TRANSCRIPT: PRESS CONFERENCE - PERTH
TRANSCRIPTION: PROOF COPY E & OE
DATE: 9 NOVEMBER 2011
TOPICS: Afghanistan; Three soldiers wounded in action.
STEPHEN SMITH: Good afternoon. Sorry I'm running a bit late. I just wanted to make some remarks about the overnight incident in Afghanistan which the Chief of the Defence Force General Hurley has reported on earlier today.
I've just spoken to General Hurley, as I did very early this morning, and am in a position to advise that given it's the early hours of the morning in Uruzgan and Afghanistan, there is no update in terms of the whereabouts of the ANA soldier concerned. I can also advise that in terms of the condition of the three Australian wounded soldiers, their condition remains seriously injured, and they are receiving medical care and attention in Kandahar.
Can I start by expressing my sympathy and thoughts to the families of the three wounded soldiers. This brings, in terms of fatalities and woundings in Afghanistan, 32 fatalities and 212 soldiers wounded; 11 fatalities this year and some 47 soldiers now wounded this year. Our sympathies and our thoughts are with the families of the three concerned.
But, given the particular and special circumstances of this incident, it will come as a terrible reminder to a number of families. It will come as a terrible reminder to the family of Lance Corporal Andrew Jones who was killed by an ANA soldier in May. And it will also add to the burden of three families who, over the weekend, saw their loved ones returned to Australia; the families of Corporal Birt, Lance Corporal Gavin, and Captain Duffy. And funerals for those three deceased soldiers will occur in the coming days and week. So this will add to the grief and the burden of those families in particular, but all of those families who have seen loved ones killed or injured in Afghanistan.
Regrettably, this is now the third such incident that we've seen where a member of the ANA has turned on Australian soldiers, and also in two of those three incidents also turned on ANA members. The first one, as I referred to, Lance Corporal Andrew Jones in May, and then the terrible killing of our three soldiers a week or so ago.
You will recall that as a consequence of Lance Corporal Jones's killing, the Chief of the Defence Force and I instituted a review of conditions and circumstances. As a consequence of that a range of changes were made so far as security and force protection measures are concerned.
And General Hurley was asked about those this morning and, appropriately, he has not gone into detail nor will I.
When we saw the terrible incident involving Corporal Birt, Lance Corporal Gavin, and Captain Duffy, the Prime Minister asked the Chief of the Defence Force and I to effect an exhaustive assessment of the circumstances of that incident, and that exhaustive investigation is underway.
We will do likewise with this particular terrible incidence. And as dawn breaks and the day begins in Afghanistan, it's quite clear that there will be a pursuit of the ANA soldier concerned. Hopefully he will be captured which will enable both Afghan National authorities and Australian Defence Force personnel to interview him to try and gain some insight as to the motivation.
As you know, in the case of Lance Corporal Jones, Shafied Ullah was killed and we have no insight into his motivation. And we continue to do the exhaustive assessment of the incident which saw the terrible killing of Corporal Birt, Lance Corporal Gavin and Captain Duffy.
As I indicated, the Chief of the Defence Force has instituted a range of force protection measures so far as Australian Defence Force personnel in Afghanistan are concerned.
As you also know, Brigadier Khan, the Commander of the 4th Brigade of the Afghan National Army - the 6th Kandaks that we train are Kandaks from the 4th Brigade - in the aftermath of the terrible event last week instituted a range of measures including disarming those members of the 6th Kandak who were in the patrol base in northern Kandahar.
That general circumstance continues. From members of the 6th Kandak from that patrol base in north Kandahar who are going on patrols, they are of course armed. A small number of members of the 6th Kandak have firearms with them inside the patrol base. But at the instruction of Brigadier Khan, the vast bulk of the 6th Kandak continue to be disarmed.
The expectation continues to be that over the coming period Brigadier Khan will authorise the re-arming of members of the 6th Kandak.
In the face of this incident the Kandak members in the patrol base concerned have also been disarmed.
