Minister for Defence – Press conference – Combined Team Uruzgan

TRANSCRIPT: PRESS CONFERENCE – COMBINED TEAM URUZGAN 

TRANSCRIPTION: PROOF COPY E & OE

DATE:  31 MAY 2012

TOPICS: Afghanistan; Kings Cross brawl; WIA incident; ADFA; Syria.

STEPHEN SMITH: Thanks very much for turning up. I’m here today with the Chief of the Defence Force, General Hurley. We’re announcing today that Australia is taking on the leadership role of Combined Team Uruzgan in Uruzgan Province, Afghanistan.

You might recall that when the Dutch withdrew from Afghanistan and Uruzgan in 2010 that Combined Team Uruzgan was formed under the leadership of the United States with Australia leading the civilian component, the PRT, the provincial reconstruction team.        

As a result of discussions that General Hurley and I have had with General Allen, Commander ISAF, and as a result of a recommendation I made to the National Security Committee when General Hurley and I and the Prime Minister returned from Chicago earlier this week, the National Security Committee resolved to approve Australia taking on the leadership in Uruzgan.        

This will be welcomed very much by the United States and by the International Security Assistance Force and by General Allen.        

Circumstances in Uruzgan are very different from what they were back in June 2010 when Combined Team Uruzgan was announced under United States leadership and General Hurley and I are of the view that Australia taking on the leadership now in Uruzgan puts us in a better position to manage the transition process in Uruzgan through.        

You’ll recall that in the middle of May- earlier this month- President Karzai announced the third tranche of transition in Afghanistan which included Uruzgan province and on that basis we’ll see Uruzgan commence transition in the middle of this year, in the next month or so, and just as ISAF does, just as International Security Assistance Force and General Allen do, we see that process taking some 12 to 18 months.        

So taking on the leadership now in Uruzgan, in our view, puts us in a better position to manage that process.        

One of the reasons, back in 2010, for the United States taking the leadership in Uruzgan was the United States provided the so-called enablers, the platforms and enablers including headquarter support, helicopter support and medical support. Those enablers will remain and continue in Uruzgan.

I’ll ask General Hurley to make a few remarks and then we’re happy to respond to your questions.

The final point I should make in addition to the enablers is there will be a small number of personnel involved in the leadership process so this will not have any impact on our 1550, on average, compliment in Afghanistan.       

David.

DAVID HURLEY:  Thank you, Minister.        

The new command role should be viewed as a positive part of the transition for Afghanistan security leadership in the province. Our leadership of the CTU will not lead to any net increase of ADF numbers in province, and does not reflect the US significantly reducing its commitment to the CTU coalition arrangement.  

Over the next two years, the force there will be conducting a number of concurrent, complex and integrated operations. These include the transition to the Afghan National Security Force’s lead for security, the extraction of ADF forces and their equipment from the province, preparation for whatever the Government may decide will be Australia’s commitment after the transition process in 2014, and support to the whole of Government transition of the programs of work and so forth it delivers through Uruzgan to Afghanistan and abroad.

The weight of the effort in the transition still falls on Australia’s activities to transition lead to the 4th Brigade. That is still the weight of the operation into the future. What this decision does though is put us in the driving seat to control that interaction of those processes over the next year or so.

Thank you.

JOURNALIST:      Will this put our forces in any greater danger?  

STEPHEN SMITH: No, as General Hurley and I have both said, it puts us in a better position to drive the transition process. Our mentoring and training task force will continue their work and their effort and all of that is being done as we have previously outlined in accordance with the agreement of Lisbon which has been reaffirmed and reinforced by the recent summit in Chicago.

So no change to that. It puts us in our view in a better position to manage that. David can add.

DAVID HURLEY:  For our forces that are outside the wire, within the Uruzgan Province and so forth, absolutely no change to the task there. Do now or we’ll plan to do into the future.  

JOURNALIST:      Minister, Australia’s been asked to take the lead before. When the Dutch left we were asked to take the lead and we resisted. Why now? What’s changed that you would finally say yes?

STEPHEN SMITH: It’s not a matter of finally saying yes. In June, from memory – June of 2010 when Defence Minister Falkner and I as Foreign Minister announced the Combined Team Uruzgan arrangements, the essential difficulty for us at that time was that we didn’t have the adequate resources or enablers to lead in Uruzgan. And those enablers or platform are an integral part of operations in Uruzgan and I’ve referred to some helicopters, the aero-medical evacuation and headquarter support and David may wish to add.        

