TRANSCRIPT: PRESS CONFERENCE
TRANSCRIPTION: PROOF COPY E & OE
DATE: 26 MARCH 2013
TOPICS: Afghanistan; Eastern Shah Wali Kot Battle Honours.
STEPHEN SMITH: I'm very pleased to see you this morning and very pleased to be joined by the Chief of the Defence Force, General Hurley.
Today we are welcoming the fact that the International Security Assistance Force, ISAF, has determined in conjunction with Afghan authorities and with Australia, that the multi-national base at Tarin Kot will close at the end of this year, will close at the end of 2013.
The effect of that closure will be that Australia will no longer have a permanent presence in Uruzgan Province, and the majority of Australian Defence Force personnel will return from Afghanistan to Australia. Whilst there will be some movement in the numbers, and while we are redeploying and repatriating both personnel and equipment, the numbers will go up and down, we expect that by the end of the year, we will see at least 1000 Australian personnel return home.
This is consistent with transition in Uruzgan, and in Afghanistan. You'll recall that at both the Lisbon and Chicago Summits, the international community agreed that we would transition out of Afghanistan by the end of 2014. In Uruzgan's case, we announced at the beginning of this year that we were confident that transition would occur by the end of this year. And in November of last year General Hurley and I commenced discussions with then commander of ISAF, John Allen, about the closure of the base at Tarin Kot, and in December last year and January of this year, we formally exchanged correspondence to that effect and we're now in a position to join with ISAF to make this announcement today.
The history of Tarin Kot is that we've had a permanent presence in Tarin Kot since 2005 and that was through the establishment of Camp Russell. The Dutch then built Camp Holland, and as a consequence of those two facilities, they were renamed the multi-national base Tarin Kot. And the decision announced today, in conjunction with ISAF, will see the closure of that facility so far as Australia and ISAF is concerned at the end of this year.
Camp Russell is where Australia's Special Forces currently operate from, and Camp Holland is a much larger area where the remainder of our personnel are based, both military and civilian. It's proposed, and the planning is underway, that all of Camp Russell will be transferred to Afghan authorities and the Afghan National Army, and a portion of Camp Holland will be transferred to Afghan authorities and the Afghan National Army.
I'll ask General Hurley in a moment to go through some of the practical details and some of the practical effect of that, and to also make some remarks about how the Australian Defence Force will be positioned in Afghanistan from the end of 2013 on. You would of course be aware of my general remarks, and those of the Prime Minister and those of General Hurley in the past, that after transition, at the end of December 2014, we remain ready, willing and able to engage in training, particularly officer training, and we've also indicated that we would hold out the prospect of a Special Forces contribution, under an appropriate mandate, either for counter-terrorism activity or for training.
In terms of numbers, you will of course recall that General Hurley, and the Prime Minister and I have always been very wary about defining the drawdown of our troops in advance of it actually occurring. Currently, as a rule of thumb, we have about 1650 personnel in Afghanistan. That's above the average of 1550 because we have in Afghanistan the presence of over 150 personnel whose task is to commence the redeployment, the repatriation and the remediation. About 1300 of those are in Uruzgan, and the remainder in Kandahar and Kabul. And so when the closure of multi-national base Tarin Kot occurs in Uruzgan, that will see an effective drawdown and return to Australia of some 1000 troops.
We'll be able to more precise and specific about that over the next period, because what we'll be doing in the post-2014 environment, and as a consequence what we'll be doing in 2014, is subject to decisions to be made between the Afghan Government and ISAF, between the Afghan Government and NATO, and between the Afghan Government and the United States.
Can I also just indicate, and you've received a statement to this effect, that today we're also announcing the award of the first Army Battle Honour since the end of the Vietnam War. A battle honour will be awarded for the operation conducted in Shah Wali Kot in May and June of 2010. This was the operation which saw Ben Roberts-Smith awarded his Victoria Cross, but today we're announcing that for the first time for Army, since the end of the Vietnam War, a Battle Honour for that operation. And that is specifically an honour for the Special Air Services Regiment and Second Commando, and again I'll ask General Hurley to make some remarks about that.
So, as I say, I'll ask David to make some remarks about those two issues and then we're happy to respond to your questions. David.