When General Hurley was in Afghanistan recently he raised these types of incidents and these matters with my counterpart, Defence Minister Wardak; also raised it with Brigadier Khan on the ground in Uruzgan; and also raised it with Governor Shirzad.
One important point which I made earlier is that two of these three terrible attacks have seen an attack upon Afghans themselves. And just as we are shocked, just as this is a staggering blow to confidence, equally these events have come as a shock to Brigadier Khan and to Afghan National Security Force members in Uruzgan.
Terribly, we've seen three of these types of incidents this year, two in a matter of weeks. They are more familiar in other parts of Afghanistan and more familiar for other ISAF members. But we now need to do our own exhaustive assessment plus again approach the International Security Assistance Force - ISAF - through General Allen to ensure that ISAF is doing everything it can in terms of vetting procedures and recruitment arrangements. These points have been made to ISAF in the past and they'll be renewed again.
As events unfold, of course General Hurley and I will keep you informed of developments and events. But the exhaustive consideration, investigation and assessment of these two terrible incidents will more likely than not take some time.
I'm happy to respond to your questions.
JOURNALIST: What does it mean now for the relationship between Australian and Afghani troops? Is that trust shattered?
STEPHEN SMITH: Well, certainly it has been a very serious blow to confidence and trust. There's no point walking away from that. Both these incidents - one we saw the death of three of our soldiers, and the wounding of seven; this one overnight, the wounding of three of our soldiers and the wounding of two Afghans - coming as they do so close together is a significant blow to confidence and a significant undermining of trust. And in some respects that is potentially their motivation. We don't know the motivation; I'm not proposing to tilt the lever one way or the other. We don't know whether this is a rogue ANA soldier as a result of personal issues or whether it is a broader motivation than that. Time will tell, given the constraints that we have.
We are still none the wiser, for example, over the killing of Lance Corporal Jones, as a result of the death of Shafied Ullah.
But in general terms we now have to painstakingly rebuild that trust.
Whilst I don't in any way seek to limit the damage that these events have caused, we need to also understand that in Afghanistan we have over 300,000 members of the Afghan National Security Forces. In Uruzgan itself we have nearly 7000 members of the Afghan National Security Forces; rule of thumb nearly 4000 Afghan National Army and just under 3000 Afghan National local police.
So in terms of the large numbers of Afghan National Security Forces that we have, both in Afghanistan and in Uruzgan, we have seen a relatively minor number of incidents so far as Australia and ISAF is concerned. But the reverberating effect of those incidents is deeply significant and I don't in any way seek to undermine or to downplay that.
JOURNALIST: Is it also a blow to the Australian community's attitude towards our mission over there? Can you convince them that it's still worth staying?
STEPHEN SMITH: Well, I've been quite frank and open about the undermining of community support which is caused whenever there is a fatality so far as Australia and Australians are concerned. Whenever we have a fatality it's a terrible blow to a family but it's a terrible blow for the nation. When a fatality or a serious wounding, as has occurred in this case, is as a result of a soldier whom we are training and mentoring, then it does have a compounding effect and it's entirely appropriate for the Australian community to ask the question, why are we there if two such incidents have occurred in very quick space of time.
We continue to very strongly be of the view that our role in Afghanistan is to prevent Afghanistan, particularly the Afghanistan-Pakistan border area, again becoming a breeding ground for terrorists. We don't want to be in Afghanistan forever. Our role is to train and mentor the Afghan National Security Forces so that they can be in a position to take responsibility for security by 2014.
Despite these and other setbacks we very strongly believe that we are on track to effect that. And that's not just Australia's view, that's also the view of our counterparts and colleagues in the International Security Assistance Force and in NATO, some 50 countries involved under a United Nations mandate in Afghanistan.
So we believe we're on track. We're on progress to transition to Afghan-led responsibility by 2014.
After that transition NATO and ISAF have just started a conversation about what post-transition arrangements there might be. It's quite clear that after transition the Afghan authorities will continue to need the support in some manner or form by the international community.
