Senator Faulkner's First Official Visit to the US as Minister for Defence
Senator the Hon John Faulkner
Minister for Defence
5 November 2009
JOHN FAULKNER: Well thanks very much, ladies and gentlemen, for coming along this evening. Let me say that I'm here in Washington for talks with members of the US Administration and the Senate to discuss a number of critical Defence issues, most notably, of course, our operations in Afghanistan.
This is my first official visit to Washington and the United States since I became the Minister for Defence in June of this year. I can also say to you it follows very closely on my visit to Bratislava to the NATO Defence ministers meeting and to meet with my ISAF Defence minister counterparts some 10 days ago.
Well, ladies and gentlemen, as you know, of course, the United States is Australia's key ally and the meetings that I've had so far during this visit have certainly, I believe, helped reinforce our relationship on both sides. I've had a very positive and frank meeting with the Secretary for Defense, Dr Robert Gates, this afternoon. I've also met with Senator Carl Levin, the chairman of the Armed Services Committee, Senator John McCain. I've met with General David Petreaus, I've met with Mr Jim Steinberg, the Deputy Secretary of the State Department, I've met with national security adviser General Jim Jones, I've met with Admiral Dennis Blair, the Director of National Intelligence, with Lieutenant General Ron Burgess, Director of the Defence Intelligence Agency and others.
But I can say to you that the major focus of my meetings and discussions has been Australia's ongoing commitment with ISAF in Afghanistan. The issues that I've discussed have included the implication of General McChrystal's 60-day assessment, the training of the Afghan National Army and also the consequences of the withdrawal of our partners and the lead nation in Oruzgan province, the Netherlands, after August 2010.
Before I throw the floor open to you for your questions, I think I could sum my two days up with a comment that I really have received a very warm reception from our American friends and I think this is a very good and clear reflection on how well our relationship works. So ladies and gentlemen, over to you. Tony.
QUESTION: Minister, did you make any commitment as far as Australia's additional deployment of trainers or other personnel is concerned and if so, could you provide details?
JOHN FAULKNER: No, I certainly haven't made any such commitment and as you'd appreciate, the Prime Minister, myself as the Defence Minister and other members of the Australian Government have consistently said as far as our contribution to Afghanistan is concerned we believe that we've got that level of contribution about right. You would recall that in late April this year Australia increased its contribution by some 40%. I think that is very much appreciated, not only here in the - not only here in the United States but also by NATO nations and non-NATO contributing nations to ISAF.
QUESTION: Is that an unequivocal statement that we won't be adding to our numbers there in this next period?
JOHN FAULKNER: Look, I can say to you, Tony, that as the Prime Minister has said, I certainly don't expect in the light of the McChrystal 60-day assessment for Australia to be asked for any additional commitment to Afghanistan. I think it's very well understood in relation to Australia that we have very considerable commitments in our own region. If you just look over the last few weeks we've had a tsunami in Samoa impacting in Samoa and Tonga, we, of course, have had the major earthquake in Western Sumatra. That's just an example of the sorts of contingencies that do arise in our own region. We've got very significant responsibilities in our region. Another very good example of this, of course, is our commitments in East Timor and the Solomon Islands. But this has to be looked at in the context of the very significant increase that Australia made to the number of troops we have in Afghanistan in April. There's a new level of troop commitment, now it stands at 1,550 and as I've said before, as the Prime Minister has said before, and let me reiterate it again today, as I've certainly indicated to those I've spoken to here in the United States over the last couple of days, this number is right.
QUESTION: So you reinforced the view that you felt the contribution was right over the last couple of days?
JOHN FAULKNER: Absolutely. I think there is a very clear understanding that – and appreciation of the fact that Australia increased the number of troops to Afghanistan very significantly on 29 April this year. That was a 40% increase. I can assure you that that increase in troop numbers is very much understood and appreciated. And it's also, I think, well understood that Australia uniquely has responsibilities in its own area of the world.