DAVID HURLEY: Good morning ladies and gentlemen. In relation to the first issue in terms of the closure and the transfer of the base at Tarin Kot, you'll be aware in recent times by about November last year we'd ceased responsibility for mentoring and training of the four infantry Kandaks, closed down the forward operating bases, and essentially moved the centre of our operations inside the base.
From there we've been continuing this year to conduct the advisory role with the fourth brigade headquarters, training and assisting the two non-infantry Kandaks or battalions, the combat support and the service support battalions, and also assisting with the operation at coordination centre at the government level in Uruzgan. Special operations taskforce has continued this operation.
So during the rest of this year a number of things will be occurring in parallel. We'll continue those tasks, and towards the latter part of the year, and then we'll gradually we'll step down and in the latter part of the year cease those tasks and send those people home. Other than the SOTG, I'll come back to that in a moment.
In the meantime, in parallel to that, we'll be extracting our equipment as it becomes unnecessary to hold it there any further and we'll begin the collapsing of the camp, those areas of the camp which we are not transferring to Afghan units or bases. So, for example, with the national training mission Afghanistan is moving another Kandak into Tarin Kot, they will take over some of the facilities so we don't have to pull those down, just clean them up and hand them over. For the Afghan National Officer Academy in Kabul, we'll be sending quite a number of our portable container living accommodation buildings and so forth up to Kabul for those [indistinct] use, so that you'll see that sort of distribution going on. And then we'll have to collapse all the life support utilities in the camp and clean those up and remediate those to the appropriate standards. On top of that obviously, moving back equipment by both container over the road through Pakistan, or by air back to Australia.
As we look to 204, we will continue with the mentoring, tasking - correction the advisory and training mission we have with the headquarters of the 205 corps in Kandahar, so that continues this year and next year. Later this year we'll commence with the United Kingdom, the role of training and education in the officer academy, and that will run through 2014. We'll continue with our embedded staff. As the Minister has indicated there's still the decision to be made about continued employment of the Special Forces element in Afghanistan, pending the final determination of the nature of the mission and the troops that will be required in the mission post-2014.
So those decisions lie ahead of us, they're not all in our hands, obviously we'll be involved in discussions with the governments and institutions that'll be making those decisions, but we need to wait a bit further until we can go firm on that. But as the Government has said on the appropriate mandate, we are prepared to make a Special Forces contribution either for training or for counter-terrorism purposes.
In relation to the awarding of a battle honour to the Special Air Service Regiment and the 2nd Commando Regiment, we're delighted that the Chief of Army has made this decision. As the Minister has said this is the first Army Battle Honour to be awarded since the Vietnam War, and battle honours are a significant statement about the nature of the actual operation that these people and units were involved with, and they mark, you know, a really strong mark in the history of any unit.
The Battle Honour will be entitled the Eastern Shah Wali Kot, and as I've said been awarded to the SAS Regiment and 2nd Commando Regiment for the Australian Special Operations Task Group Rotation 12. And this is recognising the efforts of both of these units during the engagements which were highly commended by the International Security Assistance Force command for the contribution it made to overall ISAF efforts to disrupt insurgent activities in the region around Eastern Shah Wali Kot, one of the Taliban's traditional stronghold areas. The Chief of the Army, General Morrison, recommended that both units received formal recognition for their outstanding performance during the offensive.
In addition to this the Chief of Army has also directed that the Battle Honour Committee examine all Army engagement since the Vietnam War to determine whether actions since than are eligible for formal recognition under the revised guidelines. Now the Battle Honour itself will be formally presented to both regiments later this year.
STEPHEN SMITH: Alright we're happy to respond to your questions. Brendan?
JOURNALIST: Minister Smith, when the Afghan Foreign Minister, Minister Rassoul, was here a week or two ago, he said that he felt that whatever role our Special Forces had post-2014, it wouldn't involve combat. Now he said it a couple of times, is that something that's still being worked out?
STEPHEN SMITH: Well, you'll recall that whenever the Prime Minister or I, or General Hurley have referred to the potential for a Special Forces role, either training or counter-terrorism, we've always said that that was subject to an appropriate mandate. What the mandate is post-2014, from the first of January 2015 will entirely depend upon the discussions that are currently underway between the Afghan authorities and the United States, the Afghan authorities and ISAF, and the Afghan authorities and NATO.
