deter­mined to with­draw its com­bat con­tri­bu­tion but it has also said that it will make a sub­stan­tial train­ing con­tri­bu­tion, 950, near­ly 1,000 train­ers. So hav­ing made the deci­sion to with­draw a com­bat force, it’s now mak­ing the deci­sion to rein­vest a sub­stan­tial train­ing capac­i­ty. And that’s a very good thing and we wel­come that. 

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

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