TOPICS: Loss of Lance Corporal Andrew Jones and Lieutenant Marcus Case; Afghan National Army and International Security Assistance Force.
FRAN KELLY: Stephen Smith is the Minister for Defence; he joins us in our Parliament House studio, Minister, good morning.
STEPHEN SMITH: Good morning, Fran.
FRAN KELLY: What's the latest on the search for the man who shot dead Lance Corporal Andrew Jones?
STEPHEN SMITH: Well, the most recent advice I have from the Chief of the Defence Force earlier this morning is that no progress has been made in terms of capturing or rounding up the Afghan National Army member who committed the atrocity yesterday.
I do have a slight variation on the facts, in terms of the shooting and this is not unusual, and one of the reasons why the Chief of the Defence Force and I always say we need to be very careful, and await the exhaustive investigation.
But, in terms of the circumstances of the shooting, it now appears to be the case that we had two Afghan National Army soldiers in the watchtower, our soldier was walking downstairs, one of the Afghan National Army soldiers came down from the watchtower, leaving the rogue Afghan National Army soldier in the watchtower, he shot our soldier on four separate occasions, and then fled.
So that's a slight variation on the facts, which the Chief of the Defence Force has given me this morning, but in terms of motivation of the Afghan National Army soldier, we are in exactly the same position as we were yesterday.
FRAN KELLY: Okay, so the investigation continues, but I mean motivation as you say is the issue, whether there was some suggestion the pair had argued, but is there little doubt really, in the minds of our commanders there, and your mind, that this Afghan soldier was what they might call a rogue soldier, or a Taliban insurgent?
STEPHEN SMITH: Well, a rogue soldier yes, that's the description that the Chief of the Defence Force used yesterday, and one that I'm happy to adopt, but in terms of an infiltrator, our starting point is that this soldier was subject to all of the usual biometric identification tests, so we don't believe we're dealing with an impostor, or an infiltrator.
Now we don't know whether there's been a dispute or disagreement between the two, or what the motivation is, and so I think that's best left for the investigation to effect. But what we do know-
FRAN KELLY: But what about the behaviour of the second Afghan soldier, did he then race back up the watchtower, and try and stop-
STEPHEN SMITH: Well he just - yes, yes, he raced up the watchtower, and then fired at the fleeing soldier, but I think, you know, always whilst we're dealing here with what I described yesterday as the very difficult circumstances of this fatality, I think it's just worth remembering that whilst this has come as a shock to the system, we're currently training in Uruzgan Province, about 3500 Afghan National Army members.
The Afghan National Security Force throughout Afghanistan is nearly 300,000, so in our case, whilst this has been an isolated incident, it is a shock to the system, and we've seen a handful of these in recent times.
But in the aftermath, we're now dealing with that, our soldiers on the ground are being very professional about it and it won't allow us to deviate from our course, which is to put the Afghan National Army and the Afghan National Police in the position of taking responsibility for security matters in Uruzgan Province, by the end of 2014.
FRAN KELLY: Nevertheless, as you say a shock to the system. This soldier, Shafied Ullah, the one who opened fire, how long has he been training with the Australian soldiers?
STEPHEN SMITH: Well I don't have the precise time, but he would have been training for a number of months at least, but again, I don't want to go into that detail, because I think we've just got to take this calmly, step by step, and allow the exhaustive investigative process to proceed. We don't know what the motivation is and it is best left on that basis, for present.
What we do know is when this type of incident occurs, it is a shock to the system, it does in some respects take the wind out of our sails, yesterday was a very bad day for two Australian families, a very bad day for Army, a very bad day for Defence and the nation, but in the clear-sighted view of the following day, we don't in any way hesitate that the course we have set is right. We now believe we've got in place, not just in Uruzgan, but in Afghanistan, the military and the political strategy to effect the transition to Afghan responsibility by the timetable that President Karzai and the international community have set.
FRAN KELLY: Nevertheless, I mean it must do dreadful things to the trust between the Australian forces and the Afghan soldiers they're mentoring and training, what process is in place to try and vet the soldiers, because this is not a one-off, it's happened with other forces, US forces have been shot dead by Afghan soldiers, as have some British forces, as have some Dutch forces, what vetting goes on to try and screen who comes in?
STEPHEN SMITH: Well, it's a one-off for us; that's the first point.
FRAN KELLY: Sure.