A lot has changed since the two years that have elapsed since then. We’re in a much better position in terms of security on the ground, our training and mentoring of the 4th Brigade is going well, we now see the transition of Uruzgan itself, our security arrangements are in a much better position than they were then, but importantly, very importantly as our statement and our remarks have indicated, the United States have indicated very firmly to us over a period of time that they are proposing to keep those enablers there.

It puts us in effectively a better management position to see the transition through and of course we’ve done that in consultation and in discussion with General Allen, the commander of the International Security Assistance Force, and also with other US officials.

JOURNALIST:      It’s my understanding though that back in 2010 Defence said they did have the capabilities and told the Government they did have the capabilities and it was a political decision not to take over. Are you saying- 

STEPHEN SMITH: No, that’s not. That’s-

JOURNALIST:      What would you say to that?

STEPHEN SMITH: I’m saying now what John Faulkner and I said at the time, that in the circumstances of June 2010, leading to a handover by the Dutch in August 2010, we were not in a position to take up the leadership of Uruzgan Province. It would not have been in our national interest to take up at that time because our resource allocation would have been inadequate.        

We’ve now got a circumstance where the position on the ground in Uruzgan has changed in a qualitative way since then. The United States have indicated that the enablers will remain which they have provided since 2010 and the key factor, Uruzgan now in transition, Uruzgan now in tranche three. And so we’re now in a position with all of Uruzgan in transition to better drive that process.

General Hurley and I first raised this with Commander John Allen when we were in Afghanistan in early April in Kabul. We said to him this was something we were thinking about and he might want to just put it in the back of his mind.

We had a further conversation in Brussels, you might recall in late April, Defence and Foreign Ministers met in NATO and ISAF format in Brussels. We had a substantive conversation with General Allen about the matter then and essentially said if Uruzgan is included in the third tranche, we then see the opportunity of formally proposing this outcome.

That occurred in the run-up to Chicago, we had a further conversation with General Allen in Chicago and as I’ve said upon return from Chicago, I put a formal recommendation to the National Security Committee and we agreed it.

The decision we made at the time, which John Faulkner as Defence Minister had the running of, was in my view the absolutely correct decision and John Faulkner as Defence Minister was very, very, very heavily involved in the creation of Combined Task Force Uruzgan and did a very good job in our national interest.

Circumstances have changed. We’re now of the view it’s in our national interest and puts us in a better position to drive the transition in Uruzgan to see us take the leadership from what will effectively be towards the end of this year to the end of the ISAF mission in Afghanistan December 2014.

JOURNALIST:      Minister, is this the first time that – well, let’s get the first bit right. Does this mean that the enablers will now be effectively under direct control and command from an Australian officer as the senior officer on the ground with CTU? And would that be the first time, if that is the case, that this has happened either in Afghanistan or indeed in Iraq?

STEPHEN SMITH: Well, I’ll let David go through the chain of command but as a general proposition, taking on the leadership from towards the end of this year sees us effectively in the command role for ISAF in Uruzgan but I’ll let David take you through the chain of command.

DAVID HURLEY:  To try to avoid some of the technicalities of the command and control language, these assets or enablers are always been in support of the force. There’s not a sense of ownership of those little bits, they’re provided for support of the force and you task into them to receive their support.

So that arrangement continues. There’s no diminution of the level of support that will be provided from the US under this arrangement.

JOURNALIST:      But I mean, does the order come effectively, there’s a need to get enablers to a particular place. Will that come from an Australian officer? Is that the first time that that’s happened in Afghanistan or indeed in Iraq?  

DAVID HURLEY:  In the sense that we will have the tasking authority, yes. So on a day-to-day basis when we determine what sort of assets we need to support the work that’s being done today or if we have a contact and we’re required to bring in offensive fires and so forth, the control group comes to Australia to seek that support and make arrangements for its delivery.

JOURNALIST:      Question to both of you, there was a large brawl in Kings Cross last night, believed to have involved US and Australian Defence personnel. What can you tell us about that?

STEPHEN SMITH: Well, just as a general proposition, it’s always disappointing when we see incidents of that nature. That’s the first point. Secondly, I haven’t got – and I’ll let David add – I haven’t got, I don’t think David has got, any advice or information as to the detail or the circumstances.

