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Transcript of interview with Philip Clark, Radio National Breakfast ABC: 10 October 2012: NATO-ISAF meetings; Afghanistan; Peter Slipper



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Minister for Defence - Interview with Philip Clark, Radio National Breakfast ABC

10 October 2012

TRANSCRIPT: INTERVIEW WITH PHILIP CLARK, RADIO NATIONAL BREAKFAST ABC

TRANSCRIPTION: PROOF COPY E & OE

DATE: 10 OCTOBER 2012

TOPICS: NATO-ISAF Meetings; Afghanistan; Peter Slipper.

PHILIP CLARK: Defence Minister Stephen Smith’s attending the talks, after making a flying

visit to our troops on the ground in Uruzgan Province. The Minister joins us from NATO

headquarters in Brussels. Stephen Smith, welcome back to RN Breakfast.

STEPHEN SMITH: Yes, good morning, Philip.

PHILIP CLARK: Australian soldiers have restarted operations with Afghan security forces. Now

in the wake of the insider attacks, you might think that morale was a difficult issue, how did

you find it?

STEPHEN SMITH: Well, the Chief of the Defence Force, and the Secretary of the Department

and I, found morale pretty high, we of course acknowledge that our servicemen and

servicewomen on the ground in Afghanistan have been through a very tough time in recent

weeks, the first six months of this year we didn’t have a fatality, then in six weeks we had

six, five in one day, the worst combat day we’ve had since Vietnam.

And three of those so-called green-on-blue, or an insider attack, so that was a tragic blow,

and very difficult circumstances for our personnel, but they bounced back very strongly.

We are making progress on the ground, and that’s reflected by the fact that we’re now out

doing partnered operations again, below kandak or battalion level.

And secondly, our job is to mentor and train the Afghan National Army, the 4th Brigade in

Uruzgan, so they can take responsibility for security by the end of 2014 and earlier this week,

to one of those kandaks or battalions, which is about 500 or 600 strong, we have determined

they are now capable and ready to do operations independently, so they’re now starting that,

and that’s a good thing.

So on the ground, people think progress is being made, people think they’re doing good

work, so despite the difficult circumstances recently, morale’s pretty high.

PHILIP CLARK: What’s changed about these joint patrols now, given the green on blue

attacks that have happened?

STEPHEN SMITH: Well, because - we started transition in Uruzgan in July, and as a

consequence of that, we’ve seen over a period of time, not just since July, but earlier, the

Afghans doing more partnered operations with us, doing more solo patrols by themselves,

and we’re doing less patrols in our own right, so that process has been in train for some time.

In the aftermath of the green-on-blue incidences, Commander ISAF, so the International

Security Assistance Force said we’ve got to go through and review all of our force protection

measures, the Afghans have to go through their re-vetting and biometric process, we’d done

a lot of these things in the aftermath of our own insider attacks, we’ve had four, the first one

just before the middle of 2011, so we’d made a range of these force protection changes, and

ISAF said you can’t do partnered work below kandak or battalion level without the approval

or the green light of a regional commander - for us that’s Regional Command South - and we

got the green light earlier this week, and we’re now resuming those patrols.

But the whole notion of transition will be that as we move to transition, the Afghans will be

doing those patrols by themselves, as we essentially return to back of house and oversight,

or overwatch, and logistics and command, or operational - logistics and command and

headquarter advice mechanisms, and with the first battalion or kandak that we’ve now

nominated as ready for independent operations, they’ll now effectively get out and do it

themselves, and that’s what we want to effect by way of transition.

And what’s occurring in Uruzgan on the basis of the conversations I’ve had in Brussels today

with some of my colleagues, including US Secretary of Defense, Leon Panetta, is that what’s

occurring in Uruzgan is effectively being replicated around Afghanistan, we’ve now got 75 per

cent of the Afghan population in an area where transition has occurred, or transition is in

progress, and that’s what we want to effect, because we don’t want to be here forever.

PHILIP CLARK: Did any of the soldiers you spoke to on this visit to Afghanistan raise

questions with you about why on earth they were there, what was the point of it all, and

what was the direction of the mission?

STEPHEN SMITH: No, they understand the mission very carefully, really since 2009, our focus

has been training and mentoring the 4th Brigade of the Afghan National Army so that they

can do the job themselves, and we’ve done a couple of things over the last 12 to 18 months.

Firstly, we control more of the ground; in terms of security, so what we control, more

importantly what we control together with our International Security Assistance Force and

ANA - Afghan National Army - colleagues.

And the Taliban in Uruzgan have essentially resorted to three devices, the IEDs, the roadside

bombs, then taking credit for the insider attacks, or the green on blue attacks, we know there

are potentially multiple causes or motivations for the small number of attacks that we have,

but the Taliban have used them in a propaganda sense.

And thirdly, the high profile suicide bomb assassination attempts more recently that have

involved children.

