TRANSCRIPT: PRESS CONFERENCE
TRANSCRIPTION: PROOF COPY E & OE
DATE: 23 June 2013
TOPICS: Incident in Afghanistan.
STEPHEN SMITH: Thank you for attending. You of course have heard the tragic news announced this morning by the Chief of the Defence Force, General Hurley. You've also seen the Prime Minister's remarks. Can I firstly join the Prime Minister and the Chief of the Defence Force in expressing condolences to the family of the solider who we have lost - a Commando. As General Hurley's indicated the family at this stage are requesting privacy and so further details of the Commando concerned will be released at a time of their choosing.
We also have two Australian soldiers wounded. One who's seriously wounded from our Special Forces contingent who is currently at Kandahar in a serious condition but stable. And a member of the Air Force who has suffered minor wounds who is in Tarin Kot. Both of the families of the two wounded soldiers have been notified. This tragic event takes us to 40 for the number of fatalities that Australia has suffered in Afghanistan.
Our first this year and the first since October last year. The two wounded bring our total number of wounded in Afghanistan to 256. Some 10 this year. And the fact that we have 10 wounded this year illustrates the withdrawal of our Mentoring Task Force team from forward operating bases and patrol bases to our main base in Tarin Kot. And the acceptance of responsibility by the four Kandaks of the Afghan National Army. The four Kandaks of the 4th Brigade to take responsibility for security in Uruzgan Province.
But as is well-known, our Special Forces contingent continues to operate. These days that is almost invariably joint or partnered operations. And so our Special Forces continue to do the same important, strategically important but high risk job that they've always done. And we see the tragic consequences of that today.
This will be a terrible blow to the family concerned but also a terrible reminder to the other 39 families. Yesterday in North Queensland, you may be aware that the Prime Minister and the Chief of the Defence Force and the Leader of the Opposition joined with family members from the 39 to mark the opening of Australia's first national memorial to our soldiers who've lost their lives in Afghanistan. The so-called Avenue of Honour in the Tablelands in North Queensland.
For those families who gathered for that occasion this will be particularly bitter news. And so our thoughts are with them. This'll also be a terrible blow to the Commandos. The Commandos, 2nd Commando Regiment from Holsworthy have done great work in Afghanistan. And on Wednesday of last week I was joined by the Shadow Minister for Defence Science and Personnel to mark the presentation to the 2nd Commando Regiment of the first battle honour since Vietnam. The so-called battle honour for East Shah Wali Kot.
For the Commandos have suffered terribly and this will be a particularly hard blow. This fatality underlines that Afghanistan continues to be difficult and dangerous. We are transitioning out of Afghanistan. Our main base in Tarin Kot will be closed by the end of the year and some a thousand Australian soldiers will return home.
The transition itself is on track and in the last week we've seen the formal transition of all of the provinces in all of the districts of Afghanistan. All of the districts in all of the provinces in Afghanistan now under transition with the so called Chicago Milestone having been met last week. So transition is on course and we acknowledge and welcome that, but Afghanistan will continue to be difficult and will continue to be dangerous for our Special Forces, but also for our other soldiers who face the ongoing risk of the roadside bombs - the IEDs, plus the risk of high profile, propaganda-motivated suicide bomb attacks. And these points the Chief of the Defence Force, the Prime Minister and I have made in the past.
I'm happy to respond to your questions on this matter.
JOURNALIST: Are you able to tell us where - I mean the soldier - the fallen soldier was based in Sydney, are you able to tell us where-
STEPHEN SMITH: We're not proposing to go into any details until the families are happy to see that information released publicly. We want to respect their privacy. The soldier who was tragically killed is from the Commando regiment based in Holsworthy and he's also an elite soldier, highly decorated and very well regarded by his professional colleagues.
But we'll leave further detail until a time when the family are in a position to see that released.
JOURNALIST: Have you spoken personally with his family?
STEPHEN SMITH: No. I've spoken, obviously, with the Chief of the Defence Force and also with the Prime Minister. We got the news yesterday afternoon, so I spoke both to the Chief and the Prime Minister, both of whom were in the course of leaving the ceremony for the Avenue of Honour. And spoke, of course, to the Chief of the Defence Force on a number of occasions last night, and again this morning.
