Stephen Smith MP
Minister for Defence
TOPICS: Australian soldier killed in Afghanistan; United States Stryker Battalion rotation in Uruzgan Province; Special Operations video footage
STEPHEN SMITH: Well, thank you very much for turning up. You'd of course be aware of the terrible news overnight from Uruzgan Province in Afghanistan, announced this morning by the Chief of the Defence Force, Angus Houston. The terrible news overnight is another terrible blow to our nation, and another tragedy for an Australian family.
On behalf of the Government can I express my condolences to the family of Jamie Larcombe. He's survived by his mother and father, by three younger sisters and by his partner. He was 21 years of age. He'd been in the Army for three years. This was his first tour to Afghanistan. He'd previously served in Operation Padang Assist rendering disaster relief and humanitarian assistance to Indonesia.
So his tragic loss today will be a terrible reminder to those 22 other families who have lost loved ones in Afghanistan. In particular the family of Corporal Richard Atkinson, who was killed in Afghanistan a couple of weeks ago and buried last week in Launceston. Tragically these two soldiers come from the same combat engineer regiment, and both, of course, come from the Mentoring Task Force - Two.
As I've said on such terrible and sad occasions before, Sapper Larcombe died pursuing his country's national interests. And as we pursue our national interest in Afghanistan, seeking to stare down international terrorism, we have to steel ourselves for further fatalities and further casualties.
In the course of this incident you'll be aware that, terribly, an Afghan national rendering translation assistance to Australian forces was also killed, and our condolences go to his family. He will of course be buried shortly, in accordance with the local custom in Uruzgan Province.
This will be a terrible time, a terribly difficult time for the Larcombe family, and the Defence Force, the Army, and the members of the Combat Engineering Regiment will give the family every support and every assistance. And the heartfelt thoughts of Australians - of our nation - will be with them over this difficult time.
It will also of course be a very difficult time for members of the Combat Engineer Regiment, their second tragic loss in the space of the same number of weeks, and our thoughts are also with them, other members of the Army, and our Defence Force personnel at this time.
I'm pleased to respond to your questions.
STEPHEN SMITH: Afghanistan has always been difficult and dangerous. We've been in Afghanistan, from the beginning of our first entrance to Afghanistan, for nearly a decade. We've seen 23 terrible fatal casualties over that time. In the course of the 12 months, effectively from June-July 2009 to 2010 we saw nearly half of those fatalities. We've had three fatalities since September of last year, and terribly we've had two in recent weeks. The work that we do in Afghanistan has been and continues to be difficult and dangerous, and we have to steel ourselves for the potential into the future of further casualties and further fatalities.
QUESTION: There were reports earlier this week that the Americans were drawing down the number of troops [inaudible]. Are you concerned that they’re drawing down [inaudible]?
STEPHEN SMITH: No, absolutely not. This is a rotation where the so-called United States Stryker Battalion will be replaced by the 4th Battalion of the United States 70th Armour Regiment. The key point here, I think, is two-fold: firstly, this rotation has been effected in very close consultation with Australian Defence Force personnel, both on the ground in Uruzgan Province and also in Canberra. Indeed, I know it's been the subject of very close conversation between the Chief of the Defence Force, Angus Houston, and also Colonel Creighton, who heads up Combined Team Uruzgan.
The second key point to understand is that members of the Stryker Battalion have been used not just in Uruzgan Province, but also in Kandahar, and the replacement, the 4th Battalion of the 70th Armour Regimen, will be wholly contained and wholly used within Uruzgan.
So the advice I have, and I'm very satisfied with that advice, indeed, I've had conversations with Colonel Creighton about this matter myself, is that we are very happy with the changed arrangements. They continue to provide for us all of the resources and all of the combat enablers that we need to do our job, our difficult and dangerous job, in Uruzgan Province.
QUESTION: You would have also seen reports yesterday of Australian troops in action, how they’re going about effecting their work [inaudible]. Do you think Australians are largely ignorant of how the troops are operating in Afghanistan [inaudible]?
STEPHEN SMITH: A number of points there. Firstly, in terms of the footage that was released yesterday, in different circumstances I might make more extensive remarks. I'll make some brief remarks.
Firstly, that material, which was released, was not authorised for release by the Australian Defence Force. From time to time, indeed, on a regular basis, images or footage is released, but it is carefully vetted prior to release to ensure that no danger occurs to our current operational arrangements. That didn't, regrettably, occur in this instance, in the footage that you are referring to.
I'm also advised that the commentary, which is not Australian Defence Force commentary but a journalist's commentary, contains a number of errors of fact. So I think we need to be very careful about leaping to conclusions about these matters.
