20 March 2009
ABC2 News Breakfast: Interview with Virginia Trioli and Joe O'Brien
O'BRIEN: Returning now to the soldiers lost this week in Afghanistan. The news comes as the Foreign Affairs Minister Stephen Smith is preparing for a trip to the region to discuss security issues.
TRIOLI: Early next week, he's going to the United Arab Emirates for talks on a number of issues, including the safety of Australia's cricketers.
And Stephen Smith joins us now in the studio. Minister, good morning.
SMITH: Good morning, Virginia. Good morning, Joe.
TRIOLI: Another death in Afghanistan; ha… did something go wrong with our bomb defuse procedures?
SMITH: Well, all that, of course, will be extensively reviewed. It's dangerous and difficult work in Afghanistan generally but when you're seeking to defuse unexploded devices, it's doubly dangerous.
So it's another tragedy. Two in one week is terrible, followed very closely on Mathew Hopkins. But the Defence Forces will do an exhaustive assessment and that will become known to us all in due course. For the moment, of course, it's just a terrible time for the family and we grieve with them.
O'BRIEN: Does every death there lead you to having second thoughts about Australia's involvement there?
SMITH: Well, it doesn't lead us to have second thoughts, but it certainly just reinforces in our own mind how difficult and dangerous it is and causes us to say, why are we there? And when it does occur, whether it's Corporal Hopkins or any of the earlier nine deaths, you know, why are we there?
We're there because we think it's in our national interest, that this is the hotbed of international terrorism. Australia's been on the receiving end, we've suffered adverse consequences from that, whether it's Bali or whether it was five Australian cricketers or umpires or officials in Pakistan with the Sri Lankan team generally.
And all the evidence says that attacks or attempted attacks in Europe in recent years have come from this area. So we think there's a responsibility to help stare that down to stop Afghanistan again becoming a centre of mobile international terrorism.
But for the family and for the country, when we have these deaths, it's a moment of tragedy.
TRIOLI: It seems pretty clear - and I know you won't speculate on it right now, but from everything that we read it seems pretty clear that both a request will be made by the US to Australia to increase its presence in Afghanistan, and that we're pretty willing to meet that request. But would we put limits around any increase in our presence there?
SMITH: Well, the first and overriding criteria will be, is this in our national interest? We won't be surprised…
TRIOLI: It logically follows from you're saying that it is because unless…
SMITH: No, but it goes…
TRIOLI: … we deal with it, the terrorism…
SMITH: … it goes to…
TRIOLI: … it exposes us.
SMITH: It goes to the nature and the extent of our contribution. We won't be surprised to receive a request. It may or may not come when Prime Minister Rudd visits President Obama. We expect it'll come, more likely, once the United States has completed its over-arching strategic review which is being conducted by Mr Riedel with input from General Petraeus and the like. Also input from Afghanistan and Pakistan, and we've had our own say as well.
But that review, importantly, is not just about a military contribution: it's about the nature of a military contribution, civil reconstruction and capacity building and also, at some stage, there has to be a political dialogue amongst the Afghanistan leadership.
But if we get a request, what are some of the factors we'll look at? Is it in our national interest? Will a commitment by us cause others to also make an additional commitment, or will it be used by others to not increase or enhance their commitment? Joel Fitzgibbon, my colleague, the Defence Minister, has been very critical of some NATO countries, for example, for not making the same sorts of contributions that we do.
We're part of the International Security Assistance Force, UN sponsored, UN mandated. We're the ninth largest contributor and we're a non-NATO country. So we want to make sure that other countries are making their contribution as well.
I've made it clear that we're open to further civil reconstruction and capacity building.
SMITH: It's very important, in the end, that we leave the Afghan police force and army and their state institution, law and justice administration, with the capacity to run their own affairs.
O'BRIEN: Are you also open to negotiations with the Taliban in terms of reaching some sort of political solution there?
SMITH: Well, in the first instance, that's got to be a matter for the Afghanistan Government. We've made it clear that you can't negotiate with terrorists like al-Qaeda. But what we do know is that there are people out there who, for whatever reason, see their only current course of actions associating themselves with hard-core militants.
So, can a political dialogue cause those people to lay down their arms, commit themselves to the Afghan democratic system, to the constitution, to a political process? And so, that's why, not just Australia, but the Afghan Government itself and NATO and other interested countries have all said, this can't just be a military solution by itself. There's got to be the nation-building part as well. And also, at some stage, you've got to try and resolve your own affairs politically, domestically.
But we do know there are some people who only want to operate w… through the barrel of the gun and they have to, frankly, be stared down.
TRIOLI: It's interesting that there are many within Pakistan who don't like the fact that there's an American presence, and also other countries' presence in Afghanistan; they don't like that conflict at all. Do you have concerns that an expanded US and Australian presence there could stir up already a very uncertain and very troubled and unstable country?
SMITH: Well, Pakistan, we both have to treat at the same time as…
SMITH: … Afghanistan, but also separately. I think for the first half of last year, people regarded Pakistan as simply a difficulty for Afghanistan along the Afghanistan-Pakistan border.
TRIOLI: But it's much deeper than that.
SMITH: Absolutely. And I was there recently, a month or so ago, saw that border area myself, the Khyber Pass, understand now the difficult terrain and the porous nature, the almost impossibility of controlling or protecting that border, unless there is cooperation on both sides between Pakistan and Afghanistan.
TRIOLI: So how do you get that?
SMITH: Importantly, the impression I was left with and President Zardari has said it himself, the Pakistanis now see this as a threat to their own existence, not just an irritant or a difficulty on the border for the provincial governments in the North West Frontier Province, or the federally administered tribal areas. They now see it as a threat to their own existence. That's why, for example, Australia has joined what's called the Friends of a Democratic Pakistan, the UN group.
Pakistan needs all the economic and security support it can get from the international community. It's a very strategically important country for South Asia, Central Asia, second largest Muslim-populated country in the world. On population projection, it'll overtake Indonesia in the course of the first half of this century. And it has nuclear weapons. This is a country that needs our support. We can't let it fall into a failed-state category or the hands of terrorists.
O'BRIEN: Just finally, and briefly, you're going to the UAE; you'll be meeting ICC officials there?
SMITH: Yes, I'm going to the UAE because we're building up an important relationship with them and also with the Gulf countries. But because the ICC is based in Dubai, I'm taking the opportunity of sitting down with the ICC, discussing security arrangements generally, post the attack on the Sri Lankans.
There was this old view that somehow in South Asia, cricketers would be exempt because of the iconic status. Well, we know that's not the case.
We've got an Australian cricket tour of the UAE coming up in April-May, some one-day games and some Twenty20 games against Pakistan. So I'll be interested in those security arrangements.
TRIOLI: You need reassurances on that, don't you?
SMITH: Well it's a matter for Cricket Australia. Later today, I'll actually be meeting with Cricket Australia. We, for example, gave them access to all of the threat assessments, travel advice, up-to-date information we had to enable them to make their initial judgement that they wouldn't go to Pakistan. And that's certainly been vindicated.
And one thing I do know about Cricket Australia, when they make these decisions, they have the safety and welfare of their players and the travelling staff uppermost in their mind. So it's making the point to the ICC that the world of cricket has now changed in security terms, and they can't be lapse(*) or complacent in any way whatsoever.
TRIOLI: They'll have to be aware of that now. Stephen Smith, good to see you. Thank you.
SMITH: Thanks very much. Thanks, Joe.
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