Paper presented by the
Minister for Defence, Stephen Smith, MP
Tabled in conjunction with a Ministerial Statement
on 23 March 2011
As I said during last year’s Parliamentary debate on Afghanistan, “there can be no more serious endeavour for any country or Government than to send its military forces into conflict”.
That is why it is appropriate that Australia's commitment to Afghanistan is the subject of ongoing Parliamentary and public scrutiny.
As part of this, the Government and I are committed to providing regular reports and updates on Afghanistan, including to the Parliament.
My report on this occasion includes the recent NATO and International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) Defence Ministers’ meeting in Brussels, which I attended earlier this month.
Why we are there
It is worth reminding ourselves why we are in Afghanistan and what our goal is.
The Government’s strong view is that it is in our national interest to be in Afghanistan, not just with our Alliance partner the United States, but also with 46 other members of the international community acting under a United Nations mandate.
Australia has a responsibility to help stare down international terrorism and ensure stability in Afghanistan.
Our fundamental goal is to prevent Afghanistan from again being used by terrorists to plan and train for attacks on innocent civilians, including Australians in our own region and beyond.
To achieve that goal we must help prepare the Afghan Government to take lead responsibility for providing security for the Afghan people.
We must stabilise the security situation and mentor and train the Afghan security forces.
There are signs that the international community’s recent troop surge, combined now with a strong military and political strategy, has reversed the Taliban’s momentum.
This progress is incremental and hard-won, but it is apparent.
As International Security Assistance Force Commander General Petraeus told the US Congress on 15 March, districts west of Kandahar city – the birthplace of the Taliban – have recently been cleared by ISAF and Afghan troops.
In recent months, there has been a fourfold increase in the number of weapons and explosive caches turned in and found.
Around 700 former Taliban have now officially reintegrated with Afghan authorities, with some 2,000 more in various stages of the reintegration process.
But I do urge caution.
United States Defense Intelligence Agency head, General Ron Burgess, has cautioned that “the security situation remains fragile and heavily dependent on ISAF support” and that the Taliban “remain[s] resilient and will be able to threaten US and international goals in Afghanistan through 2011”.
We must expect push back from the Taliban, particularly in areas recently claimed by ISAF and Afghan troops, when this year's fighting season commences in April or May.
We do need to steel ourselves for a tough fighting season.
United States Secretary of Defense Gates was correct when he said in Afghanistan on 8 March that the coming spring and summer fighting seasons would present an ‘acid test’ of whether our gains could hold.
As well, the international community must continue to press President Karzai and his Government to deliver on his undertakings at the London Conference in January 2010 to improve governance, pursue electoral reform, take effective anti-corruption and anti-narcotics measures and create social and economic opportunities for all the Afghan people, including Afghan women and girls.
As United States National Intelligence Director Jim Clapper advised the United States Congress recently, which he repeated to me when I met him in Australia recently, there remains concern about the ability of the Afghan Government to deliver on governance.
Without progress on governance, security gains will remain fragile.
Leaders of the 48 ISAF countries met at the Lisbon Summit last November and resolved that a conditions-based transition to Afghan led security begin in 2011, with the aspiration of completing transition by the end of 2014.
NATO and ISAF members also made an important long term commitment to support Afghanistan beyond the transition of security responsibility.
Good progress has been made since the Lisbon Summit, with the first Joint Afghan-NATO Inteqal Board report on transition and the development of ISAF Transition Implementation Principles.
Australia endorses the first Inteqal report and its recommendation to begin transition, as the Brussels NATO-ISAF Defence Ministers also did, and as announced by President Karzai on 22 March, which I will refer to shortly.
The Inteqal report’s commitment to coordinate transition planning with both Afghan and ISAF stakeholders will ensure all partners are consulted throughout the transition process, including on future tranches for transition.
It is essential to get this right, to ensure the sustainability of the transition process.
As the Prime Minister said at the Lisbon Summit, there is no point transitioning out only to have to transition back in later.
The ISAF Transition Implementation Principles emphasise a shared, long-term commitment, a properly resourced mission, and investment and reinvestment in training.
I attended the recent NATO-ISAF Defence Ministers’ meeting in Brussels.
