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Transcript of Press Conference of the Leader of the Opposition: Commonwealth Parliamentary Offices, Perth: Deployment of troops to Afghanistan.

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Subjects: Deployment of Troops to Afghanistan

BEAZLEY: Well, the Opposition supports the decision by the Government to deploy the SAS again to Afghanistan. The Opposition has for a long time argued that Afghanistan is terror central and there is a direct Australian national interest in ensuring the success of the struggle against the remnants of the former Taliban regime and al-Qaeda.

It’s been obvious for some time that the job was only partially completed when the commitment was made earlier - obvious for some time. And it is obvious also that there is a high likelihood that Bin Laden and his closest henchman are somewhere around the Afghanistan/Pakistan border and have been there for four years. It is absolutely critical that the work in Afghanistan succeeds. The Opposition has been making that clear for a considerable period of time. So therefore we welcome and support the Government’s decision to deploy the SAS.

Can I address a remark to our troops who are going. They are the best of the best. The SAS has an extraordinarily good record, an extraordinarily good record in Afghanistan, and wherever it has been committed. We know that the SAS is trained to do the job and they’re precisely what is needed now in the circumstances we confront in Afghanistan.

We are also aware that this involves a deal of anxiousness and sacrifice on the part of their families and our thoughts are with the families of the troops who will go. And as far as the Opposition is concerned, we regard it as an obligation on

ourselves that they want for nothing, and that their husbands and their friends and their sons want for nothing as well. This is a serious moment and we are totally mindful in the Opposition of how serious it is.

The question arises as to additional reasons why this might be necessary.

I noticed in the remarks that he made that the Prime Minister took it upon himself to have a piece of Kevin Rudd in those remarks. Can I point this out to the Prime Minister; Kevin Rudd went to Afghanistan early last year and what he discovered

there was that the Government in Afghanistan had been calling for help from us but that no help had been forthcoming. Since that point of time, he as the Opposition’s official spokesman, and we subsequently, have been calling for the Government to re-engage in Afghanistan. It is the right thing to do and that’s why we support it. Over to you.

JOURNALIST: Where does this leave our Iraqi commitment now?

BEAZLEY: Iraq is a quagmire; we should have an exit strategy from it. I am assuming that the advice of our military leadership to the Government is that they can do both and therefore the troops are being committed. We think for other reasons, nevertheless, that we need an exit strategy now from Iraq.

JOURNALIST: When would the exit be?

BEAZLEY: Well, as soon as we can sensibly discuss it through with our allies, we subject them to minimum inconvenience. You don’t put timetables on those things.

JOURNALIST: Labor supported the withdrawal of troops from Afghanistan in 2002. You now say the Government cut and ran. John Howard called it a breathless re-writing of history.

BEAZLEY: Well, he’s doing a bit of re-write himself. Take note of what I said about Kevin Rudd. Kevin Rudd has taken this very seriously from that time and one thing that’s painfully obvious now is that the job was not complete when our troops were withdrawn. I think Mr Howard seems to convey the view that they were withdrawn because the job had been done and we were moving over to a peacekeeping phase by our frontline troops. It’s a little bit too easy - that analysis. The truth of the matter is that they were withdrawn in order to be tooled up to be redeployed in Iraq. Now they did a very good job in Iraq - no criticism of their performance. Our criticism is of the Government policy. But that was more the reason they were withdrawn than the fact that there was a serious piece of analysis that the job had been completed. And it was patently obvious

to Kevin when he visited Afghanistan in 2004 that the job was not completed and the Afghans were asking for help. Now 18 months later they’re getting it.

JOURNALIST: What’s Labor’s view that a construction team might follow?

BEAZLEY: Yes, we’d be supportive of that. The Prime Minister today said that they were looking at all the ramifications of it both in terms of where they’d be deployed, how they would be appropriately protected, and what sort of job of work they would do and, by implication, whether or not the defence forces actually had the numbers. And we are very mindful of the fact that General Cosgrove said only a short time ago that the dance card of the Australian

Defence Forces was full. And maybe they’re also looking at that particular deployment in the context of a full dance card.

JOURNALIST: What’s Labor’s exit strategy for Afghanistan?

BEAZLEY: Well, the Prime Minister said they’d be out in twelve months.

JOURNALIST: Any concerns that they would be under US control there?

BEAZLEY: Well, they were there before on that basis. They can operate effectively, independently, within that framework.

JOURNALIST: (inaudible) deployed as a result of perhaps an increase in violence and obviously the Parliamentary elections coming up, do you think that the basis is of concern?

BEAZLEY: There’s been a real problem now for a long time. Don’t simply look at this in the context of these Parliamentary elections. That’s not why the Opposition’s been talking about it for the last 18 months. It’s been patently obvious that areas that were previously under control have fallen back into Taliban hands. At least for a substantial period of time, that’s become obvious.

The second thing that’s become obvious is the poppy crop that has returned to Afghanistan. There’s now a problem on another front for the rest of the world - it’s worth about $2.3 billion - that was the last figure I saw of that. And a substantial portion of that is going into the pockets of warlords who, for a different reason, are a problem for the Afghan Government, and into the hands of Taliban, and into the hands of al-Qaeda where it’s utilised for all of al-Qaeda’s nefarious purposes.

This is why it is terrorism central and why it has to be dealt with. That is not something which has developed in the last few days, or the last few weeks. That has been obvious for a long time now and the Opposition has been drawing attention to it for a long time now. I think the Prime Minister might be a little bit humbled in the face of the fact that we have been talking about what is reality on the ground in Afghanistan - and the Government’s had its back turned on it. Well, it’s not turned now and we welcome that.

JOURNALIST: Are you happy that the Government’s got the right mix in terms of the deployment to Afghanistan?

BEAZLEY: It looks small - the SAS with a commando team backup for extraction if trouble occurs. But you’ve got to remember it’s one squadron of the SAS and there are three squadrons in the SAS, and I would assume they’ll be rotating them through every few months which is how the deployment proceeded originally. The SAS is incredibly potent and they’re actually putting a force in -

and as I mentioned last week when you were questioning me on this - the SAS is the precise instrument that you need for dealing with the fact that the Taliban is finding its way back in and that al-Qaeda is operating in the area. You can’t use conventional troops usefully in that context and you can’t really deploy more SAS people than that. The way in which the SAS keeps itself in reserve for activities in this region and in reserve for counter terrorist activities, you can only really deploy one squadron at a time. Thank you.