And the mandate will be determined by what we would call a Status of Forces Agreement, what the Afghans refer to as a bilateral security arrangement. So that's a matter of ongoing discussion but we have always made it clear that we are in the market for, so to speak, to continue a Special Forces contribution, whether that's counter-terrorism, or training or both. But time will tell whether that is required. That is, one of the decisions that needs to be made before we can make a final judgement about what our presence or posture post-2014 will be.
And that has, as General Hurley has said, that has ramifications for how we are postured in 2014. And so these decisions will be made in the coming months and that will enable us to then in consultation with ISAF, in consultation with the United States and consultation with NATO and the Afghan Government to make a judgement and decisions about what our post-2014 posture will be. Having said that, we've made it clear that we will continue our training role, particularly the officer training role in Kabul with New Zealand and the United Kingdom. What more will be subject to those decision making procedures that I've referred to.
JOURNALIST: That Status of Forces Agreement - now clearly it's actually quite crucial for the future of our operations because there's - is there not a legal component involved in it?
STEPHEN SMITH: Absolutely.
JOURNALIST: That'll actually-
STEPHEN SMITH: That's, always been the case and it's always been why, whether it's been General Hurley, me or the Prime Minister, we've referred to an appropriate mandate. Currently the mandate in Afghanistan is a United Nations mandate. The working assumptions of that mandate will finish when transition occurs in Afghanistan generally at the end of 2014. And that's why the Government of Afghanistan is currently in conversation with US, ISAF and NATO about what the nature of that Status of Forces Agreement or agreements would be.
JOURNALIST: And do you think that there's any possibility - would you consider allowing our troops to operate there if they are in some way legally vulnerable or exposed-
STEPHEN SMITH: Absolutely not, no. This is precisely the same issue that we faced in the aftermath of the withdrawal or the drawdown from Iraq and everyone is seized of the absolute importance of the Status of Forces Agreement or the bilateral security arrangement. And this is part of the normal practice when a United Nations mandate ends and there is a different mission about to get underway.
JOURNALIST: So, Minister, does today's announcement in any way represent a bringing forward or an acceleration of the withdrawal of our troops?
STEPHEN SMITH: No. This is entirely consistent with transition. So it's entirely consistent with what the international community has been doing. It's based on the arrangements agreed at the Lisbon Summit and also the Chicago Summit. And we've always said that we thought that in Uruzgan, we were further advanced than other districts or provinces were. So we started transition in Uruzgan in the middle of last year. There are some provinces or districts which won't commence transition until the middle of this year.
So we've always believed we've been a bit more advanced. That's the first thing. Secondly, we've been in very close consultation with General Allen and subsequently General Dunford about these issues. So we took the leadership of combined team Uruzgan which is the ISAF headquarters and command unit in Uruzgan. We took the leadership of that in - we agreed to take the leadership in July of 2012 and formally took the leadership in October. And so we've been working on transition in these issues for a long period of time.
And it is part of the natural evolution of transition. This is not the first base in Afghanistan that ISAF have announced -has closed or will close. General Hurley will add or correct, but my recollection is that some 180 bases over the last couple of years have variously been closed or announced for closure by ISAF in conjunction with the relevant country or countries and in this case it's occurring with Australia.
JOURNALIST: But it's a big step isn't it? I mean [indistinct]
STEPHEN SMITH: If you look at the history of our involvement in Afghanistan, this is one of the deeply significant events and announcements. And it's the most important event and announcement so far as redeployment or drawdown or transition has occurred. And so if you look at our engagement, when the history of Afghanistan is written, my judgement would be that people would say well, there were three key events in terms of a commitment or contribution. There was the original commitment in the aftermath of 11 September. There was then a decision by the Howard Government back in 2005 that to make a substantial contribution some 250 and then the decision made by this Government back in April of 2009 where we increased by a further 450 taking our on average contribution from 1100 to 1550.