JOURNALIST: Every time you make an announcement like this it's a reminder to the country the high price that you pay when you get involved in this type of conflict. Can you just reflect - do you think that it has been a success, or not?
STEPHEN SMITH: Well I gave one of my regular reports to the Parliament on Wednesday of last week, and I again made the point when a country engages in a military intervention, you have to think very seriously about you national interest and your national security interest before you make such a commitment. It's the easiest thing in the world to make a commitment, and, as Afghanistan shows, it's often very hard to get out in an orderly fashion.
We entered Afghanistan as a result of a terrorist attack on the United States, but also on the citizens of the world, and Australians lost their lives in that terrorist attack. So our objective in Afghanistan has always been to prevent the Afghanistan-Pakistan border area from again becoming a breeding ground for international terrorists.
And that is our mission. We believe that we've made very good grounds on that front. But ultimately two things are required to ensure that's enduring. One is the Afghans themselves have to be capable and able to take responsibility for security arrangements themselves, and that is on track.
And secondly, in the end, an enduring settlement in Afghanistan won't be found only by military or combat action, it'll be found by peace and reconciliation. And that is why we strongly support those efforts at peace and reconciliation, including the recent establishment of the Taliban office in Qatar to see if there can be a successful Afghan-led peace and reconciliation effort.
I remain very strongly of the view that it's in our national interest to continue, together with 49 other countries in a United National mandate international security mission, to do the work that we have undertaken to do, and to finish the job. And by finishing the job, we'll transition in Uruzgan by the end of this year. We will then need to see what arrangements are entered into between the United States and Afghanistan before making a judgement about what additional contribution, if any, we can make after all of Afghanistan transitions at the end of 2014. Including, as I've said in the past, the possibility of a special forces contribution, whether training or counter-terrorism itself.
JOURNALIST: [Indistinct] fire fight, what were the circumstances?
STEPHEN SMITH: Well again, there'll be the usual Inquiry Officer's Report to go through all of the details. The Chief of the Defence Force will, in due course, provide more details of the engagement. But other than confirming that the fatality was as a result of exchange of gunfire, I'm not proposing to go into the details of that operation any more than the Chief has.
JOURNALIST: It's the fighting season over there at the moment?
STEPHEN SMITH: Yes, yes.
JOURNALIST: So is there a heightened risk at this time of the year that you will see these sorts of-
STEPHEN SMITH: Well there is always a risk. Yes we are in the so-called Afghanistan, or Northern fighting season. So, as the winter recedes and the temperature becomes more mild, the fighting season starts again. That traditionally occurs April-May depending upon the weather patterns.
So yes we're into the fighting season. But for the Australian forces in Uruzgan, the risk has changed. With the acceptance of responsibility for the forward operating bases and the patrol bases and the acceptance of security responsibility by the four Kandaks of the 4th brigade of the Afghan National Army. The bulk of our troops are now in the main base behind the wire at Tarin Kot.
So the risk for them has changed, but there remains an ever-present risk of IEDs, and also suicide bomb attacks. Both of which we've seen in Uruzgan itself and Afghanistan generally.
But for our Special Forces, which includes the 2nd Commandos from Holsworthy, but also the SAS from Swanbourne, they continue to operate. These days their operations are almost invariably joint or partnered operations, but the work that they do carries with it the same risk that it has always carried. So the risk profile has changed, but Afghanistan continues to be a difficult and dangerous place. And the Prime Minister and the Chief of the Defence Force and I have made that point publicly before.
But I can well recall when the Chief of the Defence Force and I were in Afghanistan most recently in early June. He and I both made the point to our troops that, whilst the risk had changed, they needed to be ever vigilant because their presence there continued to carry with it grave risks.
JOURNALIST: Can you tell us anything about when the body of the fallen soldier will be repatriated?
STEPHEN SMITH: It'll be a matter of days, or a week or so. But again, once those arrangements are known and done in conjunction with the families, we will let people know.
JOURNALIST: Will you be able to, at any stage, tell us where the wounded personnel are from?
STEPHEN SMITH: Those details will be released when the families are happy for the details to be released.
Okay? Thank you.