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Transcript of interview with Jim Middleton, Newsline: 9 October 2012: Afghanistan, NATO-ISAF Defence Ministers meeting

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Minister for Defence - Interview with Jim Middleton, Newsline

9 October 2012



DATE: 9 October 2012

TOPICS: Afghanistan, NATO-ISAF Defence Ministers meeting

JIM MIDDLETON: Australia’s Defence Minister Stephen Smith has just paid another visit to the

Australian contingent in Afghanistan, and is now in Brussels for a meeting with his NATO and

ISAF counterparts. Minister, welcome to the program.

STEPHEN SMITH: A pleasure, Jim.

JIM MIDDLETON: This was your first visit to Afghanistan since the terrible recent green on blue

attacks on Australian soldiers. Has that had a lingering impact on the way in which Australian

and Afghan troops are now carrying out their business in your estimation?

STEPHEN SMITH: We’ve been through a very tough time in recent weeks. No fatalities for the

first six months of this year and then six in six weeks, including a terrible murder of three of

our soldiers with a green on blue incident. I think morale’s good. The - every advice I had from

Australian officials, and soldiers and commanding officers to Combined Task Force Uruzgan

soldiers and commanders, and also to Afghan officials, local Afghan Uruzgan officials was that

we continue to make progress on transition and we continue to do well on the security front.

JIM MIDDLETON: You and the Defence Force, obviously and responsibly, would have reviewed

the way in which Australian and Afghan forces work together in light of incidents such as this.

How much more difficult has it made it for them to operate effectively in the field?

STEPHEN SMITH: Well, we suffered our first so-called green on blue, terrible incident back in

2011, so we took a range of so-called force protection changes and very many of the changes

that we made we made were effectively adopted by ISAF itself when, in recent times,

regrettably, these incidences became more prevalent. But you’ll recall that General Allen -

John Allen, the commander of ISAF, issued an instruction for no below kandak partnering

operations until such time as regional commanders approve that force protection measures

were appropriately in place. In our case, that’s Regional Command South. And good news on

our arrival at the beginning of this week, the Regional Command South Commander, General

Abrams, gave authority for Combined Task Force Uruzgan to make its own decisions about

joint patrols. And so, the beginning of this week, for the first time, we saw joint patrols

occurring at below kandak level. So, we’re satisfied that all of the force protection measures

that we can put in place have been effected, and we’re also satisfied with the further steps that

the Afghans themselves have taken, the biometrics, the re-vetting and the like.

JIM MIDDLETON: You said that you found morale among the Australian troops to be very high.

You did not detect in your conversations with any of the Australian troops that you spoke to,

any lingering concerns about their vulnerability in light of these incidents and the increasing

number of them?

STEPHEN SMITH: Well, obviously, our troops are very conscious of the risk, and that’s why

since the first attack of this nature against us back in 2011, we’ve taken appropriate steps and

measures from separation of accommodation to the so-called guardian angels approach. But I

think morale was good because we are making progress. In Uruzgan, our job is to train and

mentor six kandaks from the Fourth Brigade of the Afghan National Army Nation Army. Four of

those are infantry, two are, essentially, back-of-house artillery and engineering and logistics,

and we’ve got those essentially in a category described as effective with advisors. In other

words, they can operate well with ongoing help.

Again, at the beginning of this week, in Uruzgan, we formally ascribed to one of the kandaks,

one of the infantry kandaks, that they were capable of operating independently. We believe

that we may well be in a position whereby, by the end of this year, all four of those infantry

kandaks we will be able to ascribe as being capable of operating independently. That means

they’ll be doing patrols by themselves, they’ll be doing the plan operation by themselves with

us essentially back at our base at Tarin Kot providing the back-of-house logistic command,

support and advice.

JIM MIDDLETON: One final question, as we can all see, you are now in Brussels. What will be

your key message to your fellow NATO-ISAF defence ministers in the discussions over the next

couple of days?

STEPHEN SMITH: Well, my key message today and tomorrow will be that in Uruzgan, we

continue to be on track. That the green on blue or insider incidences hurt us very badly and we

need to take every precaution against those. And everyone needs to understand the

seriousness with which we must approach those. But the time has also now come for more

forward planning. We need to now start working on the detail of what will the post-2014

transition presence look like. Afghanistan will still need assistance from the international

community, and we’ve said that we’re happy to look at ongoing training or advice, so artillery

training, officer training, and the like, and also if there’s an appropriate mandate, a Special

Forces presence, either for Special Forces training or, indeed, for counterterrorism purposes.

So, we don’t want to be in Afghanistan forever, we can’t be there forever, and that’s why we’ve

been focusing exclusively on transition to put the Afghan security forces and the Afghan

institutions in a position to be able to manage security matters - take responsibility for security

matters in their own right, and we think we’re on track to effect that across Afghanistan by the

end of 2014.

JIM MIDDLETON: Minister, thanks very much indeed.

STEPHEN SMITH: Thanks Jim, thanks very much.