Defence Minister Stephen Smith on Australia’s military operation in Afghanistan

KIERAN GILBERT: Today in the Par­lia­ment, nine years since Australia’s mil­i­tary oper­a­tions began in the trou­bled coun­try, Afghanistan; MPs will debate the mer­its of the ongo­ing deploy­ment that has already claimed the lives of 21 Aus­tralians.

Ear­li­er this morn­ing, ahead of the debate, I spoke to the Defence Min­is­ter, Stephen Smith.

Defence Min­is­ter Stephen Smith, thanks for your time.

STEPHEN SMITH: Plea­sure.

KIERAN GILBERT: Peter Gra­tion, the for­mer Chief of the Defence Force, says there needs to be more clar­i­ty, that the vague mil­i­tary aims in Afghanistan are under­min­ing the war effort. What’s your response to that?

STEPHEN SMITH: I think that’s a cor­rect assess­ment for a peri­od of our effort in Afghanistan. I don’t think it’s a cor­rect assess­ment now.

I think when we look back on this peri­od there are a cou­ple of mis­takes that the inter­na­tion­al com­mu­ni­ty has made. First­ly the ini­tial effort in Afghanistan, includ­ing our own, was 2001–2002. There was then effec­tive­ly the Iraq dis­trac­tion and so you saw too few resources in Afghanistan over that peri­od and a reduc­tion and with­draw­al of our own forces there. In 2005–2006 when effec­tive­ly the inter­na­tion­al com­mu­ni­ty came back in force, I think it took us too long to get to the well-defined strat­e­gy that we have now which is as a result of the Riedel review, the McChrys­tal review, the Oba­ma review, which is we can’t be there for­ev­er, we don’t want to be there for­ev­er but we do need the Afghan secu­ri­ty forces in a posi­tion where they can man­age their own affairs. That’s why our focus has been for the last two or three years on train­ing. So it’s the train­ing effort that we are engaged in. It’s also the case that this won’t be won by mil­i­tary force alone. At some point there has to be a polit­i­cal rein­te­gra­tion and polit­i­cal rec­on­cil­i­a­tion. There has to be a polit­i­cal out­come as well to give sta­bil­i­ty to Afghanistan and to the region and that’s why Aus­tralia, over the last cou­ple of years, has been strong­ly sup­port­ive of such rec­on­cil­i­a­tion and rein­te­gra­tion efforts.

KIERAN GILBERT: You talk about the strat­e­gy, the revised strat­e­gy under Pres­i­dent Oba­ma, but Peter Gra­tion, retired gen­er­al, says there needs to be even clear­er objec­tives about the exit strat­e­gy. You’re talk­ing about a path­way to an exit strat­e­gy but he wants a clear­er state­ment.

STEPHEN SMITH: We all have and I per­son­al­ly have the high­est regard for Peter Gra­tion. I think the real point he’s made today is — and I don’t talk in terms of exit strat­e­gy and I cer­tain­ly don’t, as Peter Gra­tion says, I cer­tain­ly don’t put an arti­fi­cial timetable on that — we believe in Uruz­gan that we can com­plete and effect our train­ing mis­sion on a two to four year timetable. The inter­na­tion­al com­mu­ni­ty, at its last inter­na­tion­al con­fer­ence in Afghanistan itself, in Kab­ul, believed the tran­si­tion could be effect­ed by 2014. But we do need to make sure that tran­si­tion is, to use the jar­gon, con­di­tions-based or met­rics-based. In oth­er words, you have to be objec­tive about it and that’s the real point, I think, the strength of the point that Peter is mak­ing today.

And the next most impor­tant inter­na­tion­al con­fer­ence on Afghanistan will be in Lis­bon in Novem­ber. It’ll be a NATO ISAF con­fer­ence and that will real­ly start the detailed work on the tran­si­tion.

Now, the tran­si­tion will be uneven, it will be dif­fer­ent — a dif­fer­ent time, a dif­fer­ent timetable, and dif­fer­ent cir­cum­stances in dif­fer­ent parts of Afghanistan. Regard­ing our respon­si­bil­i­ty in Uruz­gan Province, we con­tin­ue to believe that can be done in a two to four year timetable.

KIERAN GILBERT: Well, you say — you men­tioned that it can’t be just won mil­i­tar­i­ly. Alexan­der Down­er, the for­mer For­eign Min­is­ter, said it can’t be — the Tal­iban can’t be – defeat­ed; that it’s impos­si­ble mil­i­tar­i­ly. Do you agree with that?

STEPHEN SMITH: I agree with the view, because I’ve put it myself and Aus­tralia has put it inter­na­tion­al­ly over the last few years, that this is not a con­flict, not a chal­lenge that can be won or be met by use of mil­i­tary force alone. Yes, of course there has to be secu­ri­ty aspects to it but there also have to be civil­ian and polit­i­cal aspects to it which is why over recent times we have increased our devel­op­ment assis­tance and civil­ian con­tri­bu­tion.