So far as the transition process goes, this is a decision which is of that order. This is the most significant decision and announcement that has been made so far as our withdrawal from Afghanistan is concerned, so far as our redeployment is concerned and so far as success of transition is occurring. If we were not confident that transition would occur in Uruzgan by the end of this year, then this decision would not have been made. It is a necessary and logical and natural consequence of transition being effected in Uruzgan by the end of this year. As General Hurley said and as I've said previously, the four infantry Kandaks became capable of operating independently, without advisors by the end of last year. By the end of last year all of the forward operating bases and patrol bases had been transferred to the Afghan National Army, the Kandaks of the fourth brigade. So this is transition in operation.
So we had one here then I'll go to you.
JOURNALIST: If you close down TK by the end of the year, withdraw 1000 troops, who's going to be left, where will they be and what will they be doing?
STEPHEN SMITH: We currently have a presence in Afghanistan which is not limited to Uruzgan. So we have as I indicated earlier, our on average contribution for some time has been 1550. We've got more there at the moment because we've got between 150 and 200 there to do the extraction and remediation job. But we've got about 1300 in Uruzgan and we have then other personnel in Kandahar, and in Kabul. In Kabul we've got Embed personnel at ISAF headquarters and in Kandahar we've got aviation elements, we've got core trainers and we also have some Embeds in ISAF headquarters in Kandahar.
So, when Tarin Kot closes, we won't have a permanent presence in Uruzgan or indeed any presence. We'll continue to have personnel in Kandahar and in Kabul. Now what the precise numbers of those are in 2014, and what our precise post-2014 contribution is, will depend upon the judgements that need to be made in accordance with the decisions that General Hurley and I have referred to.
JOURNALIST: Will Special Forces remain in-
STEPHEN SMITH: Well, that's one of the issues that we need to contemplate. Special Forces continue to operate in Uruzgan and in surrounding provinces in accordance with longstanding decisions on that front. So our Special Forces will continue to operate in Uruzgan and surrounding provinces until the end of this year. When the base closes, there will be no facility for them so we don't envisage Special Forces continuing in Uruzgan in that way. Whether there's an ongoing Special Forces contribution elsewhere in the country or at all in 2014, will depend upon the conversations that we're currently having. But more importantly, the conversations that Afghanistan, United States, NATO and ISAF are having about the post-2014 mandate.
JOURNALIST: There will be I presume one more rotation of the advisory task force?
STEPHEN SMITH: One more rotation – yes that's right. And that's' from memory and David will correct me, that's May-June, that rotation takes place.
JOURNALIST: Mr Smith, when we leave or effectively end the main part of our mission in Uruzgan at the end of the year, will we leave Uruzgan a better place than we found it and could I ask General Hurley the same question?
STEPHEN SMITH: My view is yes, we will. The security in Uruzgan is in a much better state than when we first arrived. The capacity of the Afghan National Security Forces in particular, the Afghan National Army, the infantry Kandaks of the fourth brigade are in a much better state. And the circumstances and conditions on the ground for the people of Uruzgan are much better as a result of improvements in security but also the development of systems contribution that Australia has made whether that's been through AusAID or through some ADF projects.
Uruzgan, like the rest of Afghanistan, I think into the future will see this feature. Historically in Afghanistan, the further away you are from a population centre the less likely you are to see strong influence either by the provincial government or Kabul. So the further away you are from a population centre, the further away you are from a provincial capital or Kabul, then more difficult the security circumstances will be.
Currently in Afghanistan as a result of the transition we've seen, we've got some 80 per cent of the Afghan population in transition. And the statistics which General Hurley will also provide you with, which reflect the NATO and the ISAF's statistics, show that by far now most of the violent events and circumstances are in the sparsely populated areas or regions or the difficult provinces or districts which are yet to be subject to transition.
DAVID HURLEY: I'd answer this question in a number of ways. I think first of all a lot the questions that are raised about the future of Afghanistan, there's a sort of assumption in the question that once ISAF finishes that's the end of it and I think you need to go back and look at the commitments that the international community has made to the future of Afghanistan. So there will be another military mission in 2015 onwards.
The US has agreed to fund the Afghan National Security Forces at 350,000 up until at least 2017. There will be support and training for that force through that period. And the discussions at the present time are how to do that and what's the best number - what's the required number of troops to do that to provide the enablers and so forth. So that's why there's some uncertainty in some of our statements today because those decisions still have to be made.
