Transcript of questions and answers: Address to the Australian Strategic Policy Institute and Boeing National Security Luncheon
TUE 17 APRIL 2012
COMPERE: Prime Minister, thank you very much. Ladies and gentlemen the floor is now open for questions. We’ve got about quarter of an hour available for that and could I stress that we invite questions from everybody in the room, invited guests as well as the media, who will probably have a few that they wish to raise.
But as I said if you can indicate by raising your hand if you have a question, we’ll get a microphone to you as soon as we can.
PM: Thank you.
QUESTION: Prime Minister, congratulations on a courageous speech, thank you. John Blaxland from the Australian National University. It strikes me that there is a remarkable parallel with Australia’s history in the Vietnam War and Ashley Ekins wrote about it just recently in his book Fighting to the Finish and he made the observation in that book, that as we drew down in Vietnam the casualties of Australian soldiers who are left to continue the fighting rose disproportionately.
I’m wondering, therefore, as we look at the parallels for today, how we stand and how confident you are that Australian soldiers left remaining as forces are drawn down are left with the best support possible.
PM: Thank you. Thank you for that question and I want to be very clear in the answer.
President Karzai will announce in the coming period the next tranche of transition. It is our expectation that parts of Uruzgan will be nominated in that next tranche of transition.
That means the transition process will start. But people will not see Australian soldiers come home on the first day of transition. Transition is a process, a process we believe will take 12 to 18 months.
It’s a process in which we will seek to achieve three things. We will seek to work our way through transition, we will seek to keep our people safe and at the end of transition we will bring the bulk of our people back home.
In the planning of that transition, because you are right, planning transition strategy is as complicated as any other part of the engagement. In planning that transition we will of course work with the best of military advice to plan it, so that it works the way that all of us would aspire to see it work.
But let me emphasise again, because I think this is important to the understanding of the concept of transition, it is not a moment in time, people will not see our ADF personnel or any of them come home on the first day of transition.
Transition will be a process, and people will see the bulk of our forces return at the end of that process.
QUESTION: Prime Minister, the announcement you have made today basically accelerates the anticipated return of our troops, probably by up to about 12 months, on what had been speculated on in the past.
Clearly, the agenda – or is the agenda being driven by the American election timetable and the need for President Obama to have a withdrawal strategy in place, and are you satisfied that the development of the Afghan forces will be advanced enough to ensure that they can maintain security to allow us to continue with the civil aid that you are promising?
PM: Thank you for the question, Brendan. I don't like to argue with members of the media, though the truth is I've been known to do so, but I don't like to argue with members of the media. But I would seek to remind you that in November, in my address to the Parliament about Afghanistan, my most recent update to the Australian Parliament, I did say in that speech that timing to complete transition in Uruzgan was not yet decided, but that it could well be completed before the end of 2014.
What drives the timetable is the assessment by ISAF and then by the Afghan Government of transition, the right moment to enter transition, and that is based on an assessment of the growing capability of the Afghan National Security Forces.
In saying to you that I expect that when President Karzai announces the next tranche, that parts of Uruzgan will be in that, what I am saying to you is that it is my expectation that parts of it will be assessed as having the right characteristics to be parts of the country where the Afghan National Security Forces can step up to responsibility for security in those areas over a 12 to 18 month timeframe. That is all that guides the strategy in terms of assessing transition, the conditions on the ground.
On the milestone that I anticipate being agreed in Chicago, that around Afghanistan, you will see Afghan-led security by mid-2013. Once again, clearly, there needs to be an assessment, and these assessments are being made, about the security conditions on the ground. Fifty per cent of the Afghan population are already covered by areas in transition.
QUESTION: Prime Minister, Neil James from the Australian Defence Association. The advance publicity for your speech this morning already saw some public debate start to plumb the normal depths it does in these topics.
What steps do you think can be taken, in particular, to combat the grossly insensitive and strategically simplistic view that the 32 Diggers we have lost in Afghanistan have died in vain, because this is particularly troubling to the families that have lost them and I urge you to take whatever steps you can to make sure that public debate doesn’t make the grief for the families any worse than it is already.
PM: Thanks Neil for that question. And clearly, as I have said to you today, I most certainly do not share those perspectives, though they are being aired in the public debate.
I believe in engaging in Afghanistan our mission has been clear, our purpose has been clear, our sacrifice has been great. But the families of the men we have lost are able to say to themselves in a time of shocking grief and despair, that their loved ones were out there doing something clearly in Australia's national interest.
