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Transcript of interview with Geraldine Doogue, Radio National: 26 September 2012: Afghanistan; Retired Major-General Cantwell; Facebook

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Minister for Defence - Interview with Geraldine Doogue, Radio National

26 September 2012




TOPICS: Afghanistan; Retired Major-General Cantwell; Facebook.

GERALDINE DOOGUE: Defence Minister Stephen Smith joins us now from Tokyo, good morning, Minister.

STEPHEN SMITH: Good morning, Geraldine.

GERALDINE DOOGUE: Searing criticism of the Afghan mission from a man who until very recently served at the very top, having come from the very bottom of the army. Is he right, is Afghanistan really worth any lives?

STEPHEN SMITH: Well he’s wrong in his analysis. This was not an analysis he provided when he was Commander of our forces in the Middle East area of operations, but he’s gone through a bad time, and he’s got our sympathy for that.

But our mission in Afghanistan is not to somehow turn Afghanistan into a western-styled democracy, it’s to give the Afghan National Security Forces, and the Afghan institutions the capacity to manage their own security affairs, so that the Afghanistan/Pakistan border area doesn’t again become a breeding ground for international terrorism.

And as we approach the 10th anniversary of the Bali Bombings, we should reflect upon the fact that we’ve had innocent Australian citizens killed in South East Asia, in Europe, in the United States, by international terrorism, and that is our objective.

GERALDINE DOOGUE: But as he said - I put that to him, and as he said, but we’ve essentially routed Al-Qaeda, and now we’re dealing with the multi-headed hydra, which is the Taliban, it’s a completely different mission.

STEPHEN SMITH: If we were to leave now, which I assume is what the substance of Major General Cantwell’s assertions is now, if we were to leave now, we would maximise and increase the risk of international

terrorism again taking root in Afghanistan, whether that is Al-Qaeda, the remnants of Al-Qaeda, or other terrorist groups.

No-one is asserting that Afghanistan is easy, and it won’t continue to be difficult, but when we came to office, we sat down, we came to the conclusion that the Afghanistan mission needed more focus, both from Australia and from the international community.

When President Obama came to office, he affected what was known as the Riedel Review, that came to the conclusion that we had to focus almost exclusively on a transition to Afghan-led security responsibility.

We don’t want to be in Afghanistan forever, there’s also no doubt that the Iraq distraction cost us as much as a half a dozen years, but there’s a much better focus now on what we can realistically achieve, and what we want to leave behind, and that’s been set out by the Lisbon and Chicago Summits.

But the mission is not to create a western-style democracy, we’ve got to leave the running of Afghanistan, to Afghanistan.

GERALDINE DOOGUE: Do you think it will be sufficiently secure when international troops leave in 2014, that we don’t have to be constantly looking over our shoulder at it?

STEPHEN SMITH: International terrorism, this is a regrettable fact of modern life, international terrorism, whether it’s from Afghanistan or the Afghanistan/Pakistan border area, or other parts of the world, regrettably we have to be ever-vigilant.

But one of the reasons Australia strongly argues that the international community needs to continue to support Afghanistan after 2014 is to try and make sure that the Afghanistan institutions of state are strong enough to withstand whatever pressure goes on them after 2014 when the international community, International Security Assistance Force leaves.

And that’s one of the reasons we’ve been saying that there does need to be some support left behind, and in Australia’s case we’ve said that in general terms that will mean, can mean training at the elite level for officers or artillery, so specialised or niche training, potentially some advisors, and also if necessary - and there’s a proper mandate - an ongoing Special Forces contribution for counter-terrorism purposes.

So, that’s the reason we’ve seen the United States, India, NATO, Australia sign up for long-term partnership agreements with Afghanistan to send the

signal that because there’s a transition in 2014 doesn’t mean that Afghanistan will be left by itself, but the vast bulk of combat contribution from across the world, the 50-odd nations who support Afghanistan pursuant to the United Nations mandate, the vast bulk of that will of course go.

GERALDINE DOOGUE: How much of this is personal between you and John Cantwell? He previously claimed that you had a disregard for the man in uniform and wrote that piece in The Sydney Morning Herald, and that you had quote: no respect for those who chose to serve in uniform for their country - or you merely tolerated people like me and the troops I commanded.

STEPHEN SMITH: Well, I said at the time that I was very surprised and disappointed by what John Cantwell had to say. It did surprise me, did disappoint me. And I made the point at the time that I wasn’t going to get into a running commentary as a result of his circumstances.

GERALDINE DOOGUE: Did you talk to him about it?

STEPHEN SMITH: No. He never raised any of these things with me when he was still in the Army and he hasn’t raised any of these things with me personally since.

He’s gone through a very difficult time. And when I responded in general terms to these matters in the Parliament I made the point that I wasn’t going to engage in a running commentary because of his circumstances. Now, he has revealed that he’s gone through a very difficult time in Iraq, and then in Afghanistan, and my personal thoughts and feelings for him are ones of sympathy. He did his job. He made a contribution. And he has suffered as a consequence of that.