It occurred in Sydney. In the first instance, it will be a matter for the New South Wales Police but other than seeing the general media reportage of it, I’ve got no detail or advice on the circumstances of it. We should wait until those circumstances become clear.

JOURNALIST:      [Indistinct] 

DAVID HURLEY:  Again, no. We’ve only received media reports – the news reports are primary what have come through and a few reports coming through the respective services. Too early to make any calls or draw any conclusions about what’s happened here. We’re in discussion with the police obviously trying to find out what happened.

I’m disappointed if ADF personnel have been involved in this but like all these things, we’ll wait until we get a bit more detail and then go through our normal processes to find out what’s occurred.

JOURNALIST:      Do you know if they were actually US [indistinct] 

DAVID HURLEY:  I don’t know personally. All I’ve seen is the news reports and that’s it.

JOURNALIST:      General, there was an incident – the ISAF reported that an ISAF soldier was killed in Southern Afghanistan yesterday. Can you rule out that that was an Australian?  

DAVID HURLEY:  Certainly can.

JOURNALIST:      On another matter- 

STEPHEN SMITH: Sorry, Brendan and then we’ll come back to Hugh.

JOURNALIST:      You say that the American enablers will stay in Uruzgan. Will there be any decrease in the number of American units in Uruzgan or the number of personnel and does the fact that we are dependent on their enablers – this range of helicopters, whatever – mean that we’re very much tied to an American timetable in terms of how long they can stay there?  

STEPHEN SMITH: A couple of general remarks and then I’ll let David add.

Firstly, the focus in Uruzgan now, whether it’s from Australia’s perspective, the United States perspective or the International Security Assistance Force’s perspective. The key focus now is on the 4th Brigade – training and mentoring the 4th Brigade and making them better able to accept security responsibility and we’re doing well on that front.

A change in leadership will see a small number of Australians – additional Australians within our 1550 average complement. And it logically follows it will be a small number of reductions from the US but it’s a leadership headquarters role. And so, we don’t have any concerns about any small reduction in US personnel as a result of this change in leadership.

But as a general proposition, whether it’s Uruzgan or whether it’s Afghanistan, as the Afghan National Security Forces become more competent, better able to engage in partnered and then independent patrols, their numbers take over. We’ve now got an Afghan National Army effectively from memory, of about 230,000. That’s scheduled to grow over a period of time to 350,000 and then after transition on a gradual drawdown, to end up in a position of about 220, 230 as a standard force.

So, in all of this, in terms of numbers, what we’re seeing now is an increase in the number of Afghan National Security Forces in play whether it’s Uruzgan or Afghanistan generally.

So far as the enablers are concerned, the United States, as I have said and as David has said, the United States have provided those enablers since 2010 and the assurances we have received from the United States is that those enablers will stay until the job is done in Uruzgan.

DAVID HURLEY:  In a practical sense, the numbers change will occur in the headquarters. So the ratio between Australians and US will change but we’ll redesign the headquarters as well in that process.        

So at the head of the Combined Team Uruzgan, at the moment there’s a US Colonel and the Deputy Commander is an Australian Colonel. You’ll see that swap so in a practical sense that’s what you’ll see. They’ll decrease some of the staff officer commitment they make, we’ll compensate a bit for that with our people but we’re going to redesign the headquarters as well to make it a bit tighter.

JOURNALIST:      [Indistinct] Will that be a higher ranked officer or the same? Under the existing arrangement it’s the senior US officer who has ultimate directional operational matters in Uruzgan?  

STEPHEN SMITH: Yes. That’s as David has said, that switches.

JOURNALIST:      Can I ask on another matter, there was a rather more heroic thing than what happened in Kings Cross – rather more heroically than whatever happened in Kings Cross.        

In the last 36 hours, an Australian digger was lightly wounded going in to – I believe it was a Bushmaster after there’d been an [indistinct] blast to try and pull out an Afghan driver.

Can I just get your reflections on the actions of that Australian soldier under those conditions?

STEPHEN SMITH: Again, David will add to any detail. The circumstances, as I’ve been advised are that there was there was an IED explosion. The Australian Defence Force personnel was thrown forward as a result of that explosion. An Afghan National Army member was in a vehicle, the vehicle caught light and the Australian Defence Force personnel dragged the Afghan National Army member out of the burning vehicle. He sustained injuries as a result of being pushed forward by the explosion and also, I think, sustained some burns as a result of dragging the fellow out.        

