Minister for Defence Stephen Smith on Australia’s troop commitment in Afghanistan

TONY EASTLEY: Fair­fax news­pa­pers are report­ing this morn­ing that Defence Force Chiefs are draw­ing up plans to reduce Australia’s troop com­mit­ment to Afghanistan this year. The report says the Unit­ed States’ over­all com­man­der in Afghanistan, Colonel Jim Creighton, has report­ed­ly argued against a reduc­tion, urg­ing Australia’s Defence Chiefs to recon­sid­er.

To dis­cuss those reports we’re joined in our Can­ber­ra stu­dio by the Defence Min­is­ter Stephen Smith. He’s with Sabra Lane.

SABRA LANE: Mr Smith, wel­come to AM.


SABRA LANE: First, can I ask you about Tony Abbott’s com­ments? What did you think of those com­ments?

STEPHEN SMITH: When we’re deal­ing with dif­fi­cult and trag­ic cir­cum­stances we all express our­selves dif­fer­ent­ly. I think when we deal with deaths in Afghanistan we have to bear upper­most in mind that this is a blow to the nation, a blow to the Defence Force, but it’s a trag­ic loss for the fam­i­ly.

I don’t believe that any­thing that Mr Abbott said, he intend­ed to cause offence and he’s made that clear. He’s spo­ken to the wid­ow of Jared MacK­in­ney — that’s an appro­pri­ate thing to do. And as Mr Abbott has just said him­self the Aus­tralian pub­lic will make their own deci­sion, their own judge­ment, their own view about the cir­cum­stances which have led to this.

But we all express our­selves dif­fer­ent­ly. We always have to bear in mind that we’re deal­ing with com­plex and dif­fi­cult cir­cum­stances. And these dis­cus­sions will not just be a reminder to Jared MacKinney’s fam­i­ly but to 21 oth­er fam­i­lies includ­ing the fam­i­ly of Richard Atkin­son who the Par­lia­ment gave a mov­ing Con­do­lence Motion to yes­ter­day.

SABRA LANE: Mr Abbott’s reac­tion, once the footage was shown to him yes­ter­day, that ensu­ing silence, some of his col­leagues say that was his Mark Lath­am moment; oth­ers are say­ing that he was gob­s­macked because he con­sid­ered it an ambush. What do you think?

STEPHEN SMITH: Well, I’m not propos­ing to be drawn into a run­ning com­men­tary on this mat­ter.

One of the things I’ve tried very hard to do as Min­is­ter for Defence is to deal with these issues very square­ly as nation­al secu­ri­ty issues which are in the nation­al inter­est, and not get involved in, if you like, par­ty polit­i­cal com­men­tary.

The cir­cum­stances of Jared MacKinney’s death were con­tro­ver­sial at the time. The Chief of the Defence Force and the Chief of Army and I have made sure all of the sug­ges­tions that were made at the time about lack of resources would be exhaus­tive­ly exam­ined in the course of the offi­cial inquiry — that is cur­rent­ly under­way.

The sub­stance of what Major Gen­er­al Cantwell and Colonel Creighton were say­ing in the report­ed remarks were that they didn’t believe that there was a lack of resources, but in the ter­ri­ble and dif­fi­cult cir­cum­stances of the fog of war often bad things hap­pen.

SABRA LANE: To this report about plans being drawn up to reduce Australia’s troop num­bers in Afghanistan, are those plans being drawn up?

STEPHEN SMITH: I have to say that this report this morn­ing in some of our news­pa­pers came very much as a sur­prise to me, and it came as a sur­prise to the Chief of the Defence Force. I spoke to him this morn­ing, as I often do ear­ly in the morn­ing.

Our con­tri­bu­tion and com­mit­ment to Afghanistan is quite clear. We’ve got on aver­age 1550 Defence Force per­son­nel there, about 700 of those are involved in men­tor­ing and train­ing. We believe we’re on track for our men­tor­ing and train­ing mis­sion to be suc­cess­ful over the next two to four years. But we cer­tain­ly don’t see any drawn-down over the next imme­di­ate peri­od — 12 months to two years. We’re on track to meet, we think, the inter­na­tion­al community’s aspi­ra­tion of a tran­si­tion to Afghan-led secu­ri­ty by 2014.

So frankly this report, which is splashed in a cou­ple of news­pa­pers, was a sur­prise, and we don’t see any basis for it.

