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.
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