There's been a major commitment by the international community at Tokyo and Chicago about funding development, governance, and development of governments and so forth in Afghanistan. So the international community is not walking out at the end of 2014.
Take that down to Uruzgan. We've always talked about three sort of themes that worked in Uruzgan. The security, governance, and development programs. In the security side of the house, the 4th Brigade and with an additional Kandak, the 8th Commando Kandak, in location. Plus the ANP and ALP programs have sufficient resources there to maintain security, which has enormously improved in Tarin Kot.
In the development and governance areas, slow development there. Not unexpected. And that's, you know, that's where the weight of international effort and support has got to be into the future. If you talk to the Afghan leadership - the Minister and I were there recently - the three issues that they consistently talk to us about were transition, i.e., seeing that successfully through, the peace process with the Taliban, and the election in 2014. Security was not the main topic that they talked about.
STEPHEN SMITH: John.
JOURNALIST: Just a question on the supplement to funding of operations. As the draw occurs there is a training component within in operations.
STEPHEN SMITH: Yes.
JOURNALIST: Does it put the Defence budget under more pressure as you lose that funding?
STEPHEN SMITH: No, these are our overseas operations are always done on a no-win, no-loss basis. And they're dealt with separately as part of the annual budget processes and this has been going on effectively now for a decade. Whether it's the Solomon Islands, whether it's been East Timor which recently completed, or Afghanistan. It's done on a no-win, no-loss basis.
It's an overseas operation. There is a rule of thumb assessment or calculation that's done at the beginning of the budget cycle. If Defence spends more it gets more. If Defence spends less it doesn't get a windfall gain. So these are dealt with in a separate manner from the ordinary sort of annual recurrent sustainment of the Defence budget.
JOURNALIST: There was the question earlier on about the SAS and their continued role and presence. I understand that of course that's an ongoing issue but will the SAS contingent be working directly to Kabul rather than working for Regional Command South?
STEPHEN SMITH: Well, until the end of 2013, circumstances won't change. They'll be doing precisely up until the end of December this year what they're doing now. We won't be in a position to tell you what, if anything, Special Forces will be doing during the year of 2014 until we've got some clear indication as to what they might be doing in the post-2014 transition world. In other words, what they might be doing from 1 January 2015.
And so we've got to make a judgement about what, if any, contribution is made by Special Forces. That will ultimately depend to a very large extent on what the mandate, if any, is for Special Forces post-2015. So, we'll be in a much better position to make those decisions and those judgements in the course of the next few months. But until we know what the role, if any, of Special Forces is from 1 January on, we're not in a position to make a judgement about what Special Forces might be doing during 2014.
Now, theoretically, potentially, yes, there is a possibility that Special Forces could operate out of Kabul. Or operate out of Regional Command South, for example, Kandahar. But they are only theoretical possibilities. We need to await those decisions about mandate and the disposition of international community forces before we can make that judgement.
JOURNALIST: Sorry, Minister, if the SOT - if we decide that there isn't a role for Special Forces beyond 2014 does that mean that their numbers will start to reduce next year? That they're -
STEPHEN SMITH: Well, if we come to the conclusion that there's no role for Special Forces in 2014 and no role for Special Forces in 2015 either for mandate or other reasons then at the end of 2013, Special Forces will come back like everyone else. And that's why I say whilst we can say to you with some confidence that a result of the closure of Tarin Kot and transition in Uruzgan will see by the end of this year about a thousand personnel return.
Being more precise about that, depends upon Special Forces and what role, if any, they'll have in 2014 and/or 2015, and a range of other decisions that need to be made that we've referred to.
JOURNALIST: Can I just ask about the logistics of getting equipment out? As I understand it, it's quite a major operation in itself.
STEPHEN SMITH: It is. I'll ask David to add. It is a very significant extraction job and that's why there is a large number of people devoted to that task. Not just in Canberra but also in Al Minhad and also now of course in Afghanistan itself.
JOURNALIST: General, I think you mentioned there getting equipment out through Pakistan. That's one of the options. Last I remember there were some difficulties in getting things out through Pakistan. Pakistan wanted to charge exorbitant fees for trucking equipment. Is that still the case?