We do have to take account of the contingencies that we face. And let me say this - Australia is the largest non-NATO contributor to ISAF. It is the tenth largest troop contributor to ISAF. This is a very significant contribution, a very important contribution to this international mission and I think it's very much appreciated.
QUESTION: What impression did you get in your talks with military chiefs of the situation in Afghanistan given its quite serious deterioration over the past 12 months?
JOHN FAULKNER: Well I certainly discussed with my interlocutors this issue in the context of General McChrystal's 60-day assessment. I can say to you that the US Administration is weighing up General McChrystal's assessment. I can also say to you, as I'm sure that you would appreciate, from Australia's perspective the outcome of those deliberations and consideration are very important. I've heard, of course, some suggest that these decisions should have been, or outcomes should have been announced before now. I take the view, and I would argue very strongly as I have, I think, consistently through my time in politics, that on important decisions like this it's critical to get the answer right. It's critical not to rush such an important decision and I can say to you that what is occurring in Afghanistan, my focus very much as you would appreciate in Oruzgan province, enabled me to have a very frank exchange of views with our American friends.
QUESTION: Can I just ask you about Oruzgan province, do the Americans want us to become the lead country in that province and if not, what are the other alternatives? Is there another country that's willing to step up and take over?
JOHN FAULKNER: No, look, I can say to you that the Americans do absolutely understand that Australia's not able to take the leadership in Oruzgan province. I'd like to say that, as I've said before when asked questions about the leadership in Oruzgan province, that the role that the Dutch have played in the province has been a very important one indeed. I think it has delivered lasting improvements and progress. And I can also say to you that I certainly sincerely hope that after August next year that our Dutch partners will be able to continue some form of commitment in Oruzgan to build on those crucial gains that have been made. Of course, for me, as the Australian Defence Minister, the issue of what happens with the Dutch contribution, if they are to leave, remains an absolutely critical one. Our US friends certainly understand that Australia cannot and will not lead in Oruzgan. As I've said before, we have very significant commitments already, particularly in our own regions. I mean our responsibilities in ourown part of the world are great. It's also, I think, important for everyone to remember as we think about this issue, that the decision on who takes over from the Dutch in Oruzgan is a decision for NATO to make. So this issomething I very much stressed at the NATO Defence ministers' meeting in Bratislava. It is a decision for NATO. It's a decision that will need to bemade in the months ahead. So it's important from Australia's perspective,it's urgent from Australia's perspective, it's critical that it's resolved, that Australia will not and cannot take the leadership in Oruzgan.
QUESTION: Could you clarify your position on an exit timetable? Do you believe there should be an exit timetable for the Australian presence there or is this an open-ended commitment?
JOHN FAULKNER: Well, I don't know that I need to clarify this issue but because you've invited me to, Tony, of course I'm happy to address it. We have a mission in Afghanistan to train and mentor the 4th Brigade of the Afghan National Army in Oruzgan province until the Afghan National Army is able to take responsibility for the security and stability of the province. The Government has been absolutely clear on that objective. It's no easy task, it's certainly going to take some time. That is the task, that is the objective that the Government has set itself and that is the objective and the task that the Government is committed to.
QUESTION: Does the shooting of five British military personnel overnight bring any concerns to you about the Taliban infiltrating the trained-up army and whether it may pose any danger to our own troops?
JOHN FAULKNER: Well, of course I'm very concerned with the death of any of our ISAF forces in Afghanistan and I'm not going to pretend to you otherwise. I've always said, and let me say it again this evening, what we are doing, what ISAF is doing in Afghanistan, is very difficult and dangerous work and what happened in relation to those soldiers from the United Kingdom I think very much brings home the nature of our mission in Afghanistan in that respect. So of course it highlights the dangerous nature of the mission but I can assure you that the commitment and objective that Australia has is not diminished. I know that the commitment to ISAF of all our partners in NATO and non-NATO contributing nations is not diminished but it does, I think, demonstrate the difficulty and danger that our troops and ISAF troops more broadly in Afghanistan face.
QUESTION: Did you get any opportunity to talk about the issue of Hamid Karzai's re-election and how the Americans were going to go ensuring that he had sufficient legitimacy with the Afghan people?
