TRANSCRIPT: INTERVIEW WITH JIM MIDDLETON, NEWSLINE
TRANSCRIPTION: PROOF COPY E & OE
DATE: 8 NOVEMBER 2011
TOPICS: Afghanistan; Commando Welfare Trust.
JIM MIDDLETON: As the United States prepares to wind down its involvement in Afghanistan, Australia's considering its military commitment beyond 2014. Among the options is a proposal to keep contingents of Special Forces in Kabul and Kandahar.
Stephen Smith is Australia's Defence Minister. Minister, welcome to the studio.
STEPHEN SMITH: Thanks Jim.
JIM MIDDLETON: How advanced are plans for what Australian forces may do in Afghanistan once the task of mentoring and training Afghan forces winds down in 2014? Could Special Forces be posted to Kabul and Kandahar?
STEPHEN SMITH: Well, they could be, but it's at a very early or preliminary stage. The last two occasions I've gone to Brussels for NATO and ISAF Defence Ministers' meeting, Ministers generally have focused on the need to start a conversation about what we describe as the post-transition environment. What will the international community leave behind?
We're on track to make the transition to Afghan-led security responsibility by 2014, but we know that we will need to leave some assistance behind. Not just Australia-
JIM MIDDLETON: What sort of task would it be envisaged if it did come to pass that Special Forces remain? Is it protecting institutions, protecting officials? Is that the kind of thing that they would be looking at?
STEPHEN SMITH: Well, more generally. I think what we're looking at is the possibility of Australia making an ongoing contribution, so far as training is concerned, and Special Forces training could be a part of that. But high-level artillery training we do at the moment, officer training and the like.
JIM MIDDLETON: I wonder if we could go back to the terrible attack on the Australian soldiers a week or so ago. Has the Defence Force, the Australian Defence Force been able to ascertain yet, following its investigations, whether this was a lone rogue gunman or whether, indeed, he had connections to the insurgents whether there was any insurgent involvement?
STEPHEN SMITH: Well, the investigation is ongoing and we haven't come to any final conclusions. I must say that my instinct at the time, and reflecting back, even though it's a matter of days, has much more been in the area of rogue or lone wolf rather than Taliban infiltration. There's been no claim by the Taliban. The father of the soldier concerned expressed his shock, and there's evidence that this was, in a sense, a personal, premeditated attack.
JIM MIDDLETON: With what motive?
STEPHEN SMITH: Well, as we had or saw with the previous terrible example, a soldier called Shafied Ullah, was killed and we never had the opportunity of interviewing or interrogating him. And we don't know his motive. The reality is, we may never know the motive.
JIM MIDDLETON: And what sort of protocols have had to be introduced subsequently by the Australian forces in Uruzgan to make sure or try to make sure that this kind of terrible incident does not happen again?
STEPHEN SMITH: Well, there are really three things. Firstly, we're reviewing our own procedures in terms of how we deal with and train and mentor the Afghan National Security Forces, just as we did on the previous terrible occasion.
Secondly, we're asking ISAF to look at their own procedures in terms of recruitment, and the like.
But thirdly, we've been working very closely with the on-the-ground Afghan National Army 4th Brigade commanders. In particular, Brigadier Khan, the Commander on the ground. And it's really been Brigadier Khan who instituted the requirement of the 6th Kandak not having their weapons inside the forward operating post. That's now moved to a position where members of the 6th Kandak are now going on patrols by themselves. And, obviously, armed if they're outside the forward operating base.
A small number of the 6th Kandak have their arms inside, but the vast bulk of the members of the 6th Kandak continue to be unarmed whilst they're in the forward operating base.
And in consultation with us, Brigadier Khan will make a judgement over the coming days-
JIM MIDDLETON: That'll be difficult in terms of functioning for both sides, in terms of confidence. If you've got these people who have been forced to behave differently from the way in which they were in the past, that's a bit of a humiliation for them and it makes things a bit difficult for the Australians too I would imagine.
STEPHEN SMITH: Well, it's also the rebuilding of confidence. It's a confidence-building measure. My own judgement is, I don't think it'll be too long before, if you like, it's business as usual. But given this was the second such terrible example of its type in a relatively short period of time, we've made no bones about the fact that it was a shock to the system, a blow to confidence and we need to rebuild that confidence.
But it was just as much a shock to Brigadier Khan and the other members of the 6th Kandak in the 4th Brigade of the ANA. And also remember, this was not just an attack upon Australians. It was also an attack upon Afghans. There was also the death of an Afghan interpreter.
JIM MIDDLETON: I wonder if I could turn to the Government's decision to donate $8 million, I think it is, to the Commando Welfare Trust. The Government made a similar donation a couple of years ago to the trust which looks after the welfare of SAS families. Why has the donation to the Commando Trust been made now? Why was something like that not made back then?
STEPHEN SMITH: Well, historically, of course, Governments and Departments have had the primary responsibility of looking after the families of soldiers who've been killed in the service of their country and, also, our wounded warriors and their families.
In the 1990s, the SAS established a trust to look after the families and children of SAS members who were killed or wounded in defence of their country, primarily with a view to assisting the long-term educational benefits, or long-term educational services provided to-
JIM MIDDLETON: Does this all suggest a bit of a deficiency in terms of what's being provided for bereaved families and, also, the families of injured soldiers in terms of what the Government does?
STEPHEN SMITH: No, I don't think that at all. But because of the establishment of the SAS Trust, as our Commandos in the last 20 years have also started to become a very significant and central part of our Special Forces operations, there was a view that there should be a comparable trust for the Commandos and some private benefactors established the Commando Welfare Trust, and last night I announced a contribution to that Trust of $8 million. We'd previously made a $10 million contribution to the SAS.
And both the SAS Trust and the Commando Welfare Trust and the Government is in discussions with Legacy about what, for example, Legacy might be able to do for other service men and women who suffer the same fate, who aren't members of either the Commandos or the SAS.
But Australia has always had a very noble tradition of not just Governments and Government Departments and bureaucrats providing much-deserved services and benefits and entitlements to wounded warriors and the families of deceased servicemen and women, there's always been a good spirit in Australia that individual Australians should also make a contribution. Whether that's a donation on a street for a Legacy appeal, or whether it's a company making a benevolent contribution. And that's reflected by the existence of these two trusts, and also, Legacy's interest of seeing whether there's more that Legacy can do, essentially, for the families of soldiers who are killed or wounded in Afghanistan.
JIM MIDDLETON: Minister, we better leave it there, but thanks again.
STEPHEN SMITH: Thanks Jim, thanks very much.