SABRA LANE: So did you ask the Chief of the Defence Force, Angus Hous­ton, whether he was draw­ing up plans that you weren’t aware of?

STEPHEN SMITH: Well it was a sur­prise to him, as it was a sur­prise to me. The con­sis­tent advice that the Gov­ern­ment has had from the Chief of the Defence Force is that our com­mit­ment in Afghanistan, on aver­age 1550 troops or per­son­nel, is the right allo­ca­tion of resources to meet our mis­sion in Afghanistan, in par­tic­u­lar and includ­ing our train­ing role.

We need to tran­si­tion to Afghan-led secu­ri­ty lead­er­ship so that we can put the Afghan Secu­ri­ty Forces, Army and Police Force in a posi­tion to man­age their own affairs so that we can tran­si­tion out of Afghanistan. That is the inter­na­tion­al community’s aspi­ra­tion reflect­ed by, most recent­ly, the Inter­na­tion­al Secu­ri­ty Assis­tance Force Sum­mit in Lis­bon, which the Prime Min­is­ter and I attend­ed.

SABRA LANE: The NATO com­man­ders have talked about trans­fer­ring con­trol of par­tic­u­lar areas to local Afghan com­man­ders, pos­si­bly start­ing this year around Uruz­gan, the area that Aus­tralian troops are oper­at­ing in. Could it be one of the first areas hand­ed over?

STEPHEN SMITH: At the Lis­bon Sum­mit we agreed that we need­ed to have a tran­si­tion plan to give the Afghan peo­ple, the Afghan nation, the Afghan Secu­ri­ty Forces the capac­i­ty to do that. And in the course of this year we will look at the detail of those tran­si­tion plans, includ­ing as ear­ly as March of this year when NATO and ISAF Defence Min­is­ters will meet in Brus­sels.

But we’ve always made the point, as the sec­re­tary-gen­er­al of NATO has, that we can only make the tran­si­tion on what we call a con­di­tions-based arrange­ment. We can only tran­si­tion when the Afghan forces are in a capac­i­ty to take on that lead­er­ship role.

Now, that will vary in terms of time of tran­si­tion, province by province and indeed loca­tion by loca­tion. We don’t expect to see a tran­si­tion in Uruz­gan Province oth­er than with­in our two to four-year timetable.
Oth­er provinces will tran­si­tion to Afghan secu­ri­ty respon­si­bil­i­ty ear­li­er than that. And some tran­si­tion will occur as ear­ly as this year. But it can only be con­di­tions-based. It can only be done when the Afghan Nation­al Army and Police Force are in a posi­tion and have the capac­i­ty to do it them­selves, because we don’t want to lose the gains that we have made in recent times, and those gains, as we all know, have been at the cost of 22 Aus­tralian lives.

SABRA LANE: This talk is hap­pen­ing on the back of Defence need­ing to find sav­ings, $20 bil­lion over 10 years. It’s been called upon recent­ly with all these nat­ur­al dis­as­ters. Do you need to find extra mon­ey?

STEPHEN SMITH: Our oper­a­tions in Afghanistan, our oper­a­tions in the Solomon Islands, our oper­a­tions in East Tim­or or indeed our con­tri­bu­tion in Sudan are not deter­mined on the basis of mon­ey; they’re deter­mine on the basis of pur­su­ing our nation­al inter­est, mak­ing sure that our troops, wher­ev­er they are, are ade­quate­ly and appro­pri­ate­ly resourced.

Yes, we have a big Strate­gic Reform Pro­gram, but that will not be allowed to, and will not cut into the allo­ca­tion of our resources and the deci­sions that we make about pro­vid­ing con­tri­bu­tions to peace­keep­ing arrange­ments or Afghanistan, star­ing down inter­na­tion­al ter­ror­ism. So those two issues are sep­a­rate.

We remain very con­fi­dent that we are appro­pri­ate­ly and ade­quate­ly resourc­ing our troops in Afghanistan to do the job that they have been charged to do. And as a coun­try that makes the tenth-largest con­tri­bu­tion to ISAF in Afghanistan, it’s a sig­nif­i­cant con­tri­bu­tion from us.

SABRA LANE: Mr Smith, thanks for your time.

STEPHEN SMITH: Thank you, thanks very much.

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

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