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Transition is the most dangerous phase: Cantw -

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Former commander of the Australian forces in Afghanistan, Major General John Cantwell, says the
Taliban will step up attacks as Western troops withdraw.


EMMA ALBERICI, PRESENTER: Now back to our top story, the early withdrawal of Australian troops from

To discuss the Prime Minister's announcement, I was joined just a short time ago from Maroochydore
by the former commander of Australian forces in Afghanistan, Major General John Cantwell, who was
one of the most senior members of the Defence Forces until his resignation in February.

John Cantwell, welcome to Lateline.


EMMA ALBERICI: Now Australian troops will mostly now be out of Afghanistan by the middle of next
year. Will there be a sense of "mission accomplished", do you think?

JOHN CANTWELL: I think the mission will continue long beyond next year. The Prime Minister told us
today that it's likely that the majority of combat troops will be out in 12 to 18 months, and I
think that's about right based on the ... my assessment from my time as commander there not so long
ago, and conversations I've had with colleagues who have been there more recently.

But there will be a mission beyond that, and that will be to keep training the Afghan forces. I
don't think the mission will ever completely finish until every Australian is out, because the
Afghans are going to need help for a long time to come.

EMMA ALBERICI: When do you think that might?

JOHN CANTWELL: It will be a mission that takes perhaps another 5, 8, maybe 10 years we could be
there. I'd expect though that most Australians would expect that our mission would be wrapped up
some time in the next five years or so.

EMMA ALBERICI: How do you think morale is likely to be among the troops in Afghanistan following
today's announcement?

JOHN CANTWELL: Our soldiers, our sailors and our airmen are just fantastic people, and I've had the
wonderful privilege of commanding them on many occasions, including in Afghanistan.

The phase we're entering now is as difficult, and perhaps more difficult and dangerous than any
we've faced, because the transitions of any major undertaking are the time when danger creeps in.

EMMA ALBERICI: What exactly are those risks that they face over the coming months?

JOHN CANTWELL: The risks they face on a day-to-day basis won't change. There are still lots of
improvised explosive devices, there are still active insurgents, and they are still being supplied
from over the Pakistan border. There are challenges and threats that don't change.

What I think may change is the response that the Taliban and their allies take to the impending
withdrawal of coalition forces. Afghanistan people don't admire weakness, they admire strength.
They've always rallied to a strong man and a strong team.

The Taliban will want to be entering the inevitable negotiations with the Karzai government from a
position of strength, and they will demonstrate that strength and their potential to cause
disruption and to have a controlling vote in what goes on by, I believe, increasing their

There will be more high profile attacks, there will be more unrest in the provinces because the
Taliban will want to show that they are not a force that can be dismissed. They will want a voice
at the table, and they will show that through their military and insurgent operations.

EMMA ALBERICI: Is that the kind of voice we want at the table?

JOHN CANTWELL: I think it is inevitable. I spent some time in Iraq in 2006, a very bad year to be
in Iraq, and part of the solution that began in the late part of that year was giving Al Qaeda and
some of the insurgents of the Sunni groups to bring them into the fold.

It's a very hard thing to do; it's hard for the government of the country and now, back to
Afghanistan, it will be hard for the Afghan people to forgive some of the atrocities that have been
carried out by the Taliban and their followers. But that's something that must occur.

EMMA ALBERICI: So what's to say they're going to change tact? I mean, we just saw on Sunday one of
the most brazen attacks carried out by affiliates of the Taliban, the sort of Pakistan version;
there were seven attacks over four different provinces. It was brazen and it was also undetected by
the intelligence on both the NATO side and the Afghan side. It was embarrassment for all around,
wasn't it?

JOHN CANTWELL: Well, it was a well-coordinated attack, and it does show the potential for
continuing high profile attacks to be mounted - not at will, but certainly with a good deal of
freedom. These are the sort of things I believe we'll see in the coming 12 to 18 months as the
coalition steps back from its mentorship and security operations, and lets the Afghans run it more
and more.

The problem for us will be that we will not see a situation which is all peace and light. There
will continue to be an act of insurgency in Afghanistan.

The Karzai government, and whoever replaces Karzai as the leader, will continue to have to deal
with insecurity in their own country. It's just the way it's going to be. We are not doing to
produce some sort of version of Western peaceful democracy in Afghanistan. It's just not going to

EMMA ALBERICI: But how confident are you that the Afghan Army and its police force will be able to
defend the country from those Taliban and other insurgent attacks without direct Western support?

It might be getting some kind of indirect support - financial and strategic - but it won't have
those boots on the ground?

JOHN CANTWELL: I think there are real risks in that area. Our problem, Australia's problem, is
really limited to Oruzgan province, and in our little part of Afghanistan I do believe that
progress, very good progress has been made in training the Afghan Army there and that's really
thanks to tremendous courage and skill by the Australian trainers that have done the hard yards
there. In our part of Afghanistan, I think they will be OK.

They will inevitably fall over at some point, and in the next 18 months or so while they've still
got mentors there, their role will be to pick up the pieces and perhaps get them out of trouble.

Beyond that is where the risks really arise, and that's where the training that's being invested
now has to be good, because they are training a group of people who are not inclined naturally to
the disciplined military style of operations that we in the West are used to.

So there are grave risks, and it is conceivable that a further intervention of some sort by America
or others might be considered in the future.

The question is, for me, and I think for most folks, is why would we do that? We've invested so
much already. Would Australians, would Americans, would people in Europe care enough to
reintervene? And I think at some point people are going to say, we've done our best, Afghanistan,
it's over to you.