STEPHEN SMITH: Secondly, there are, as I say, very careful biometric and identification processes which are gone through by the Afghan National Army and by the International Security Assistance Force before Afghans get into the ANA. And whilst it has occurred in the past for us, it is an isolated incident.
Now there is no point denying and every point volunteering just what Angus Houston and I, and the Prime Minister did yesterday, that this will be a shock to the system. It's one thing to suffer a casualty or a fatality in the heat of conflict; it's another thing when this type of incident occurs.
So in terms of the trust, as I say, we are as we speak, training 3500 members of the 4th Brigade in Uruzgan Province. That is going very well, we've been very pleased with the progress, and importantly, the condemnation of what has occurred, has come not just from us, but it's come from Brigadier General Kahn, the Commander of the 4th Brigade in Uruzgan Province and I'm fully expecting that when I see the Afghan Defence Minister, General Wardak in the next week or so, that he will share that view.
FRAN KELLY: Well, another Australian soldier lost his life too, Lieutenant Marcus Case, when the Chinook helicopter he was in crashed, do we know why the Chinook crashed?
STEPHEN SMITH: No, we don't, and that as well will be the subject of an exhaustive investigation. The Chinook itself was effectively destroyed, so there may be some difficulty in getting access to technical detail, but the five survivors are in a satisfactory condition and obviously part of the process will be getting their accounts.
But again, with any aviation incident, we've got to do that carefully, I think what we do know now, which is - puts us in a better position than yesterday, is that we're now proceeding on the basis that enemy fire was not involved.
So again we've got to follow that process through very carefully, both in terms of the individual incident in the Chinook, and what consequences, if any, that has for the future.
FRAN KELLY: Minister, you say these deaths and the circumstances of them won't change our commitment to this mission, but let's look at the mission more broadly. The Taliban say they're defending Afghanistan from foreign occupiers, now President Karzai says NATO could be characterised that way, as an occupying force, if deaths of civilians continue in this battle. If we get to the stage where both our enemy and our ally consider us a foreign occupier, is it time to come home?
STEPHEN SMITH: Well, I don't want to be in any way critical of President Karzai in respect of civilian casualties, he has been, as you would expect, the leader of a government in a country which is war-torn, he has been very, very critical of any incidents where there are civilian casualties, so far as Australia is concerned, we pride ourselves on doing everything we can to avoid civilian casualties in the heat of conflict, and from time-
FRAN KELLY: Do we believe NATO is doing enough to do that?
STEPHEN SMITH: Absolutely, both NATO and ISAF very strongly share that view. Any civilian casualty in the heat of battle is a terrible tragedy, and it has adverse implications, not just for the home country, but it provides propaganda material to the insurgency.
President Karzai has been in the past very strongly critical of civilian casualties, that is his right, but I've never - I've never gone the next step as some commentators and other people have, to draw the conclusion that that would cause President Karzai to do anything other than to remain committed to the transition process.
FRAN KELLY: Just finally and briefly, on that transition process, we now have Lieutenant General Bucknall, the deputy head of NATO's Afghan mission, saying allied forces must remain unchanged for two years, to consolidate the gains made over the last 12 months, and yet we have Britain pulling out 450 troops by the end of this year, we have President Obama considering withdrawing as many as 10,000 military personnel this year, should the draw-down stop?
STEPHEN SMITH: Well firstly, so far as the British are concerned, they're drawing down nearly 500 from a commitment of 10,000, so they will stabilise at 9500, they've made that clear.
Secondly, President Obama has always said that post the surge, he would look to the middle of this year for a draw-down, we don't have the details of that, and I've said in the past I think including on your show, we should just calmly wait until the Americans indicate that draw-down.
We have received assurances from the United States that there'll be no adverse implications for the force, and our forces in Uruzgan, but we've also made it clear that we see our own contribution continuing, 1550, doing the training and mentoring task, and we see that continuing until we've done our job, which is the transition to Uruzgan - the transition to Afghan-led responsibility in 2014. But as circumstances change, then you are enabled to reallocate resources, and give some of your troops different roles, and different responsibilities, including niche training and specialist training.
So it is important that the international community, through the International Security Assistance Force, retains its commitment, but I again say that we believe we have made progress, but we have always steeled ourselves for this fighting season, and in the last few weeks we've seen three terrible fatalities in our own case and we have to steel ourselves for more into the future.
FRAN KELLY: Minister, thank you very much for joining us.
STEPHEN SMITH: Thanks, Fran. Thanks very much.
FRAN KELLY: Defence Minister Stephen Smith