It is what you would regard as the classic and traditional type of effort that we see from an Australian service personnel despite being injured by an explosion, thinking about others first. It is yet another example of our soldiers in Afghanistan conducting themselves in the finest traditions of Australian service personnel and it continues to reinforce a long-standing and well-deserved reputation that we have.

That the individual concerned is in a satisfactory condition and that’s a good thing and his family have been informed of those details.

DAVID HURLEY:  Just to clarify, the vehicle that was hit by the IED was like a Land Rover or Ranger. Had a load of RPG rounds in the back, explosion occurred. Our fellow was standing outside the vehicle and was blown over but when he recovered himself, went into the vehicle and rescued the ANA fellow. He suffered some hearing effects and so forth as you can imagine, but returned to light duties. He’s on sort of three days respite and then he’ll be back to work.  

JOURNALIST:      Does it say anything about the nature of the relationship? We’ve seen some – obviously some difficulties with Afghan soldiers opening fire on Australian soldiers. What does it say about the relationship as you see it, an incident like this?

DAVID HURLEY:  I think the main thing is we should never jump to conclusions about that relationship. It’s not black and white. It’s very complex. The working relationships can be close, the soldiers know the other ANA people reasonably well in most instances.        

So the whole of this green on blue type issue is a very complex thing and I think we have good working relationships with the ANA but you just can never rule out what might pop up and that’s the unfortunate bit about it.

JOURNALIST:      Can I just ask about the practicalities of pulling out of Uruzgan? When do we actually start moving equipment, vehicles, that sort of stuff out? How do we do that? Do we take it through Pakistan? I’ve seen some reporting about the difficulties of taking equipment out through Pakistan. Do we need a diplomatic agreement [indistinct]. How does it work?  

STEPHEN SMITH: Well again, I’ll let David add some detail but we’ve now just got to that point where David is about to give the Government – I’m not putting a timetable on that, it’s not days in the future but we’ve now got to the stage where as a result of the Lisbon Summit, as a result of the Chicago Summit, as a result of the transition of Uruzgan in the third tranche by President Karzai, we’ve now got ourselves in a position where we can essentially see the glide-path to transition in Uruzgan and then the end of the ISAF mission in December 2014.

And as we’ve said in the past, for the last six months or so, with Uruzgan transitioning in the middle of this year, we expect that process to take some 12 to 18 months. So we’re about now to start considering at Ministerial level, David’s detailed advice about how we managed that transition, how we manage the extraction of mentoring and taskforce teams who would no longer be required as that transition occurs, and at the same time of course we are giving consideration to what will be the detail of our post-2014 contribution.

As a David said earlier, when you put all of these together it’s a pretty complex operation. We haven’t yet got to the stage of considering that detail – when it would occur, how it would occur? That will be the subject of detailed advice to us by David.

And of course whilst we are confident that we’re making progress in Uruzgan and whilst we and ISAF are confident of that 12 to 18 month timetable, we continue to do this on an outcomes basis not a timetable basis. We’re confident we’ll get there on the 12 to 18 months but precise time lines have to await further progress but the extraction job is a big job and that, as it has on previous occasions, will require effectively an extraction team.

DAVID HURLEY:  So, for about a month or so now we’ve had a small team in Afghanistan that has been conducting review audits of all our equipment and determining what would need to be brought home, what might be left and what arrangements and so forth.        

So more work to be done on that but that planning advice is being prepared to come back through me then to Government. Lot of containers, accommodation, you can imagine all the kit, those who have been there, that needs to be brought home over time.

As we’re extracting through the transition process, so are 50 other countries. Some will extract through the north, the ground lines of communication through the northern neighbours, some will require to extract through the south. So the GLOC, the ground lines of communication, were important to move every one out because we couldn’t simply do it by air. Far too expensive and take too long.

JOURNALIST:      [Indistinct]  

DAVID HURLEY:  To be determined but what we don’t want is the Afghans to be left with everything that people, of their own decision, say, we’ll leave it behind. This has to be coordinated at the highest level with ISAF. This a major operational phase in what’s occurred in Afghanistan and into the future and us having a strong voice in that process is very important because commander ISAF and his staff will be looking at the priorities of extraction, what kit needs to come down, how much kit can move through the line at any particular time down the roads and so forth. So logistically this is a major and complex operation.