Now I think as human beings and as a nation overall, each of us, all of us, is capable of saying to ourselves that, when we lose a soldier, it breaks our heart. It breaks my heart when we get that news through.
I know too clearly what it feels like to get that call. It breaks all of our hearts. But that, the emotion we feel, that your heart is breaking at that point, shouldn’t drive your strategic assessment about what our mission is there or for.
We need to be very clear about what our mission is and therefore very clear to ourselves and particularly to the loved ones of the men we have lost, what they were there for.
So I can assure you, like I am today, I will be out there in the public debate explaining the purpose for why we are in Afghanistan, how it is in the national interests of Australians for us to be there, how we went there, motivated by the terrorist attacks we saw on 9/11, but understanding that these attacks, attacks which took Australian lives and the attacks that subsequently flowed, found their training in Afghanistan, their support in Afghanistan. That's why we went, as well as, of course, standing by our ally the United States of America.
So we are there to make sure that Afghanistan is not again a safe haven for people who would train and come and kill Australians.
QUESTION: Prime Minister, do you have a vision for when the last Australian soldier will leave Afghanistan?
PM: Well I’ve outlined that to you today. So, well, I’ve outlined to you the transition process, what my expectations are of President Karzai's announcement, when the next tranche of transition is announced, and I have also explained to you what I believe our engagement in Afghanistan will look like at the end of that transition process.
So we will continue to be engaged in training work. I have talked to you today, for example, about the artillery school and, as you have seen from what I have said today, we have left the door open to contemplating a continuing role for special operations, subject of course to there being the right mission and mandate to do that.
QUESTION: Prime Minister, Jim Molan. Prime Minister, success in Uruzgan will only have meaning if we have success across all of Afghanistan. The aim for the size of the Afghan Armed Forces was, as you said, was 352,000 people, but ultimately to reduce to something like 230,000.
Should we expect that it will stay at the higher figure for a couple of years after 2014? That seems to me to be the time that the Afghan National Security Forces will be most tested.
PM: That’s an important question, and I indicated to you that the force structure that is being contemplated is a surge force of around 350,000, but that over time would not be the ongoing force structure of the Afghan national security forces.
I'm not in a position to give you a number today about what the ongoing force structure would be, nor a date or even a window as to how it would move from the surge number to the ongoing number.
These matters are clearly under discussion now, they are under discussion in Kabul and beyond, but final decisions have not been taken. So I'm not going to, before final decisions are taken, speculate about numbers.
But I think you do raise an important point about clarity, about how the Afghan National Security Forces will be configured at this surge level and how the step-down will be done to the ongoing force posture.
QUESTION: Prime Minister, Karen Middleton from SBS Television. You said in your speech that reconciliation isn’t a precondition for successful transition.
I am wondering, if it's not, aren't you effectively acknowledging that after we leave, the war will go on and it just won't be us fighting it any more?
And secondly, when I was in Afghanistan in August, I visited the Malalai Girls School in Uruzgan, that Australia helped to establish. How confident are you that that school and schools like it school will continue to operate without a security threat, once Australian forces and other forces in Uruzgan have gone?
PM: Karen, we are involved in a training mission and we are training an Afghan National Security Force that is capable of counterinsurgency. So we expect that there will be fighting against counterinsurgency after 2014.
We are expecting that the force we are assisting in training will have the capabilities to deal with that counterinsurgency at that time, though as I’ve indicated in my speech, we do expect for Australia and for the United States and others, there will still be some training work going on and there may still be some need for Special Forces to assist in the counterinsurgency task.
So we are training the right forces to be able to deal with counterinsurgency, and I have pointed, both locally in the province in which we work and in Kabul in recent days, to examples of the growing effectiveness of the Afghan National Security Forces in leading and acquitting operations in a counterinsurgency environment.
On, therefore, protection of places in Afghanistan from counterinsurgency threats, we are obviously training to ensure that the Afghan National Security Forces has had training and capability development in meeting that counterinsurgency. This is our mission; this is what is driving us in Afghanistan now.
As for the aid and development work and the perspectives about further improvements in health care and education and all of those things. I am always astonished when I talk about the gains that have been made in life expectancy in Afghanistan, that the gains have been made to a life expectancy of 48.
When you are a 50-year-old person, that sharpens your focus a bit, and I don't want to invite the audience to disclose their ages to each other, but when you hear a life expectancy like that, it does really focus your mind.
This is a poor country with a lot of development work to do. We can continue to assist in that development work and we will, but ultimately continuing Afghanistan's development will be the work of the Afghan Government and the Afghan people.