JOHN FAULKNER: Look, I did certainly have an opportunity to touch on that. The legitimacy of the Afghanistan election is something that I've commented on a great deal over the past few months. It's important, of course, to always remember in relation to the election, it has been Afghan-led throughout in accordance with an electoral process that is laid out under Afghan laws and of course the constitution of Afghanistan. The final outcome of that process with Mr Karzai being elected has now been determined by the Afghan authorities. It's obviously been a challenging election that's taken place, as I've mentioned - said a little earlier, in difficult circumstances. It is, I think, critical that the Afghan constitution and laws have been upheld. But it is also critical that there be a credible government in Afghanistan. A government that is able to work - to unify the Afghan people and to win the trust of the Afghan people and to do that Mr Karzai's government is going to have to make real and early progress, particularly in terms of strengthening the Afghan security forces but also very importantly in terms of fighting corruption. It's absolutely critical that we see good governance in Afghanistan and I believe that Mr Karzai has a clear responsibility to confront that issue and to confront that issue without delay.
QUESTION: How much time, Minister, do you think he should be given to get his act together?
JOHN FAULKNER: Well I don't actually think he's even been inaugurated yet but I think the - I see it as a very high priority for Mr Karzai and clearly something where early progress is required. There is - there's no question that the sorts of issues that we're speaking of are not easy ones to address. They can't necessarily be issues that all of which can be solved overnight what we want to see and need to see as early and as quickly as possible is a real commitment on behalf of Mr Karzai to address these issues.
QUESTION: And if it's not forthcoming?
JOHN FAULKNER: Well, I think the challenge for the international community is to ensure that Mr Karzai does deliver in terms of that commitment. So as you know, Tony, I tend to try and look at these things in a more positive light and that's the approach that I will take and I think you will find it's the approach that the international community will take. High expectations in relation to Mr Karzai to ensure that he lifts his game in these important areas of good process and good governance.
QUESTION: Does your bestowing of an award upon General Petreaus last night indicate that you may have changed your mind in any way about whether the Iraq war was a war against terrorism?
JOHN FAULKNER: Well, I did notice, Brad, that you were able to write in the 'Australian' newspaper that this was one of those excruciating moments in Australian politics. Thank you for writing that from someone who actually didn't attend and wasn't there, it was an interesting judgment for you to make because I'm not aware of anybody who was there who made a similar judgment but perhaps you're a soothsayer, perhaps you're a soothsayer. What I said about General Petreaus is right. He's been a very good friend of Australia. I've not only had the pleasure, because of the unavoidable absence of our ambassador to the United States of America to fill in for him and undertake an official role on behalf of the Governor-General, which I think is appropriate in relation to the investiture, I had an opportunity to dine with General Petreaus last night. I can assure you that what I said at General Petreaus' investiture is right. General Petreaus is a very good friend of Australia and of course, as you'd be aware, from time to time political parties take views on national issues. It's true that I belong to a political party that opposed Australia's involvement in the war in Iraq. That's absolutely true. That's a matter of fact. I belong to a political party that took a view in relation to Australia's involvement in the Vietnam War. But I've also had an extraordinarily respectful approach to those who've served in those conflicts. I had a difference of view with the Howard Government in relation to the war in Iraq. That was public. My party did. My party had a different view to the Coalition governments of the 1960s and '70s in relation to Australia's involvement in the Vietnam War. What's critically important in this is not to be small minded or narrow or insular, but to acknowledge those who've served their country and in General Petreaus' case, acknowledge someone who played a role that was very much in our national interest given our involvement in the war in Iraq who made a very big difference when he commanded the forces in the war in Iraq who, as I said, is a good friend of Australia and I stand by those comments. I think they were appropriate. I think they were dignified and I'd say it again any time about anybody who played a similar role.
QUESTION: But I note that the citation was specifically for distinguished service against terrorism and so therefore, you know, terrorism - you separate the man from the task, I take it you haven't changed your view then of the Iraq war itself?
