TRANSCRIPT: INTERVIEW WITH DAVID SPEERS, SKY NEWS
TRANSCRIPTION: PROOF COPY E & OE
DATE: 9 NOVEMBER 2011
DAVID SPEERS: Minister, thank you for your time. Can I ask firstly what latest information you can give about this incident and the search for the ANA soldier?
STEPHEN SMITH: Well the day is just beginning in Uruzgan and Afghanistan. I spoke in the last hour or so to the Chief of the Defence Force. There was no further advice on what he had detailed to the Australian public and the Australian media earlier today. I can advise that three wounded soldiers continue to be regarded as seriously wounded, seriously ill.
But they're getting the best medical care and attention in Kandahar, and it's fully expected that Australian troops and authorities on the ground in Urzugan will, this morning in Uruzgan cooperate with Afghan National Army authorities who will resume the pursuit of the Afghan soldier concerned.
DAVID SPEERS: We don't know the motives behind this latest shooting but what do you suspect? Was this a Taliban act? Or the actions of a rogue soldier?
STEPHEN SMITH: Well I think it's too early to make that judgment when the Chief of the Defence Force advised me in the early hours of this morning I was obviously very concerned that we had another of these types of very bad incidents.
I was then relieved that the assessment was seriously injured, and no fatalities, but having said that we of course, our thoughts are with the families of the wounded and this will be a terrible reminder to families who've lost loved ones in Afghanistan, particularly the families of Lance Corporal Jones and Corporal Birt, Lance Corporal Gavin, and Captain Duffy who were all killed in similar instances, and particularly given that the funerals of those three will occur over the coming days. So a terrible reminder for those families.
But we don't want to and can't rush to judgment. It's always difficult to get to motivation. We found for example with the killing of Lance Corporal Jones that Shafied Ullah was killed. We didn't get the chance to interrogate him.
So we don't know the motivation. But what we do know is that this incident, as with the one which killed our three soldiers recently, will be very exhaustively investigated. It's terrible that we have been on the receiving end of three of these types of incidences this year - and two in the matter of weeks.
DAVID SPEERS: Well while we can't rush to judgment on what the motives were, what do you believe this is going to do to the trust that's so important between the Australian soldiers and their Afghan counterparts?
STEPHEN SMITH: Well as I said last time we had a similar conversation in the aftermath of our three fatalities. I'm not proposing to seek to understate just how serious a blow this will be to trust and to confidence.
It undermines our effort. There's no doubt about that. As we were doing in the aftermath of the killing of Corporal Birt and Lance Corporal Gavin and Captain Duffy, slowly but surely resuming the business as usual and the rebuilding of confidence. So it's a very serious setback.
But one thing which I think does need to be stated is that these two terrible events have also seen either the killing or the wounding of Afghans as well, and the Afghan National Army members, from Brigadier Khan who is the Commander on the ground of the 4th Brigade of the Afghan National Army, who we're training and mentoring in Uruzgan, he's as shocked and distressed as we are. So this comes as a blow to the Afghan authorities, as it comes to a blow to us.
But we'll do an exhaustive investigation and start the painstaking work of rebuilding that trust and confidence because despite these events we continue to very strongly believe we're on track to transition to Afghan responsibility for security measures by 2014.
DAVID SPEERS: Well that might be the case, but Minister, what confidence do you have in the Afghan National Army today?
STEPHEN SMITH: Well whilst we've been very terribly on the receiving end of three incidences like these in recent times, and two in a matter of days, and whilst I'm not seeking to understate the very significant reverberation that these events have throughout the Australian Defence Force and throughout the Australian community, we do need to understand we've got 300,000 members of the Afghan National Security Forces in Afghanistan. We've got about 7000 in Uruzgan Province, nearly 4000 Afghan National Army members and less than 3000 Afghan local and national Police.
So whilst these are incidences which send a great reverberation through all concerned, they're small in number. Our problem is until May of this year we hadn't been on the receiving end of them.
Some of our colleagues, particularly the United States in ISAF have. The statistics for example are about 15 over the last 12 months.
DAVID SPEERS: Yes, but Minister sorry to interrupt. What I'm trying to establish is, are you willing to express confidence in the Afghan National Army?
STEPHEN SMITH: Well absolutely. I have confidence in Brigadier Khan, and his Commanders, on the ground in Uruzgan. And I have absolute confidence in my counterpart, General Wardak, that he is doing everything he can to make sure that as we transition to Afghan security responsibility, whether it's the Afghan National Army, or the Afghan local or national Police, that we're on track to make that transition.
We can't be and don't want to be in Afghanistan forever, that's why our focus is the training and mentoring, but there's no question that events like this or the suicide bomb attacks which the Taliban have resorted to recently are a blow to confidence, they're a blow to trust, and they're aimed at doing precisely that. So I'm not seeking to walk away from the fact that this is a very serious setback.
But it doesn't undermine our assessment which is shared by our NATO and ISAF colleagues that we've made considerable progress over the last two years and the Taliban have not been able to regain ground from us over the course of this fighting season.
DAVID SPEERS: A final question, after the last incident a couple of weeks ago, members of the 6th Kandak, of the Afghan National Army, were temporarily disarmed.
Is there going to be similar action now? What sort of action are you seeking? And directly, should the Australian soldiers on the ground there have the confidence in their Afghan counterparts that you've just expressed in the Afghan commanders?
STEPHEN SMITH: Well a number of things. Firstly, Brigadier Kahn disarmed the members of the 6th Kandak after the incident involving Corporal Birt and Lance Corporal Gavin and Captain Duffy. A small number of those have been rearmed when they're inside the patrol base, and those who go on patrol have been armed obviously, but generally the 6th Kandak members of that patrol base are not armed when they're inside the patrol base.
He's taken the same step so far as this particular patrol base and members of the 3rd Kandak is concerned, and he's doing that in close cooperation with our people on the ground.
We have and we will raise again with ISAF the vetting procedures to make sure that everything is done to vet those people who go into the Afghan National Security Forces, and on the confidence on the ground, the Chief of the Defence Force who was in Afghanistan recently, the Prime Minister who was there recently, both indicate that on the basis of their observations and their discussions, our people on the ground from Diggers in the field to Commanders in Tarin Kot or in Kabul have the same view that I've expressed which is we are making good progress.
But there's no point walking away from the fact that this is a terrible event that's occurred, particularly to the families involved; but it is a serious setback and we have to work our way through that.
But we should not be deterred by it. We have to expect setbacks as we move to transition to Afghan responsibility.
DAVID SPEERS: Defence Minister Stephen Smith, thank you.
STEPHEN SMITH: Thanks David, thanks very much.