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.
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