JOHN FAULKNER: Well, let me say again, I did note your view about - your description of last evening's inauguration as being an excruciating moment in Australian politics. Whether that's fair or not to me or anybody else present it's certainly not fair to General Petreaus. You weren't there. I think if you were there you might have come to a different point of view but I think General Petreaus, as I have said, has been a great friend of Australia. I think what the citation, which was read out, I'd have to confirm with you, it wasn't written by me, but I think the citation that was read out was a very fair exposition of the role he has played and on the recommendation of the Chief of the Australian Defence Force, Air Chief Marshal Angus Houston of the Australian Government, decided that it was appropriate to award General Petreaus as an honorary member of the Order of Australia.: I think that's a very good decision, it's one that I personally support and I was actually privileged to be able to play an official role in the investiture. I can assure you it was a pleasure. I've got really nothing else I can say to you. It was a real pleasure to do. I just think in future if you're going to write these things you should ask someone who was present what it was really like.
QUESTION: Can I ask on another topic, has anyone raised with you the issue of the detainees in Guantanamo Bay and whether Australia is prepared to take in those people if the Americans proceed with their plans to close it?
JOHN FAULKNER: Do you mean, Anne, does anyone in this visit?
QUESTION: In the visit, has anyone from the Administration asked Australia whether we would take more people?
JOHN FAULKNER: The issue hasn't been raised with me, Anne.
QUESTION: Can I ask you about the strategy in Afghanistan. Do you have a view about what is the appropriate balance between counter-terrorism and counter-insurgency and do you believe that the main focus should be on combating Al-Qaeda as opposed to fighting the Taliban up hill and down dale, whatever it is in Afghanistan?
JOHN FAULKNER: I think this is obviously a debate that's been engendered by General McChrystal's 60-day report. As I've said, I personally very much welcome General McChrystal's 60-day assessment and I also personally very much welcome the debate that it's generated. I think that the emphasis that General McChrystal has given on protecting the people of Afghanistan and training and partnering with the Afghan national security forces certainly is the best way to ensure future success. My own personal view is that we will not prevail in Afghanistan unless we win the hearts and minds of the Afghan people.
QUESTION: Did you say we will not prevail?
JOHN FAULKNER: In my view we will not prevail unless we win the hearts and minds of the Afghan people and this is something that General McChrystal in his report, I think, has stressed. I think that we should acknowledge the fact that when General McChrystal took command in Afghanistan he issued a directive on counter-insurgency operations. As far as Australia's concerned, I actually think that the way that we are working in Afghanistan, our modus operandi in Afghanistan is very much in line with what General McChrystal has proposed and very consistent with that model where the primary focus is on protecting the population. I'd be happy if you were interested, Tony, to perhaps go through some examples of that if that would be helpful for you. Well, for example, our special forces are conducting more daylight operations which, of course, for the local population, are far less intimidating than night operations and they're also engaging with the community in traditional ways through community meetings or shuras. We've got a situation where our special forces are partnered with an Afghan provincial police reserve company when they go out on operations looking for IED factories and the like and the police provide local expertise when they're approaching or entering compounds. We've provided low-level development to villages. One of the examples I recently heard about was an example of the provision of a village water pump which had been broken and of course our special forces were able to ensure that an operating pump was provided. Another really good example is the fact that we're sending - that we have female medics from our mentoring and reconstruction task force going with special forces to provide clinics in villages in areas which we're stabilising and of course this is very important for women in the Afghan population. So they're just some examples of how this is done. My own personal view is that this is very much the right way to go about our task in Afghanistan. As I say, I think Australia's already performing that function and performing it well.
QUESTION: Minister, can I just ask you in relation to a separate issue on the 'Oceanic Viking' and the asylum seekers, has Defence started putting any plans in place if there is going to end up being a forced removal? Is the Defence Department thinking about what may end up being the end result?
JOHN FAULKNER: Well, certainly not to my knowledge.
Colin Campbell (John Faulkner): 02 6277 7800 or 0407 787 181
Defence Media Liaison: 02 6127 1999 or 0408 498 664