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Transcript of interview with Melissa Clarke, ABC24: 31 October 2012: Afghanistan; Chief of the Army; ALP

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Minister for Defence - Transcript - Interview with Melissa Clarke, ABC24

31 October 2012




TOPICS: Afghanistan; Chief of the Army, ALP.

MELISSA CLARKE: Stephen Smith, thanks for joining us.


MELISSA CLARKE: In the Prime Minister’s address to Parliament with an update on Afghanistan today, she said that in the final phase of transition in Afghanistan it’s going to require additional personnel and resources. What exactly does she mean? What’s going to be required?

STEPHEN SMITH: It’s a big logistical job to extract our personnel but more importantly, to extract all of the gear and the equipment. So, that is a very big logistical exercise that requires logistical planners to go in and that process is about to start.

And then because Afghanistan is landlocked we’ve essentially got to get it out by road. So, that will require the logistical experts going in and we just need to have Australians understand that whilst we will be moving from mentoring to advising, there’s not necessarily going to be a dramatic plunge in the number of Australian personnel we have there. As transition occurs, as drawdown occurs that will naturally follow but there will be people going in for other purposes.

MELISSA CLARKE: Can you give us a sense of what sort of scale? How many more troops or if not a finite number, as a proportion compared to what’s there currently?

STEPHEN SMITH: We’re still working through that detail. But literally as we speak we see 65 Royal Australian Air Force guards leaving Australia to arrive in Afghanistan to do the guard and protection job at the airport.

So, there are essentially ins and outs, different people performing different roles, but the extraction job is essentially done by combat engineers and logistics experts, it’s not additional troops per say.

MELISSA CLARKE: And is that something that’s going to require close negotiations with, I presume, Pakistan? Is that where we would expect the equipment to come out?

STEPHEN SMITH: Well, we welcome very much the reopening of the ground lines of communications which was essentially resolved between Pakistan and United States. That is one of our exit routes. Some other material, of course, will be taken out by C17s and C130s but there is so much kit there that it essentially requires a land-based task.

MELISSA CLARKE: With control, all the Kandaks now are operating independently. You’ve got one, the other three aren’t that far away from operating independently. The Prime Minister prefaced that the assistance is going to change to that engineering and logistics kind of role. How much of that needs to be done and that logistics training needs to be done before 2014 or is that something that continues to go on beyond 2014?

STEPHEN SMITH: Well, I think three points. We’ve got four Kandaks or infantry Battalions that we’re training and mentoring; one we’ve already accorded a status of able to operate independently and they’re doing that. There’s an expectation that the other three will be in that same position by the end of the year. That will see our personnel essentially return to the Tarin Kot multinational base and not be in the forward operating bases.

We’ve also got the job of training two back of house Kandaks or Battalions, logistics and artillery and that will continue. But in the meantime, we will see our Special Forces continue to operate out in the field and we’ve already indicated that we will have a post-2014 contribution which will involve artillery training, officer training - and under a proper mandate. And in appropriate circumstances we also envisage an ongoing Special Forces role, either for training or for counter-terrorism work or both.

MELISSA CLARKE: Can I ask you on another matter, we recently heard from the Chief of the Army, David Morrison, giving a speech where he voiced some concerns about operational capability post-Afghanistan with troops in the future not going to be deployed in Afghanistan or Solomon

Islands or East Timor and the potential to lose that combat experience. How do you address that factor without wanting to send people to war unnecessarily? How do you hang on to that experience?

STEPHEN SMITH: Well, you can’t manufacture or fabricate conflict and you don’t want to. David Morrison, the Chief of Army, copped a very bad headline when he made that speech so, he and others were at pains to make the point that you had to read the speech rather than the reporting.

The reporting created the impression or tried to create the impression that he’d said that budget cuts had put our deployed soldiers at risk. On the contrary, he said that Army had never been better equipped.

MELISSA CLARKE: But he did raise some concerns about how defence forces are treated once those big operations are done.

STEPHEN SMITH: David has made the point publicly in the past and I’ve agreed with him [indistinct] made the same point when we brought forward the White Paper that Australia made a strategic mistake after Vietnam in two respects. Firstly, we didn’t think strategically about the aftermath of a draw down from Indochina and secondly, we reduced military numbers.

And both in the budget and generally I’ve said there’ll be no adverse impact on military numbers as a result of fiscal constraints but we’re not proposing to reduce military numbers. And secondly, one of the reasons we’ve brought forward the White Paper is for precisely the reason that David has drawn attention to.

We will draw down from Afghanistan, we’ll draw down from the Solomon Islands, we’ll draw down from East Timor so we have to give very deliberative thought as to what then for the ADF and we don’t want to lose the skills that we’ve learnt over the past decade, or indeed more generally since the Vietnam War.

MELISSA CLARKE: So, is it fair to say you’re still figuring it out; there’s not an answer yet to how you address those issues?

STEPHEN SMITH: Ultimately, the Government’s approach will be reflected by the White Paper which will be published in the first half of next year but I’ve made no secret of the fact that as we see these three draw downs it does give us a chance to essentially return to home base.

I affected the first domestic force posture review that we’ve seen in over 25 years and so there’s a lot of work that Allan Hawke and Rick Smith have drawn attention to in terms of our northern and western approaches. Plus we need to return to our own back yard, to the South Pacific, and enhance our engagement with countries of the South Pacific as various as Papua New Guinea and Tonga.

MELISSA CLARKE: And finally on a personal note, we’re heading to the end of the parliamentary year this year. Next year we head into an election year and for you next year it will be 20 years in Parliament-

STEPHEN SMITH: I’m very pleased you reminded me of that. Thanks for that.

MELISSA CLARKE: What’s your future? Are you-


MELISSA CLARKE: -going to continue?

STEPHEN SMITH: Well, absolutely. I’ve been endorsed by the National Executive as a sitting Minister as has Gary Gray, so I’m pleased about that. I’ll front up again next time. I’ve been saying for the last 12 months as we get to September-October of next year it’s going to be a real competition.

MELISSA CLARKE: No thoughts of stepping aside?

STEPHEN SMITH: Well, the only thoughts I have are boxing on. I enjoy the job I do. I like being a Local Member of Parliament and if I get the chance and we win the election well then I’ll very happily continue what I’m currently doing because I enjoy very much working in the national security space.

MELISSA CLARKE: I think you can guarantee there’s plenty more boxing in front of you for now. Stephen Smith, thank you very much.

STEPHEN SMITH: Thanks. Thanks very much.