TRANSCRIPT: INTERVIEW WITH DAVID LIPSON, SKY LUNCH AGENDA
TRANSCRIPTION: PROOF COPY AND E & OE
DATE: 11 September 2012
TOPICS: Combined Team Uruzgan leadership; Fairfax reporting; Regional processing arrangements
DAVID LIPSON: Stephen Smith, thanks for your time. There was an opportunity for Australia to take control in Uruzgan when the Dutch left, but the Americans took control. Australia passed up the opportunity then. Now the Americans are handing on responsibility to us. What's different?
STEPHEN SMITH: Well, when the United States took the leadership following the withdrawal of the Dutch, we still required a number of platforms and a number of enablers to support military operations. We weren't in a position to provide that. So it made sense for the United States to take the leadership in Uruzgan. Earlier this year General Hurley, the Chief of the Defence Force, and I suggested to General Allen, the Commander of ISAF, that given we were into the transition phase, that it made sense for Australia to take the leadership of headquarters, and that was regarded by all as a sensible thing to do. We initially thought that that would take effect before the end of the year by November/December, but we've done the necessary training and arrangements so we think we'll take over now some time in October, some time next month.
DAVID LIPSON: And how will this change Australia's role in Afghanistan? And can you be certain that Australian troops won't become more of a target as a result of this?
STEPHEN SMITH: It's just essentially the back of house, headquarters role. It does mean there'll be a more seamless chain of command as it comes to transition. We’re in the transition phase- it just made sense from a chain of command in a management sense to put us in charge overall. It means we'll see a small number of Americans who are engaged in the headquarters role withdraw from Uruzgan. They're freed up for other purposes in Afghanistan. It won't make us any more nor any less at risk. We know that Afghanistan continues to be dangerous. But we still believe we're making progress on the security and on the transition front.
DAVID LIPSON: There are serious allegations in Fairfax papers today about the raid conducted in the search for that rogue Afghan soldier who killed the three Australian diggers a couple of weeks ago - claims from villagers that the two locals that were killed in that raid were innocent, they were shot in the head, that their bodies were not treated properly, and also that money was stolen. What's the response to that?
STEPHEN SMITH: I said over a week ago that whenever allegations of inappropriate conduct are made, whether it's treatment of bodies, treatment of detainees, or incidents involving civilians, or allegations about the circumstances leading to a death, invariably what occurs is a so-called quick assessment. And if required, or necessary, or desirable, then a formal Inquiry Officer's Report. Today I spoke to the Acting Chief of the Defence Force. We received the quick assessment. The quick assessment confirms what I told the Australian public over a week ago, that this was a properly authorised joint operation, with Afghan National Security Forces and Australian Forces, that it was in pursuit of people who we believed had facilitated the escape of Hek Matullah, who murdered three Australians; that the two deaths, which are of course regrettable, the two deaths occurred consistent with Australia's rules of engagement which are at a very high level; and finally, that the two concerned are confirmed as Taliban or insurgents.
Now, because a series of allegations have been made that go beyond those circumstances - treatment of bodies, treatment of detainees and the like - the Chief of the Defence Force and the Acting Chief of the Defence Force have come to the conclusion that it is desirable and appropriate, so that we get to the facts of all those circumstances, to hold a formal inquiry. And that will be the case. And as you would know it's invariably the case that I report these matters to the Parliament as part of my regular updates on Afghanistan.
DAVID LIPSON: When can we expect that?
STEPHEN SMITH: I'm not going to put a timetable on it. It'll properly assess all of the facts, but I am able to say - I won't go through all of the allegations one by one - but the advice I have is, for example, that no military dogs were engaged in the operation, that no Australian personnel went to the mosque, or went inside the mosque. There are assertions that the ages of one of the deceased is 70, and the other 20. ISAF put out a statement saying the ages were 50 or 30. But we want to make sure that the facts are properly ascertained. But there's also a general point here - what the Fairfax papers today don't acknowledge is Australian Defence Force personnel have a very well-deserved, well-regarded reputation for treating detainees appropriately, for avoiding civilians in military operations and also whenever these sorts of allegations are made - whether it's treatment of bodies or stealing of money - they are investigated. Reports are made. And I invariably make that part of my Parliamentary report on Afghanistan.
DAVID LIPSON: And just finally on asylum seekers - the Opposition says asylum seekers that are intercepted in Australian waters or elsewhere should be taken directly by sea, by boat, to Nauru, rather than setting foot on Australian soil and being flown to Nauru which is the Australian policy at the moment. Why isn't that happening?
STEPHEN SMITH: Well, because the Immigration Minister has come to the conclusion that the more effective and efficient way of transporting people to Nauru is by aircraft, and it's an operational matter for him, but using aircraft can obviously get to Nauru - or to Manus Island - more quickly than by boat.
DAVID LIPSON: Wouldn't it send a stronger message to send them by boat?
STEPHEN SMITH: I think flying people in planes from Christmas Island or from Australian territorial waters - or land - to Nauru or PNG sends a pretty big signal, and the signal is if you come to Australia by boat, or seek to come to Australia by boat and you put yourself and your family at risk by doing that, then don't be surprised if you end up in Papua New Guinea or in Nauru, and you'll receive no advantage for seeking to get to Australia by a risky journey on the high seas.
DAVID LIPSON: Stephen Smith, thank you.
STEPHEN SMITH: A Pleasure. Thanks very much.