EMMA ALBERICI: And then what do we do when we recognise more fully that the risk has simply ... the
risk of terrorist attacks has simply just moved territories, simply moved over the border to

JOHN CANTWELL: They may well do that, and therein lies a further group of grave risks, given the
particular problems that Pakistan face and given their nuclear arsenal. These are very, very broad

I think that all Australia can do is sign up to or complete, I should say, what we've signed up to,
and that is to train forces in our part of Afghanistan. We will have an ongoing role to train them
if the wider security environment around Afghanistan starts to deteriorate.

There are things that Australia can do to help reduce the risk. We have skills in relation to
tracking weapons, we have skills in communications, and we work very closely with our American
colleagues. I'm not predicting that we'll get involved in Pakistan though. I think that's a very,
very unlikely outcome.

EMMA ALBERICI: You recently said, of the Defence Minister Stephen Smith, that he didn't respect the
troops. It was a really bold statement. Can you tell us what motivated you to publish that?

JOHN CANTWELL: Well, I've said what I wanted to say about that issue, Emma, and I will probably
leave it at that.

I have an opportunity, now that I'm out, to speak more widely about defence issues. I think it's
important that an informed conversation, an informed debate about defence issues goes on and so I
think it's reasonable for folks like myself, now freed from the constraints of the uniform, can say
things about defence, defence strategy, defence policy and it adds quality to the debate, in my

EMMA ALBERICI: Given what we know about your feelings about the Defence Minister's attitudes
towards the troops and so on, do you fear that perhaps given the cabinet conversations around next
month's budget, especially at a time when the Government has committed to the biggest fiscal
tightening in the country's history, do you fear that defence spending will be, pardon the pun, in
the line of fire?

JOHN CANTWELL: I think inevitably defence spending will take a haircut. We shouldn't lose sight of
the fact that this is not simply a question of dollars, not a question of straight military
achievements in places like Afghanistan; there are politics at play here, and I don't think anyone
should be surprised at the announcements we heard today from the Prime Minister about an earlier

That's absolutely in line with the same sort of politically motivated decisions being taken by all
of the major contributing nations because all of them, like our Government, will face the voters in
the next year or two - America, France, Germany, the Italians - all of those have decided to
withdraw early and I think only the most naive of observers would discount that there's a political
bonus to be had in seeing governments or governments being seen to withdraw troops earlier.

I don't doubt for a second that there are folks in the policy and the strategy areas of government
looking to the decision, the announcement today by the Prime Minister, and say this is going to
help us next year come to the election. That's the way it is.

EMMA ALBERICI: Given the early withdrawal, does that also, do you think, politically play into the
narrative about defence cuts in next month's budget; the fact that those troops are no longer being
deployed in theatres like Afghanistan, so the narrative can be that we don't need that spending
quite so much?

JOHN CANTWELL: Well, in this next budget round I expect that there will be cuts to defence
spending. I would be shocked if they affected our ability to sustain the forces that we've got
deployed in Afghanistan and other parts of our region. That would be unacceptable, and I don't
think that the Government is contemplating that.

Where they will make their savings is in the back end, the back room of defence - in the
bureaucracy, which is always liable to cuts, and hopefully, not too heavily, in the processes that
allow us to train and generate and sustain a world class capability.

I said earlier that it takes a long time to grow an army, and there I was referring to the Afghans.
It takes the same amount of effort and same long-term spending regime to sustain a good defence
force like we've got. I do hope the cuts aren't too deep. I expect there will be some. It better
not affect the operational capabilities - and I don't think it will because no government, no
politician, regardless of what I think of them, would contemplate putting more soldiers at risk
than is absolutely necessary for budget cut purposes.

EMMA ALBERICI: A lot of the returning troops will have felt some kind of psychological impact from
their tour or tours of Afghanistan. How big a problem will post traumatic stress disorder be among
those soldiers who will be ending their time in Afghanistan?

JOHN CANTWELL: I believe the problem is profound and widespread, because they are bringing home
with them terrible memories.

Roadside bombs do ugly things to your mate if he steps on one, and a lot of our soldiers have been
exposed to those gruesome sights and the terrible reality of war. They've been exposed to the
deprivation of a deeply backward country. They will bring home with them these problems, and
there's no secret to this.

What worries me though is that the vast majority of people coming home hide these problems. No one
encourages them to hide them; it's built into the psyche of the young warrior. They don't want to
admit weakness, and I expect that the inclination to cover this up, pretend you're OK, will be a
continuing one as we bring our troops home from the Middle East.

We must do better in this regard and despite the fact that processes are in place now to try to
identify this problem we need to do more, we need to do more to encourage folks to step forward and
say, "I have a problem and I need some help." I know how much it can be a corrosive effect on one's
life. I made the mistake of covering it up for a long time. I've got help and I'm in good shape now
through some fantastic support.

We just need to make sure that every young digger, sailor and airmen who comes home has the same
access to support, and an environment where they can speak up and be honest about what's happened
to them.

EMMA ALBERICI: How widespread is the problem?

JOHN CANTWELL: It is, it will be particularly prevalent amongst those who have been exposed to
combat, it's inevitable that that's the case. Those who are further back have less exposure; but
even those who are not directly involved in combat, say in Tarinkot, our base at Tarinkot, they are
routinely rocketed and mortared. They're not immune to the potential for a violent event, a violent

Everyone deals with this in a different way. We will have a lot of soldiers who have seen a lot of
things that they probably wish they'd never seen, and over the years that we've been there with the
rotations that have occurred of the troops will have exposed not just hundreds but thousands of
Australians to unpleasant, brutal memories and the equation is very simple: it's going to mean that
you have more people suffering post traumatic stress disorder and other disorders as a result.

So it stands to reason we just need to be ready to pick up the pieces and help them get back to a
normal life.

EMMA ALBERICI: John Cantwell, we'll have to leave it there, thank you very much.

JOHN CANTWELL: You're welcome, Emma.