TRANSCRIPT: PRESS CONFERENCE
TRANSCRIPTION: PROOF COPY E & OE
DATE: 22 OCTOBER 2012
STEPHEN SMITH: It is my sad duty this morning to advise the Australian public following on the advice from the Chief of the Defence Force that overnight in Afghanistan we have suffered our 39th fatality.
Can I start by expressing my condolences to the family and the friends and the mates of a brave young Australian soldier. This is our 39th fatality in Afghanistan, as I've said, and our seventh this year. We've also had in total 242 wounded in Afghanistan, 29 this year.
Today, I am even more limited than usual in the remarks that I can make. You would have heard from General Hurley that the family concerned has requested at this stage that personal details not be provided and of course that will be respected. When the family are ready, the appropriate announcements and details will be provided in due course.
General Hurley has also indicated that the operation concerned, a Special Operations Task Group operation continues. And as a consequence, both General Hurley and I are not in a position to provide any further details other than this was a tragic result of an IED or roadside bomb incident. Further details again will be provided by General Hurley in due course once the operation has concluded.
General Hurley has indicated that this was a partnered operation with our Special Operations Task Group in the border areas adjoining Uruzgan.
Both I and my predecessors have of course made clear that on a regular basis our Special Operations Task Group engaged in so-called out of province or border area operations when they have direct impact on security in Uruzgan.
You might recall that in recent weeks both General Hurley, the Prime Minister and I have all visited Afghanistan, in particular Uruzgan Province.
Transition continues to be on track and when I was there recently with General Hurley we announced that of the four infantry Kandaks, which we are mentoring and training, one had been accorded the capability or the capacity of independent operations. And there is an expectation that by the end of this year, all four of the infantry Kandaks will be in the same position. Transition continues to be on track but that is not to say that our job is not difficult and dangerous as these events overnight again reinforce.
Our condolences go to the family and the friends and the mates of Australia's 39th fatality in Afghanistan. The Government very strongly continues to believe that completing our transition mission in Afghanistan is in Australia's national interest.
We are part of a 50 country International Security Assistance Force operating under a United Nations mandate and we are on track to transition to Afghan-led security responsibility in Afghanistan by the end of December 2014; and so far as Uruzgan is concerned we believe we are on track to transition to Afghan-led security responsible - responsibility overall in Uruzgan Province over the next 12-15 months.
So, I'm happy to respond to your questions, but I again make the same point that General Hurley has made, our capacity to provide detail at this stage is limited even more so than usual.
JOURNALIST: Is there anything that can be done to protect soldiers from IED blasts?
STEPHEN SMITH: Well, we have spent over the last few years, considerable efforts enhancing the protection, the force protection measures against IEDs or the roadside bombs. As General Hurley indicated, this was a dismounted encounter with an IED or an on-foot encounter.
We take all of the necessary precautions, and they have been enhanced over recent years - not just so far as Australia's concerned but the International Security Assistance Force generally.
But the IEDs, together with the assassination attempts by the Taliban and also the green-on-blue incidents continue to be the three most worrying factors so far as dangers and difficulties in Afghanistan are concerned.
JOURNALIST: Is there a fear that our soldier has been targeted?
STEPHEN SMITH: No, this was a Special Forces operation so it was a Special Operations Task Group operation. It was partnered with Afghan Forces. A clearance operation was underway, and this young 24-year-old Australia soldier came in contact with an IED. It's one of the terrible and tragic hazards and risks and consequences of our engagement in Afghanistan.
JOURNALIST: You say the operation is ongoing. Is announcing a death today in any way jeopardising the work over there?
STEPHEN SMITH: Well only if we were to provide details. And we've given as much detail as we can. Once next of kin had been advised, it's our usual practice to let the Australian public know, respecting two things: respecting operational security, which we are doing, but also respecting the wishes of the family, and when the family are in a position to allow details to be provided of the individual concerned, that will occur. When the operation has completed, then more details of this matter can also be provided.
But suffice at this stage to say that Australia today suffers another terrible tragedy. It's caused by an IED. It's a partnered Special Operations Task Group operation, and it's occurring in one of the border areas to Afghanistan as part of our so-called out-of-province operations which occur on a regular basis.
JOURNALIST: You can't give many details, Minister, but can you at least tell his rank and how many times he's been on mission in Afghanistan?
STEPHEN SMITH: I'm not proposing to do that, suffice to say that it's a 24-year-old brave, young Australian soldier. Those details will be provided when the family is ready and able for it to occur.
JOURNALIST: Can you say what sort of body armour he was wearing at the time?
STEPHEN SMITH: No, that will be provided in due course.
JOURNALIST: Any arrests made after the incident? Anyone got taken into custody after that?
STEPHEN SMITH: Well that goes to the operation itself, so I'll leave that to General Hurley in due course.
JOURNALIST: As Australia moves into a draw-down phase, as you begin withdrawing, are our troops going to be become more vulnerable? What can be done to stop more being killed?
STEPHEN SMITH: Well as transition occurs, greater and greater responsibility goes onto Afghan National Security Forces, the Afghan National Army and the Afghan National and Local Police.
So for example with the Afghan Kandak, or battalion of the 4th Brigade, the one which earlier this month was accorded the status of being able to operate independently, that Kandak, or Battalion will do precisely that; it will operate itself - it will do patrols by itself.
We will continue to provide back-of-house advice and assistance. We'll also be combat ready to provide assistance should that be required. But the very notion of transition is that responsibility is handed over to the Afghan Security Forces, and in due course, that will essentially see the bulk of Australia's presence in Uruzgan Province being at our main base in Tarin Kot - our multi-national base in Tarin Kot.
Having said that, Afghanistan and Uruzgan continue to be difficult and dangerous; The IEDs have been an ever-dangerous presence for some years, and we've seen in more recent times the dangers of the so-called green-on-blue attacks and we've also seen for the last 12 to 18 months, the Taliban resorting to high-profile propaganda-motivated assassination attempts including the use of children for such suicide bomb assassination attempts.
So it continues to be difficult and dangerous and that will remain the case.
Thank you. Thanks very much.