Building upon the Lisbon Summit, this meeting delivered the message that ISAF partners are committed to achieving a conditions based, irreversible and sustainable transition of security responsibility to Afghan National Security Forces.
Working hand in hand with the Afghan Government, ISAF intends to complete the handing over of security responsibility to Afghan authorities by the end of 2014.
This is an achievable task, and it has already started.
We must remember that transition will be a process rather than a single event. It will take place at different times in districts and in provinces only as security circumstances permit.
The pace of this transition will depend on conditions on the ground, in particular the operational readiness of the Afghan National Security Forces.
On 22 March President Karzai announced the first provinces and districts to transition to Afghan authority.
These include the provinces of Bamyan (all districts), Panjshir (all districts), and Kabul (all districts except Surobi) and the districts of Mazar-e-Sharif (Balkh province), Herat (Herat province), Lashkar Gah (Helmand province) and Mehtar Lam (Laghman province).
This first tranche of provinces and districts identified for transition has been selected on the basis of an assessment that their security, governance and development conditions are sufficient to commence transition.
The decision to commence transition was made by the Afghan Government based on the assessment and recommendation of the Joint Afghan NATO Inteqal Board.
In these areas the Afghan security forces have been assessed as capable of taking on additional security tasks with less assistance from ISAF.
Progress in Uruzgan
Transition is what Australia is working towards in Uruzgan province with the Afghan National Security Forces and our partners in Combined Team-Uruzgan, the United States, New Zealand, Singapore and Slovakia.
There was never an expectation that Uruzgan would be in the first tranche of districts and provinces to begin transition. We believe the Uruzgan transition process can occur over the next three years, between 2012 and 2014.
Over the past six months, the Afghan National Security Forces and Combined Team-Uruzgan have expanded security over areas previously controlled by the Taliban.
This has been made possible in part through the transfer of several patrol bases from ISAF or Afghan National Army control to the Afghan National Police, which has in turn allowed the Afghan National Army to move into contested areas.
The increasingly competent Afghan National Security Forces, with the support of Combined Team-Uruzgan, are covering more and more ground, extending the reach of the Afghan Government throughout the province.
Australian-mentored Afghan forces are expanding the security footprint from the Tarin Kot bowl to the Mirabad Valley in the east, Deh Rawud in the west, and north through the Baluchi Valley into Chora.
Combined Team-Uruzgan’s success has been broader than the military side.
The civilian-led Provincial Reconstruction Team, the conduit for the majority of Australia’s contribution to the civilian stabilisation efforts in Uruzgan Province, is showing positive signs.
Australian Defence Force engineers, working as part of the Provincial Reconstruction Team, are assisting in the delivery of vital infrastructure projects, including Government buildings, hospitals, roads, bridges, schools and places of worship.
Our task now is to ensure that this progress in security, development and governance and the gains we have made are consolidated and not reversed.
Progress in training the Afghan National Security Forces
As part of the overarching transition strategy in Afghanistan, Australia is committed to mentoring and training the 4th Brigade of the Afghan National Army (ANA) in Uruzgan Province to enable them to take on responsibility for security arrangements in the province between 2012 and 2014.
Australia’s assessment of the 4th Brigade’s capacity is that it is effective with assistance and increasingly capable.
A further infantry Kandak has now arrived in Uruzgan to bring the 4th Brigade to full strength.
While this 6th infantry Kandak lacks experience, it is trained and equipped for initial tasks, has strong leadership and is a strong graduate of the Consolidated Fielding Centre in Kabul.
The 6th Kandak is currently mentored by US forces.
The next rotation of Australian forces – Australian Task Force 9 – will be deployed into Uruzgan province in June, and will take on the additional task of mentoring the newly formed 6th Infantry Kandak of the 4th Brigade.
As we hand over patrol bases and establish new ones, and see ANA Kandaks conduct more unaccompanied activities, Australian forces can be released for additional training and mentoring tasks, including responsibility for additional ANA forces in Uruzgan.
As the Kandaks become more capable and self reliant, Australian forces can move into an enabling and overwatch role.
Support for our troops
Our troops and personnel in Afghanistan are performing extremely well in dangerous circumstances on a daily basis.
Australians are proud of the fact that our troops have a well-deserved reputation for their effectiveness and their conduct.