More generally, the Defence Force and the Government under my predecessors Minister Faulkner and Minister Fitzgibbon have endeavoured to be as transparent as we can about our engagement in Afghanistan, always bearing in mind that there is a limit to what we can put in the public domain as a result of the need for operational security.
Further and finally, I think, given the modern-day communications and media world, there is much more information in the public domain about our involvement in Afghanistan, about the International Security Assistance Force’s involvement in Afghanistan, and in that context I think that the Parliamentary debate that we had towards the end of last year was a very useful debate to engage in, and I think very informative and educative for the Australian people.
QUESTION: So why do you think the Australian public is willing to put up with a continuing death toll [inaudible]?
STEPHEN SMITH: A couple of points. I think every time there is the tragic death of an Australian soldier in Afghanistan that that reverberates very greatly through the Australian community, and causes the Australian community to ponder why we are making this effort. And my response to that is as it has always been, which is, we are working in what we very strongly believe is Australia's national interests, our national security interests, and the interests of the international community, to seek to stare down international terrorism. And we're doing that not just by ourselves in Afghanistan, and we are doing it not just with the United States, we are doing it with 48 other international partners under a United Nations mandate that has been renewed unanimously on a regular basis, and most recently a matter of months ago.
But when there is a tragedy for an individual family, when there is a tragedy for the Army, when there is a tragedy for the Defence Force, the entire nation feels it, and the entire nation, I think, stops to ask the very question that you have asked. And I think that the Parliamentary debate was a very helpful, informative device in drawing out into the public arena, better than it had in the past, some of the important attributes of our engagement in Afghanistan - that it is the subject of a United Nations mandate, that we're not there by ourselves or only with the United States, and it is very important to stare down international terrorism.
Regrettably the time that Australians most appreciate that is when we are on the receiving end of terrible international terrorist atrocities, which we've seen on too regular a basis - not just in Indonesia, but also in Europe and in the United States.
QUESTION: On the footage released yesterday, there were reports [inaudible]. Do you think it as leaked deliberately?
STEPHEN SMITH: In different circumstances I might engage or respond on that, but I try to make a point when dealing with terrible announcements - as we are this morning - to restrict myself to matters directly relevant to the death of an Australian soldier. I simply repeat what I said earlier. That footage was unauthorised footage. I'm advised that the commentary contains a range of errors, and it wasn't subject to the usual, important security vetting by the Defence Force.
QUESTION: Are you concerned that there were instances [inaudible]?
STEPHEN SMITH: This is not the time, nor the place for me to go into those details.
QUESTION: Can you give details about the Regiment Sapper Larcombe was involved in – the numbers, where they’re based?
STEPHEN SMITH: It's the 1st Combat Engineer Regiment. They're based in Darwin. Its members make up part of the Mentoring Task Force - Two, and a number of those members from the 1st Combat Engineer Regiment, like Sapper Larcombe, and like Corporal Atkinson, are on their first tour to Afghanistan. So this will reverberate very significantly through the regiment, and the families of Regiment members in Darwin and throughout Australia.
STEPHEN SMITH: Again, this will be the subject, as the Chief of the Defence Force has indicated this morning, of a quick assessment, but then also, as is the case with every tragic death of an Australian soldier in the line of battle, the subject of an exhaustive inquiry. I've made a point of not speculating about any of these matters in advance of that official process, but the Chief of the Defence Force has given the essential detail, or the essential account of the incident.
A patrol south of Patrol Base Wali in Uruzgan Province, in the Mirabad Valley, a mounted patrol which had become stationary, and while stationary engaged with insurgents, which resulted in the tragic loss of Sapper Larcombe and an Afghan interpreter. I'm not proposing to go into any further detail until we have the official report, which is, as a matter of course, made public in due course.
QUESTION: Have you spoken to Sapper Larcombe’s family?
STEPHEN SMITH: I haven't yet, but in due course, if that's the family's wish, then of course I will, as I have recently with the family of Corporal Atkinson.
QUESTION: These events obviously affect the Australian public’s position. Do they affect your position as well?
STEPHEN SMITH: They don't in any way lessen my resolve for Australia to continue to conduct itself in a manner which is in our national interest, and our national security interest, which is to continue to take part in an international security assistance force in Afghanistan.
Despite individual tragedies from time to time, we believe we are on track to complete our mission in Uruzgan, which is to put the Afghan Security Forces in a position to take lead responsibility for security matters. We believe we're on track over the next one to three years to effect that, and that's of course consistent with the international transition aspiration, or timetable, which is 2014 to effect a handover to the Afghan Security Forces, both the Afghan National Army and the Afghan National Police.
That transition will of course occur at a different time in different places, province by province, indeed, district by district. And the forthcoming NATO and ISAF Defence Ministers' Meeting in Brussels in March will deal with the start of those transitional arrangements.
Thanks very much.
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