So they don’t engage us these days voluntarily in a combat scenario, and whilst there have

been changes to patrol operations in recent times, that has not seen any change to what

we’ve been doing with our Special Forces, our Special Forces have been very effective, and

work very well with their Afghan partners, and that has sent a very strong message to the

Taliban in Uruzgan.

PHILIP CLARK: Stephen Smith the Defence Minister joining us on the line from Brussels. This

International Crisis Group report this morning says time’s running out, that it’s likely to be a

disaster after 2014. There’ll be vote rigging, the elections are likely to be corrupt as well, the

future is not very bright. That’s a report which echoes other assessments, isn’t it? What do

you make of it?

STEPHEN SMITH: Well I’ve seen a summary; I haven’t read the whole report so I’d prefer to

take an opportunity, but a couple of things. We have said that we’re on-track, we’re making

progress on transition but when we get to transition - the agreements of nation transition

time lines of end of December 2014, we do need to continue to assess Afghanistan because

we want to make sure that Afghanistan can take responsibility for security but also that their

institutions of state whether security or other, can withstand whatever pressure falls back on

them and that’s why we’ve said it’s absolutely essential there’s an ongoing contribution. And

in Australia’s case we’ve said we’ll continue to provide training in niche or high level areas-

PHILIP CLARK: Yeah but the question - the issue here is that this report is saying and other

assessments have made the same point that it’s going to be a disaster after we leave. In

other words 38 Australian soldiers would have died here for nothing.

STEPHEN SMITH: Well you can’t foretell the future, nor can the International Crisis Group. I

have said for a long time that we have to as an international community continue to give

assistance after 2014 otherwise there will be a risk that the pressure on Afghan institutions

means they won’t be able to cope.

That’s why we’re doing two things. We are putting all of our efforts into mentoring and

training so that the security forces have got the capacity to do that and then after 2014 the

international community will continue to assess, not necessarily in a combat role but in a

trainee assistance and advisory role.

But I have also said that under a proper or appropriate mandate Australia would give

consideration to a Special Forces contribution both in terms of training Afghan Special Forces

or indeed being involved in counterterrorism operations.

So I don’t leap to the conclusion that the ICG leads to. I say that after 2014 the international

community will still need to provide some assistance. And one of the things that we’re doing

in the meeting of NATO and ISAF defence ministers meeting in Brussels today and tomorrow

is to start the detail planning for that post-2014 transition contribution.

PHILIP CLARK: Okay. All right back home the Peter Slipper resignation. Are you embarrassed

by what happened yesterday? Here’s the Government defending this man and then he goes

and resigns anyway. A waste of political capital isn’t it?

STEPHEN SMITH: Well I wasn’t there but-

PHILIP CLARK: I’m sure you’ve been briefed.

STEPHEN SMITH: Well I’ve read a couple of the contributions. A couple of things; firstly, I’ve

said publicly and privately when he was in the chair I thought Peter Slipper did a very good

job. It’s what’s occurred outside of that that’s got him into these difficulties. The text

messages which on any measure are sort of offensive and-

PHILIP CLARK: Disgusting on any basis, that’s right and here was the Government defending

him.

STEPHEN SMITH: Well, they have to be condemned and they were condemned on our side

from the Prime Minister down. I think two things. Firstly, on Friday of last week a judge had

all of these issues before him including those text messages and he reserved his decision on

that. So from time to time one has to give some respect to some court procedures-

PHILIP CLARK: But these - the text messages are not an issue, they’re admitted by Mr

Slipper.

STEPHEN SMITH: Yes and they’re part of the evidence before the judge and they’re part of

the deliberations that the judge is working through before he makes his decision in a court

case.

Secondly, what occurred in the House was unprecedented. Out of the blue a motion to

remove the Speaker, any government faced with that would have in first instance defended

the Speaker-

PHILIP CLARK: So just finally, so your-

STEPHEN SMITH: Can I just make this point as well-

PHILIP CLARK: Your comfortable with that decision though are you to support Mr Slipper in

that vote?

STEPHEN SMITH: Well, his text messages were condemned roundly by the Prime Minister

down and I condemn them as well. As you say any right thinking member of the community

would do so.

But these text messages - I’m happy to be corrected on the record, but as I understand it,

the text messages were sent before he became Speaker, after he’d been endorsed on seven

or eight or nine occasions by the Liberal and or National Party.

So it’s not what he did in the chair, it’s these other matters and people can apportion blame

or responsibility. In terms of what the Government did yesterday in the Parliament seeking to

allow a judge to come to a conclusion in a court case and respecting those processes. But,

secondly, not for the first time in the history of the Federation, allowing out of the blue a

motion for the first occasion to remove a Speaker to effectively be uncontested.

In the event the Speaker came to his own conclusion that his position was untenable and he’s

done the right thing by the institution.

PHILIP CLARK: All right we’ll leave it there. Thanks for your time. Defence Minister Stephen

Smith on the line from NATO Headquarters in Brussels there.