Minister for Defence - Transcript - Interview with Alison Carabine, ABC Breakfast (Radio National)

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Senator the Hon David Johnston

Minister for Defence

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1 September 2014

Topic: Australian Involvement in Iraq

CARABINE:

David Johnston, welcome to Breakfast.

JOHNSTON:

Thanks Alison.

CARABINE:

Minister if we could first look at logistics, when will the airlift begin?

JOHNSTON:

Well we’ve already done two humanitarian drops – one over the weekend and one about a week ago – and so we’re part of a fairly large team.

Our C-130 – the Squadron that did the first drop – I was with them last Friday up at Richmond. We have very good and capable skills in getting vital stores and supplies to precise landing zones on the ground and that’s what we’re involved in at the moment.

CARABINE:

But with regards to the airlift of arms and ammunition, can we expect the first airlift to occur within the next couple of days? Is this operation imminent?

JOHNSTON:

These operations are planned, we’ll slot into whatever the United States and the other countries that are involved – the Brits, France, Germany etcetera – we’ll slot in to fulfil some part of the heavy lift should that be required.

Now obviously we would not want to see what would be a humanitarian disaster if the forces that are defending towns like Erbil were to fall for want of ammunition, so our task is to provide that failsafe so that they can defend themselves at the very least and fight off these ISIL terrorists.

CARABINE:

There are reports today that SAS forces will be on board the flights to protect the crews, can you confirm that?

JOHNSTON:

I certainly cannot, I would never confirm what is happening with Special Forces. To the best of my knowledge that’s not happening and we won’t discuss what Special Forces are doing were they to be involved into the future.

CARABINE:

But the munitions won’t be airdropped, instead the planes will land in or near Erbil where the weapons will then be handed over to the Peshmerga forces. That will be inherently dangerous, won’t there need to be some force protection for the RAAF personnel who are being sent in?

JOHNSTON:

Well, look we do full and complete risk assessments with our friends and allies, you can be assured that we will take every single precaution to make sure that our people are as safe as they possibility can be. This is always going to be dangerous, this is always going to be difficult but this is the lot of the Australian Defence Force, this is what they do and I have got to tell you I am their biggest admirer.

CARABINE:

And a dangerous mission as you readily concede, how long will this mission take? How many flights in and out of northern Iraq might be necessary?

JOHNSTON:

Well of course that will depend on how successful we are and how quickly we can get the logistics, as you say, up and running and start to deliver these vital supplies. I think it’s a little bit premature to anticipate how this is going to play out, we’ll let everybody know once the job has been done.

CARABINE:

And what is the assessment of the Kurdish forces and their ability to take ISIL on? Might it be necessary to continue the air strikes against ISIL positions and could that mean – and do you expect it to mean – the deployment of Hornet fighter jets?

JOHNSTON:

We’re not going to get into anything like that yet because, as you have been able to hear and see, President Obama is still at a very, very early stage. Leadership is coming from the United States, also from the Brits and from France, Germany, Italy and the EU and we also have the Gulf states to consider, so we are at some considerable distance from consideration of that nature. At the moment we are entirely focussed on the safety of our people as they deliver vital supplies into places, as you have mentioned, like Erbil.

CARABINE:

Minister the Kurdistan Workers Party, or PKK, is also fighting the Islamic State, but the PKK is considered to be a terrorist group and is banned in many countries including Australia.
Aren’t you now arming a prescribed terrorist organisation?

JOHNSTON:

I don’t believe we are, the people we are arming are the people who have put up the best fight and have had the most success against ISIL, I am not aware of us doing anything of the sort. We are providing weapons to the Kurdish forces that are defending the Kurdish towns in and around Erbil.

CARABINE:

But how do you make sure that these weapons don’t fall into the hands of the PKK and are then used for terrorist purposes?

JOHNSTON:

It’s a very difficult thing, I am simply focussed on making sure there’s no humanitarian disasters such as there would be if Erbil, Amerli and a whole host other towns were to fall to ISIL. We have seen mass executions and all of this sort of stuff and the only force that has been able to put up any reasonable resistance to these people appears to be the Kurds, we’ve all agreed on that and accordingly the Kurds need to be supported and supplied. Ultimately the weapons are Eastern Bloc weapons, so they’re Russian with Russian ammunition, etcetera. The situation clearly is, given what has gone before in terms of what has happened to innocent civilians at the hands of ISIL, any force that can put up any resistance to them needs to be supported.

CARABINE:

But ISIL is also operating in Syria, is there any prospect of working with President Bashar al-Assad to take on Islamic State in his country?

JOHNSTON:

We’ll have to see how that plays out and Australia-

CARABINE:

So you can’t rule that out?

JOHNSTON:

You know that I don’t rule in or rule out anything because I don’t have a crystal ball, but what we do is consult with our allies, and obviously, the United States is at the forefront of martialling all of the necessary alliance forces here. We’ll see how that plays out, but at the moment we are entirely focussed on Iraq and protecting those people on the eastern side of Iraq, particularly the Kurdish towns.

CARABINE:

Minister just finally, earlier on the programme we heard from the international law expert Don Rothwell who told us that the Government has not spelled out the legal basis for the intervention, did this invitation to get involved come from Iraq or the United States?

JOHNSTON:

We can’t go forward until we have the consent and permission of the Iraqi Government to firstly overfly their territory and secondly participate in providing this humanitarian and other relief to the Kurdish towns on the eastern side of Iraq. We’re looking to dot the i’s and cross the t’s very, very appropriately and properly before we start any of these operations. We have been in consultation with the Iraqi government, we have the consent of the Iraqis to participate in what we’re doing now and so I’m very happy and confident that everything that needs to be done has been done appropriately, properly and lawfully.

CARABINE:

But that Government is just an interim Government, last week you told Lateline that “There won’t be a stable government in Baghdad until September 10th at the earliest, a more inclusive government should be established before we start talking to them about military assistance”, that’s what you said last week, have we jumped the gun here?

JOHNSTON:

No we certainly haven’t because all we’re doing is providing logistical support, the other side of the coin is full military operations which we’re not doing and, as you’ve seen with the Americans, President Obama is taking his time, which I think is very sensible, to make sure that the new Prime Minister al-Abadi has a chance to settle in and to be – as we’ve all wanted – a little more inclusive so that we can go forward confidently having clear direction from Baghdad.

CARABINE:

Minister thanks so much for your time this morning.

JOHNSTON:

Thank you, Alison.

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