And one of the things that we are discovering as a result of Iraq, Afghanistan, and previous conflicts is that people do return suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder, and we do a lot to try and support the people who come back in that way.

The other thing we’re finding is that in Afghanistan because of the use of IEDs, the roadside bombs, the Bushmaster has been very successful in preventing people from being killed, but we are seeing a range of people now who are coming back with significant head injuries.

We’re not blind to this whether it’s Ministers or Chiefs of the Defence Force or the Defence organisation generally.

GERALDINE DOOGUE: It’s coming up to a quarter past eight. I wonder if it’s changed you being Defence Minister - just listening to what you’re saying then. It often does.

STEPHEN SMITH: As John says, and I haven’t read John’s book - I’ve seen some of the interviews he’s done in the last few days. And John makes the point that, you know, the toughest bit is when you suffer fatalities. He had to deal with that. I’ve had to deal with that, as have my predecessors, and Prime Ministers, and the nation has to deal with that.

So, we’ve got 38 families out there who suffer terribly every time there’s a mention of Afghanistan, every time there’s a casualty or a fatality it reminds them off their terrible loss. And in recent weeks we’ve seen five funerals as a result of two terrible incidents.

GERALDINE DOOGUE: Well, in particular those insider attacks, you know, the International Security Assistance Force, ISAF, has suspended joint patrols with Afghan soldiers following the recent spike in those attacks. When do you estimate those patrols will resume?

STEPHEN SMITH: It’s now a matter for Regional Command South to make a judgment. As I’ve indicated earlier in the week before I left for Japan, we’ve approached Regional Command South, General Amos, and said we think we’re in a position in Uruzgan to resume our patrols, our joint patrols.

But as I said at the time before departure, we’re not necessarily expecting a speedy response and we’re not necessarily expecting that business as usual will return quickly.

GERALDINE DOOGUE: So, does that mean the training of ANA soldiers is effectively suspended until then?

STEPHEN SMITH: Not at Kandak level or at the Battalion level in our terms. But there’s an important point to be made here, which is the whole transition approach and what we’re on track for in any event is to have the Afghan National Security Forces, the Afghan Army, the Afghan National Police to be doing these matters, to be doing these patrols by themselves anyway.

So it’s a logical consequence of transition that in the not-too-distant future, the patrols will be conducted by the Afghans themselves and we will be essentially back of house providing assistance and the like.

So, all of that back of house stuff continues. We’ve been obviously continuing to work with that Battalion level, the Commanders in Uruzgan

on the ground, so I’m not putting a timetable on when patrols will resume. But what we want to see as quickly as the Afghans are able to do it is them doing all of the patrols on the ground in Uruzgan because it’s only by doing that that we will effect the transition.

GERALDINE DOOGUE: Look, finally Minister on AM today it was revealed that the Islamic Council of New South Wales is asking police and the ADF to investigate what it says are very concerning comments made on social media by serving and former Australian Defence Force personnel.

Now, do you share the concerns of the Islamic Council of New South Wales about these apparently inflammatory comments on a Facebook page belonging to serving or ex-members of the ADF?

STEPHEN SMITH: I haven’t seen those remarks, Geraldine, so I can’t comment in the particular. I simply haven’t seem them given that I’m away in Japan.

But as a general proposition, in the last 12 months or so we’ve instituted a range of reviews into cultural matters and attitudes in the ADF. That culminated with a report that the Chief of the Defence Force and the Secretary put out called Pathways to Change.

One of the issues we deal with there is the use of social media in the modern world where nothing these days is private. So, we make the point to all members of the ADF that what they do with modern digital media they do run the risk of what they think is private becoming public and they’ve got to conduct themselves accordingly at all time they represent a uniform and represent the nation.

Their comments have to be appropriate and their comments have to reflect the modern Australia and the modern Australia is the Australia which says, you know, we are sensitive, sensible and tolerant about the different make up of Australia and-

GERALDINE DOOGUE: But can you ask that of people who’ve once served and don’t anymore?

STEPHEN SMITH: Well, we don’t have any control-


STEPHEN SMITH: -or authority over those people. We simply say to all Australians that in the modern world you need to conduct yourself in an appropriate and sensible way. If you are a member of the Defence

organisation, either military or civilian, if you do something inappropriate that will sheet itself back home to the organisation and do, not just reputational damage to the individual but reputational damage to the ADF.

We don’t want that because on any measure the Australian Defence Force now and through its history has done an outstanding job, not just in combat or in war but an outstanding job in peacekeeping and in humanitarian assistance and disaster relief, what I describe as the diplomacy of defence. We’ve got a well-deserved and hard fought for reputation and we don’t want that sullied by the stupid actions of a minority.

GERALDINE DOOGUE: Thank you for joining us.

STEPHEN SMITH: Thanks Geraldine. Thanks very much.