Afghan Government Ministers and ISAF Commander General Petraeus praise the work and reputation of Australian deployed personnel, including in their engagement with local Afghan communities.
The support and protection of Australian personnel in Afghanistan is, rightly, our highest priority.
A new Counter Rocket Artillery and Mortar (C-RAM) Sense and Warn system provides early detection of attacks from enemy rockets, artillery and mortars and replaces the previous capability provided by the Singaporean Armed Forces.
The early warning provided by the C-RAM system greatly enhances the survivability of Australian and other ISAF forces from these attacks, providing increased warning of an imminent attack to enable them to take appropriate shelter.
The provision of the new capability is part of the package of initiatives worth $1.6 billion the Government committed to following the Force Protection Review effected by my predecessor Minister Faulkner and underlines the commitment to provide our troops with the best available equipment.
Of the 48 recommendations made by the Review, 42 are now complete or on track. They include enhanced counter IED measures, better armour and heavier calibre weapons for our Bushmasters, the placement of medics with each platoon operating in Afghanistan and the introduction of 1000 sets of lighter combat armour.
The new C-RAM capability follows the delivery of the first batch of the new, lighter Tiered Body Armour System now rolling off the production line in Bendigo. The ADF plans to have the next Mentoring Task Force equipped with this armour when it deploys to Afghanistan later this year.
The new Multicam combat uniform will also be available to all troops operating outside the wire in the first half of this year.
Since October there has been a significant rotation of personnel in Uruzgan province.
As I have previously announced, the 4th Battalion of the US 70th Armored Regiment has now replaced the US Stryker Battalion – which had been operating in Uruzgan since the new Combined Team-Uruzgan arrangements began in August 2010.
I have seen an assertion that this rotation of United States troops means that there is a 300 troop on the ground difference. This is not correct. The net US on the ground troop difference is less than 100 troops.
There are two further points to be made. First, the US Stryker Battalion operated not just in Uruzgan but also in Kandahar. Second, its replacement will focus on Uruzgan.
Most importantly, the United States will continue to provide all the support we require to enable Australian operations ranging from fixed-wing air support through to helicopters and artillery fire.
The United States troop rotation was done in very close consultation with Australian Defence Force personnel, both in Canberra and on the ground in Afghanistan.
I have also spoken to the Commander of Combined Team Uruzgan, Colonel Jim Creighton, about the troop rotation.
I have satisfied myself that the troop rotation will continue to provide the same cooperation, the same enablers, and the same cover that Australia has at the moment in Uruzgan.
With the arrival of the 4th Brigade’s 6th Infantry Kandak there are now in total 250 more Afghan and ISAF troops in Uruzgan since the rotation of the Stryker battalion.
US Related Allegations
Recent media reports of allegations of pre-meditated murder of Afghan civilians by a small number of US soldiers are deeply disturbing.
The allegations were first reported last year at which time the United States launched a criminal investigation into the allegations.
Criminal charges were laid following the investigation and are now the subject of US court martial proceedings.
The US Army has apologised for the distress the terrible incident has caused, saying they stand “in stark contrast to the discipline, professionalism and respect that have characterized our Soldiers' performance during nearly 10 years of sustained operations [in Afghanistan]”.
In this context, the United States Army has restated its commitment to the “adherence to the Law of War and the humane and respectful treatment of combatants, noncombatants, and the dead” and acknowledged that “[w]hen allegations of wrongdoing by Soldiers surface, to include the inappropriate treatment of the dead, they are fully investigated. Soldiers who commit offenses will be held accountable as appropriate”.
Australia believes that strict adherence to rules of engagement is essential on the battlefield.
Rule of Law and the protection of civilians
The rule of law is an essential basis for international relations and for national security policy.
The force of international law, and the protection it offers the Afghan people, clearly distinguishes the international effort in Afghanistan from the actions of the Taliban and its associates.
On the ground, international humanitarian law – including the principles of military necessity, proportionality, distinction and discrimination – provides the framework for Australia and ISAF’s rules of engagement.
The Australian Defence Force (ADF) has built a reputation over the years for professionalism and compliance with such rules of engagement.
Australian forces take all possible steps to ensure their operations do not endanger the lives of civilians.
We have prided ourselves on our high standards and we have a well regarded international reputation for doing so.
When, for example, there are incidents involving civilians, they are always investigated.