It’s why we’ve also firm­ly focused very much on train­ing the Afghan secu­ri­ty forces and why we have also, at the Lon­don con­fer­ence last year or at the begin­ning of this year, strong­ly sup­port­ed notions of polit­i­cal rec­on­cil­i­a­tion and rein­te­gra­tion and, indeed, we’ve been one of the lead­ing sup­port­ers inter­na­tion­al­ly of this.

This is not a con­flict that can be won by mil­i­tary force alone. In the end there has to be a polit­i­cal solu­tion for not just Afghanistan and the peo­ple of Afghanistan itself, but for the region.

KIERAN GILBERT: Would you wel­come or endorse the anal­o­gy that Alexan­der Down­er made between bring­ing the IRA around the table in North­ern Ire­land…

STEPHEN SMITH: Look, look…

KIERAN GILBERT: …as you’re sug­gest­ing the Tal­iban should be inte­grat­ed?

STEPHEN SMITH: Frankly, I don’t think com­par­isons to oth­er con­flicts or oth­er issues actu­al­ly work. What I do believe in and what I’ve argued for both domes­ti­cal­ly and inter­na­tion­al­ly is this can’t be won by mil­i­tary force alone. There has to be a polit­i­cal effort, there has to be a polit­i­cal rec­on­cil­i­a­tion to bring sta­bil­i­ty to Afghanistan and to the Afghanistan region and in that con­text, of course, Aus­tralia has also been at the fore­front of draw­ing atten­tion to the fact that we have a dif­fi­cul­ty, not just in the Afghanistan-Pak­istan bor­der area, but we have for some time had a sig­nif­i­cant dif­fi­cul­ty and chal­lenge so far as Pak­istan itself is con­cerned, effec­tive­ly an exis­ten­tial­ist threat to Pak­istan, which is why we have con­sid­er­ably upgrad­ed our engage­ment with Pak­istan because of the impor­tance of Pak­istan to South Asia and to the region gen­er­al­ly.

KIERAN GILBERT: The par­lia­men­tary debate starts today, the Greens say it’s long over­due, it’s now near­ly nine years on from the mil­i­tary deploy­ment. Are you expect­ing some diver­gent views with­in Labor ranks? One Labor MP is quot­ed in the paper today as say­ing it’s an oppor­tu­ni­ty to raise ques­tions ask­ing when will this end. You know, your leader says it should be a free and open debate. Do you think there will be some — some crit­i­cisms in your ranks?

STEPHEN SMITH: Well, you get two mem­bers of par­lia­ment togeth­er you’re going to have more than three views so, yes, of course I expect that there will be, you know, a wide range of views. That’s a good thing.

First of all, I think the hold­ing of the debate is a — is a good thing.

KIERAN GILBERT: Over­due?

STEPHEN SMITH: It’s a good thing. It’s not…

KIERAN GILBERT: It’s nine years on.

STEPHEN SMITH: I think it’s very time­ly. Well, I think in one respect it’s unfair, par­tic­u­lar­ly to Min­is­ter Faulkn­er, who was very dili­gent about pro­vid­ing effec­tive quar­ter­ly min­is­te­r­i­al reports on this issue, to sug­gest that some­how this is the only time the opportunity’s been there. But I think it is a good thing. It’ll be infor­ma­tive and educa­tive not just for mem­bers of Par­lia­ment, but for the Aus­tralian pub­lic gen­er­al­ly.

In recent times there has been, I think, a grow­ing appre­ci­a­tion of why we’re there, to help stare down inter­na­tion­al ter­ror­ism, and under­stand­ing we’re not there by our­selves. This is a Unit­ed Nations man­dat­ed inter­na­tion­al secu­ri­ty assis­tance force and we can’t be there for­ev­er. It’s not our objec­tive to be there for­ev­er, the Afghanistan peo­ple don’t want us to be there for­ev­er, but we do have to help put Afghanistan in a posi­tion where they can man­age their own affairs so that the threat inter­na­tion­al­ly from al-Qai­da or from the Haqqani net­work or oth­er ter­ror­ist organ­i­sa­tions does­n’t emerge again.

The orig­i­nal ratio­nale for going to Afghanistan was to defeat al-Qai­da and inter­na­tion­al ter­ror­ism. That is a threat which con­tin­ues, not just in Afghanistan or in the Afghanistan-Pak­istan bor­der area, but in oth­er parts of the world as well and regret­tably that is a fea­ture that will chal­lenge Aus­tralia and the inter­na­tion­al com­mu­ni­ty for a long peri­od of time to come.

KIERAN GILBERT: Mr Smith, appre­ci­ate your time. Thank you.

STEPHEN SMITH: Thanks very much.

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

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