But we're there to prevent Australians becoming the victims of international terrorism which we have been on the receiving end, whether that's been in South-East Asia, in Europe or in the United States.
JOURNALIST: [Indistinct] confined army bases. How did this shooter get away?
STEPHEN SMITH: Well, he was pursued. The precise circumstances will no doubt come to light as a result of our exhaustive investigation. But it's also quite clear that he was pursued by Afghan National Army members, again reinforcing the point that when these terrible events occur, more often than not they come as a deep shock to Afghans as they do to Australians on the ground. He was pursued but he successfully managed to evade that pursuit. I'm confident that that pursuit will resume, literally as we speak, as dawn breaks and the day begins in Afghanistan.
JOURNALIST: Do we think he was operating on his own?
STEPHEN SMITH: Well, I'm not in a position to make any judgement or throw any light on that and we have nothing to indicate that any of these incidents are connected in any way. We have nothing to indicate that this is a systemic series of events. But that's one of the reasons it's important that we do the exhaustive investigation.
But, again as I said, we have seen now three of these terrible types of events in the course of this year, since May; two in the space of days or a couple of weeks.
Our ISAF colleagues, particularly our United States colleagues, have seen these events occur more frequently. But despite their occurrence, as a general proposition we continue to make security ground up in Afghanistan. We continue to thwart the Taliban momentum and they have found it impossible in the course of this so-called northern summer fighting season to recapture ground or territory from us, not just Australia in Uruzgan but from the International Security Assistance Force generally. And that's why they have resorted to what I describe as the high profile propaganda motivated suicide-type attacks. And, regrettably, they have been successful on that front. Again, there is no denying the damage that that has done but it hasn't stopped the consolidation of the security advances and the security progress that the International Security Assistance Force and Australia have made.
But we continue to have to work very hard to secure territory, to retain territory, and to do the job we want to do which is to transition to Afghan-led authority.
JOURNALIST: [Indistinct] by the Taliban, these shootings,or-
STEPHEN SMITH: Well, again, it's - I'm not proposing to try to tilt the lever one way or the other.
In other incidents that we are aware of there is some suggestion of Taliban infiltration, other suggestions of rogue behaviour or personal enmity so far as an individual soldier is concerned.
In the aftermath of all of these events, we have asked ISAF International Security Assistance Force - now through General Allen, to again re-examine the vetting procedures. There is a very extensive vetting procedure. Of the 300,000-odd Afghan Security Force members, over 280,000, nearly 290,000, have been the subject of biometric identification procedures, so that's a significant step. But the vetting procedures, the identification procedures, need to be continually reviewed and exhaustively assessed, and that's our ongoing request of ISAF.
JOURNALIST: Do we know why the pursuit was terminated?
STEPHEN SMITH: He successfully eluded his pursuers. That's as much as I can tell you.
JOURNALIST: What was his last known [indistinct]?
STEPHEN SMITH: I don't know. I wouldn't be proposing to go into that detail. The advice I have from General Hurley, which is the advice he gave the media earlier today, was that he successfully evaded capture. There is no doubt in my mind that an extensive and exhaustive search will occur to seek to track him down. And that will be affected not just with Australian and ISAF cooperation, it will also be effected with ANA cooperation. As I say, Brigadier Khan is as shocked and concerned about these events as we are.
JOURNALIST: [Indistinct] the same soldiers now to trust ANA members. Isn't disarming those small group of Kandaks sending a mixed message?
STEPHEN SMITH: Well, that's a decision that Brigadier Khan took in the aftermath of the killing of Corporal Birt, Lance Corporal Gavin and Captain Duffy.
I think that was the correct thing to do, but he made that decision in consultation with Australian commanders on the ground. He's done a similar thing with respect to the 3rd Kandak which is - members of whom are in this particular patrol base.
But, over time, we need to do things which rebuild the confidence and rebuild the trust, and Brigadier Khan will be in very close consultation with our commanders to effect that.
JOURNALIST: Do you know the time [indistinct]?
STEPHEN SMITH: No, no.
All right? Okay, thank you. Thanks very much.