In that context, the Registrar of Military Justice has convened a General Court Martial to try charges against two of the three Australian Defence Force members relating to an incident in Afghanistan on 12 February 2009.
Pre-Trial Directions Hearings for the Court Martial are scheduled to commence soon in Sydney and the trial has been set down for 11 July 2011.
It is anticipated that the Registrar of Military Justice will convene a General Court Martial to hear the charges against the third Australian Defence Force member following the conclusion of the first court martial.
The ADF is continuing to ensure that the best possible support during this legal process is being made available to these three members.
The support measures include legal, administrative, medical and welfare assistance.
On this occasion the charges were laid by the Independent Director of Military Prosecutions. Historically such a decision has been made by convening authorities who were a part of the military command.
In 2005 the Parliament resolved, with the support of both sides of the Parliament, that these decisions should be made independently by a Director of Military Prosecutions.
Detainee Management Arrangements
Last December I announced Australia’s detainee management framework for Afghanistan following the Dutch withdrawal from Uruzgan Province on 1 August 2010.
Getting Australia’s detainee management arrangements right was important.
Australia takes very seriously its responsibility for ensuring detainees are treated with dignity and respect as befits the professionalism of our forces and consistent with our domestic and international legal obligations.
In developing this framework, Australia has two priorities in mind. The first priority is the critical need to remove insurgents from the battlefield, where they endanger Australian, International Security Assistance Force and Afghan lives. The second priority is the need to ensure humane treatment of detainees, consistent with Australian values and our legal obligations.
The detainee management framework draws on applicable international standards and advice from international organisations. It is consistent with the Laws of Armed Conflict and the Geneva Conventions.
After detainees are captured, the Australian Defence Force (ADF) holds them in a purpose-built screening facility in Tarin Kot in Uruzgan Province for a limited amount of time.
The screening facility is intended to be under constant camera surveillance and the facility is open to regular inspection by the International Committee of the Red Cross.
Detainees in the Australian custody are able to freely practice their religion, and are provided access to exercise, adequate food and water, suitable sleeping arrangements and other amenities.
Once initial screening is complete, the detainees are transferred either to Afghan or United States custody, or released if there is insufficient evidence to justify ongoing detention.
Those assessed as posing a less serious threat are transferred to the Afghan National Directorate of Security in Uruzgan.
Those assessed as posing a serious threat are transferred to the US-run detention facility in Parwan Province. This provides a level of security appropriate for housing high-risk insurgents.
In the period 1 August 2010 to 20 March 2011, Australia apprehended 468 detainees. Of these, 92 have been transferred to Afghan or United States authorities. The remainder have been released following initial screening.
In the same period, I am advised the ADF have captured five people who were subsequently released, then recaptured. Four of the individuals in question were released as there was insufficient evidence to warrant their continued detention.
In the case of the fifth individual, the second time he was apprehended there was sufficient evidence to provide a conclusive link to the insurgency. In accordance with Australia’s detainee management framework, he was transferred to the Detention Facility in Parwan.
Detainee monitoring and allegations of mistreatment
A detainee monitoring team of Australian officials monitors detainees’ welfare and conditions while they are in US or Afghan custody, until they are released or sentenced. The monitoring team visit detainees shortly after transfer and around every four weeks after the initial visits.
This monitoring is underpinned by formal arrangements with Afghanistan and the US, which include assurances on the humane treatment of detainees and free access by Australian officials and human rights organisations.
Any allegation of mistreatment is investigated.
In an update on 17 February, I advised that since 1 August 2010, 8 allegations from 6 detainees, have been made and thoroughly investigated. These allegations were found to have had no substance and were dismissed.
Since providing the 17 February update, there has been a further allegation of detainee mistreatment against the ADF, which is currently being investigated.
These allegations and the outcome of the comprehensive investigations are reported in full to the International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) and appropriate humanitarian organisations.
In late January, the Australian Defence Force Investigative Service (ADFIS) initiated an investigation into allegations of non-compliance with the management and administrative procedures for the processing of detainees at the ADF detainee screening facility.
These allegations have been and are being taken very seriously and a full investigation by ADFIS is underway.
In reporting the investigation to me, the acting Chief of the Defence Force (CDF) also advised that some failures of the CCTV recording system, which operates at the ADF screening facility, had been identified.
