DAVID SPEERS: We brought you the news yesterday of the sad death of another Australian soldier in Afghanistan, the thirty-third to lose his life there. This was a 40 year old SAS soldier, a Special Forces soldier, on his seventh tour of duty in Afghanistan. Defence Minister Stephen Smith though says he's received no request from the military to expand the size of the SAS, even though they are clearly doing a lot of the heavy lifting, the most dangerous work on the frontline in Afghanistan.
I spoke to the Minister a little earlier about this.
STEPHEN SMITH: Well, a number of things there. Firstly, the death of course was a tragedy; the first since October last year. And, of our 33 fatalities, 16 have come from our Special Forces, whether it's the SAS in Swanbourne or our Commandos from Holsworthy.
This particular soldier had done seven tours of Afghanistan in effectively a decade. So he started his time in Afghanistan during our first incursion into Afghanistan. When the Chief of the Defence Force took his position last year he said one of the things he wanted to review was the number of rotations that were being affected and, as he said yesterday, he's monitoring that and watching that very carefully. We're engaged in a counterinsurgency and a counterterrorism operation in Afghanistan so, as a natural consequence of that, we are going to have a heavy focus on our Special Forces, and that's been the case. We've built our Special Forces capability over the time.
DAVID SPEERS: That's been the case for a while so - and it has been reviewed for a while now. What's your view on this? Is there a case for expanding the size of our Special Forces?
STEPHEN SMITH: Well, firstly, we have grown the capability of our Special Forces over the period of time that we've been in successively Afghanistan, Iraq and then back into Afghanistan. That's the first point. Secondly, I'm entirely satisfied with the advice I have from the Chief of the Defence Force that in terms of individual rotations he and his commanders are monitoring and watching that very carefully. I'll make two points about our Special Forces, whether they're SAS or Commandos. They are enthusiastic volunteers, and every time I go to Swanbourne or to Holsworthy they tell me how they want to get back. But, secondly, in terms of the size of Special Forces, in the time that I have been Minister I have not had a recommendation from the Chief of the Defence Force - the current one or his predecessor - about any need to expand the size of our Special Forces. We have got, when you include the Reservists who are available for Special Forces duties, some 2500 Special Forces available to us. And the advice I've got is that that is an appropriate size for an Army of our capability capacity and size overall.
DAVID SPEERS: And just on this soldier, I see some media outlets have named him. We haven't. Are you able to give us any identification yet?
STEPHEN SMITH: Well, no. At the family's request neither the Prime Minister, the Chief of the Defence Force nor I identified him yesterday. The family continues to make the request that he not be identified. There is a risk, as a result of him being named by some media outlets, that family members will discover or find out about his death as a result of media rather than from family contacts.
So I regard that naming as both regrettable and unprofessional, and I welcome the fact that you are one of the outlets that has not named the soldier concerned, and I particularly welcome the fact that the West Australian newspaper, the local hometown newspaper, has followed that same approach. Regrettably, and unprofessionally, other news outlets haven't.
DAVID SPEERS: Now, a couple more on Afghanistan if I can. This attack near the Chorah valley in the Uruzgan Province, apparently there are these sorts of Special Forces operations, on average, twice a week. How powerful is the Taliban in that particular area?
STEPHEN SMITH: Well, as the Chief of the Defence Force said yesterday, this was an operation which was intelligence-led which was aimed at a particular high level insurgent. And these operations go on a regular basis, either as part of our own activity in Uruzgan or as part of the International Security Assistance Force operations. The Chief of the Defence Force doesn't go into details nor do I. But I have put on the parliamentary and the public record that our Special Forces engage in a lot of counterterrorism and counterinsurgency activity both within Uruzgan, and from time to time, outside of Uruzgan when that is related to the security situation and arrangements in that province itself.
DAVID SPEERS: Now, also overnight Pakistan has agreed to reopen the supply routes into Afghanistan. It follows the US apologising for the deaths of 24 Pakistan soldiers in accidental airstrikes back in November. It's taken six months to solve this. Why has it taken so long? Does that tell us about - what does that tell us about the relationship between the US and Pakistan?
STEPHEN SMITH: Well, we know that the relationship between the United States and Pakistan has been at a difficult stage and quite tense for some period of time. So I welcome very much this development, welcome very much the conversation between Secretary of State Clinton and Pakistan Foreign Minister Khar, which has seen now the reopening of the ground lines of communications. These ground lines, or access routes, are very important both in terms of supply - that will be the case in the run-up to transition, to December 2014 - but also important as people withdraw their equipment and gear from Afghanistan as transition evolves and unfolds.
So it's a welcome development both in terms of the access that it opens up, but also as a positive sign so far as Pakistan and United States relationships are concerned. And they have been working very hard at it for a period of months, as you said. We welcome very much the positive outcome today.
DAVID SPEERS: Can I turn more closely to our region- the talks that have happened this week between the Indonesian and Australian leadership. They have discussed the issue of people smuggling. This morning though, another boat carrying asylum seekers has run into some trouble; issued a distress call off the cost of Indonesia. What more can we do about these boats that do run into trouble? Should we be donating more patrol boats, other emergency vessels to help Indonesia deal with these issues in their territorial waters?
STEPHEN SMITH: We work very closely with Indonesia at every level, whether it's search and rescue, whether it's counterterrorism, whether it's anti-people smuggling or human trafficking issues. But in the course of the very successful meeting between the President and the Prime Minister in Darwin over the last couple of days, and also a number of ministerial meetings, I met- together with Jason Clare- my counterpart, Defence Minister Purnomo. All of those meetings were successful.
On the search and rescue front, we've agreed that officials and subsequently ministers should go to Indonesia to see what more we can do in terms of interoperability and Indonesia's capability on search and rescue issues. These arose as a result of the conversations that Jason Clare in particular, and I had with Minister Purnomo, and they go to making sure that AMSA - our search and rescue authority - and the Indonesian search and rescue authority are operating off the same data, the same computer information, the same communication lines. So we think there's more effective and efficient things that we can do, not just to make that exchange of information seamless but also to raise Indonesia's capability and capacity itself. And Jason Clare has also detailed a range of those matters. And my prearranged visit to Indonesia - Minister Purnomo and I agreed some time ago that I would go to Indonesia in August/September - we're adding Jason Clare to my delegation and we'll deal with these issues at the same time.
DAVID SPEERS: All right, Defence Minister Stephen Smith, we'll have to leave it there. Thanks for joining us.
STEPHEN SMITH: Thanks David. Thanks very much.