JOURNALIST:      Can you say when the first pieces of kit- 

DAVID HURLEY:  No, not at the moment. I think we just need to go through the planning process and really coordinate with ISAF because none of us should be jumping the gun because this is a shared effort to extract the force.

JOURNALIST:      Minister, can I just ask you about the report to Greg Combet on the plight of SMEs? I’m not sure if you have seen that or not. It was done before the Budget and suggested that [indistinct] or laying people off.        

And the other thing – and whether there’s a concern about niche capabilities being provided by Australian industry to the ADF.

STEPHEN SMITH: Firstly, I don’t know that it can be given the status of a report. My understanding is it was a draft. I haven’t seen the evidence that was given in industry estimates but my understanding is that it was made clear that it was a draft report. It hadn’t gone through the department’s senior officers and hadn’t gone to the Industry Minister so that’s the first point. I don’t give that much status.        

As a general proposition, what can I say? What I can say is that there will continue to be substantial work for the Australian defence industry. In maintenance and sustainment, we’re actually increasing the amount of money going to maintenance and sustainment. In capability, we’re coming off a record year last year with between 45 and 50 project approvals – that’s a record number of projects, and we are expecting in the course of this year to make decisions around the order, from memory, about $6 billion worth of projects.

So there is a continuation of that process and a continuation of opportunity for the Australian defence industry, whether it’s in maintenance and sustainment or in procurement.

In terms of niche industries, yes, we do have to watch that but in one niche area where I know that there are currently some pressures, often it’s as a result of circumstances beyond the control either of the Australian Government or of Australian industry and the classic illustration I think is the Joint Strike Fighter project.

There are a number of companies, and I visited some primarily in South Australia who are doing work for the Joint Strike Fighter project. As a result of difficulties in that project, which we’ve seen effectively since November of – in terms of assessment, analysis and changed decision-making by the United States.

In the assessment since effectively November of last year to February of this year, we’ve seen a pretty clear analysis of that project that saw Leon Panetta push effectively 179 planes to the right and we’ve mirrored that in our own decision making process which I announced in the Budget context.

JOURNALIST:      [Indistinct] cadet attending ADFA who was before the courts this week charged with sexual assault. I’m mindful that it is before the courts obviously, so I know that there will be restrictions to what you can say, I’m wondering what you can say about that incident? And given all investigations and [indistinct] attention on ADFA and these kinds of incidents, how does that sit with the changes ADFA has made? And are you having to [indistinct] as a result?  

DAVID HURLEY:  I won’t address the actual case as you know but let’s look at what’s occurred in ADFA. Ms Broderick did her review where we built on that with many of the programs we’ve put in place. The stories we don’t hear behind this is the cadets got together and brought this forward. Exactly what we want them to do. They spoke to the cadets that were involved, talked through what had happened and arranged for them to come forward and bring the issue forward.

So they recognise, obviously, this runs against our values and what we want in the organisation. They responded appropriately to it and then the appropriate steps are being taken at ADFA in response to that.  

JOURNALIST:      Can I just check one more thing, sorry? The American senior military advisers have said they do have military options available for President Obama in Syria in the unlikely event that he needs to go there. Have we had discussions with the Americans at all about any support we can provide or any assistance?

STEPHEN SMITH: I haven’t but I can make some general remarks. Firstly, I think as the Foreign Minister made clear yesterday in DFAT estimates, the theoretical possibility of military intervention by the international community is there for Syria but you’ve got to get to a fundamental threshold which is some authorisation by international law, for example the United Nations Security Council resolution or some other basis in international law, right to protect, for example. So I don’t give that any status higher than a theoretical possibility.        

So far as Australia is concerned, we would not see, if there were in the theoretical, an international authorised military intervention in Syria. We would not see a role for Australia in that militarily. We would regard that in very many respects as analogous to Libya where we made it clear we were very happy to make a contribution for humanitarian assistance and disaster relief, or the evacuation of civilians if that were required, primarily through volunteering a C-17, in the event that was not required.

There are plenty of countries in Syria’s immediate region and in Europe who would be called upon first to make a contribution if there were to be, in the abstract, a military intervention authorised by international law in Syria.

Thank you very much.

 

 


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