The ADF is addressing this serious CCTV issue and has begun to put in place procedures to resolve the matter, including immediate action to ensure continuous footage is being recorded and archived.
A further procedural issue has arisen in relation to the process for the identification of juvenile detainees.
Two detainees transferred by the Australian Defence Force to Afghan and United States custody were subsequently identified as juveniles under the age of eighteen.
Further action is being taken to ensure that the policies and processes in place with respect to the identification of juveniles are appropriate. I will advise further about this aspect of detainee management in due course.
Not only is Australia committed to holding our own personnel to the highest standards on detainee management, if ADF personnel become aware of concerns regarding the treatment of detainees by our International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) or Afghan partners, we also treat this with the utmost seriousness.
In this respect, I advise that, in early February, Australian soldiers witnessed an incident that occurred during an Afghan detention operation in Uruzgan Province.
At the time of the incident, Australian soldiers were operating some distance from Afghan National Security Forces.
Australia has raised the matter with the Afghan Government and ISAF and asked that the matter be fully investigated.
ISAF Joint Command will participate in an investigation led by the Afghan National Security Forces.
It is important that we keep our detainee arrangements under review to ensure that they continue to meet the dual objectives of providing force protection to our troops and ensuring the humane treatment of detainees.
In addition to the issues already raised, the Government has three such detainee management issues under consideration.
The first issue is the appropriateness of the length of detention in the Australian Initial Screening Area to enable the possible collection of further information by Australia.
The second issue concerns contingency arrangements for the management of detainees captured outside of Uruzgan, for example Kandahar.
The third issue regards the current requirement for an initial detainee monitoring visit to occur within 72 hours after a detainee is transfered from the Australian Initial Screening Area to US or Afghan custody.
I will continue to provide regular public updates, including to the Parliament, on the issues I have raised in this statement and detainee management issues more broadly.
It has already been a difficult year for the ADF. This year, Australia has lost two more brave soldiers.
Corporal Richard Atkinson was killed in an improvised explosive device strike on 2 February 2011. Sapper Jamie Larcombe died as a result of gunshot wounds sustained during an engagement with insurgents on 19 February.
Our thoughts are with the families, friends and colleagues of Corporal Atkinson and Sapper Larcombe, as they to come to terms with their great loss. These soldiers served their country well and will always be remembered.
We have lost 23 fine Australian soldiers in Afghanistan.
As well, four Australian soldiers have been wounded in Afghanistan this year, with 168 ADF personnel wounded in action since 2002. Our thoughts are also with our wounded and their families.
The sacrifice our men and women are making is great, as is the appreciation of our nation and our people.
Our forces face a resilient insurgency, who, in coming months, will seek to re-take ground.
In this environment, we must steel ourselves for the possibility of further casualties.
Despite these tragic losses and the challenges ahead, Australia remains resolute.
We are seeing progress in Afghanistan.
This progress is fragile. The Taliban know they need to regain momentum, so we can expect them to fight back.
The coming fighting season will be tough. As we prepare for it we are also mindful of the civilian toll of the war.
We can expect high-profile attacks by Afghan insurgents to continue and to increase, like the 21 February suicide attack in Kunduz province that killed around 30 Afghans and wounded 36 others.
An increasing number of civilian casualties are caused by insurgent attacks and the deliberate targeting of civilians or tactics which result in civilian casualties.
These attacks are aimed at undermining Afghan and international confidence in the progress that is being made on security, governance and development and on transition.
Transition has commenced with President Karzai’s announcement on 22 March of the first provinces and districts to transition to Afghan authority.
Transition must be conditions based and irreversible. Transition must not be a signal to premature withdrawal.
The international community must continue to provide a long term commitment to Afghanistan.
That is why Australia has made clear it expects to maintain a presence in Afghanistan after our current training mission has concluded, either in further specialised training, overwatch or through civilian capacity building and development assistance.
Australia is confident that the international community has the right strategy for putting Afghanistan in a position to take responsibility for security matters and prevent it from again being a haven for international terrorists.
This military and political strategy and the required resources are now, at long last, in place and delivering hard won progress. We see this in Uruzgan as we see it elsewhere in Afghanistan.
Australia stands firm in its commitment to Afghanistan.