STEPHEN SMITH: This is my first visit to HMAS Stirling as Minister for Defence, and obviously I’m very pleased to come and visit officially Fleet Base West. Last week on my first day back in Western Australia as Defence Minister I visited Campbell Barracks, the SAS Regiment there. And at the first available opportunity, not this week but in the near future, I’ll also visit RAAF Pearce which, of course, is the most important RAAF base that we have in Western Australia.
Fleet Base West is, of course, very important to our operations. We have, we do, of course, have the Collins Class submarines based here and the Government has committed itself through the White Paper and subsequently to 12 submarines, to a doubling of our submarine fleet. And, of course, all of the strategic and procurement considerations for that will take place in the usual way.
We’ve committed ourselves to the construction of those 12 submarines in South Australia which, of course, has a fine history of quality production so far as submarines are concerned. But those procurement, strategic and operational decisions will be made in due course.
Can I make some remarks about Afghanistan, and then I’m happy to respond to your questions. Can I firstly make the point that today will be a very tragic reminder to the Mackinney family of the very recent loss and funeral of Lance Corporal Jared Mackinney. And so the publicity that we’ve seen today will be a terrible and tragic reminder to the family. So our hearts go out to them today, as they do on occasions like this to the families of all those that we’ve lost in Afghanistan.
You would have seen that General Evans earlier today made extensive remarks about operational matters. I’m certainly not proposing either today or in the future as Minister for Defence to be commenting about operational matters, which are quite correctly and rightly matters for Defence and military personnel.
In the usual way, there will, of course, be a formal Defence investigation into Lance Corporal Mackinney’s death, and people should allow and await that in the usual way. That occurs as part of regular procedures following a tragic death in the heat of conflict.
I’ve also seen today comments made about either our force protection arrangements in Afghanistan or the number of personnel we have in Afghanistan. Let me underline firstly the nature of our operation and mission and objective in Afghanistan, it is to train the Afghan National Army in Uruzgan so that the Afghan National Army can make its contribution to the security arrangements in Uruzgan Province.
The strategic objective of the International Security Assistance Force, President Obama’s strategic objective, General Petraeus’s strategic objective, is to transition security arrangements to the Afghan Security Forces, in particular the Afghan National Army. And over the weekend we saw some very good evidence of improvement in that respect, where for the first time the Afghan National Security Forces managing and planning security arrangements for the parliamentary elections.
And while, of course, as I said yesterday, we will need to take some time to make a complete and conclusive analysis about the effectiveness of the parliamentary elections. And whilst in the meantime there will, of course, be investigations by the Afghan Election Commission and the Afghan Election Complaints Commission, from a security point of view it was the first occasion we saw Afghan Security Forces take responsibility for parliamentary or presidential election security arrangements. So people need to understand our mission is one of training the Afghan National Army and effecting a transition to that.
So far as personnel are concerned, the consistent advice of the CDF, of the Chief of the Defence Force, has been that the number of personnel that we have in Uruzgan Province is appropriate and sufficient for that purpose. We, as you would recall, some 18 months ago, increased our number of troops in Afghanistan, in Uruzgan Province from 1100 to about 1550, and we underlined and made clear at the time that the purpose of that contribution was for training and mentoring.
Secondly, so far as force protection is concerned, because I’ve seen some comments about force protection today as well. When my predecessor Senator Faulkner became Minister for Defence he effected, in conjunction with the CDF, with the Chief of the Defence Force, a review of the force protection measures in Afghanistan. It was a comprehensive review. There are a range of recommendations, some of which have been implemented, some of which are in the process of being implemented. And that was obviously a very sensible thing for my predecessor to do.
In the normal course of events and as a matter of standard operating procedure, the force protection issues are continually reviewed and there’s no better example perhaps than the way in which we continue to review force protection measures so far as the IEDs are concerned. This, of course, has become a very significant issue both in terms of casualties and wounding so far as Australian personnel are concerned. So the force protection measures are continually reviewed.
But on the basis of the advice that my predecessor had, on the basis of the advice that I have, in terms of personnel and in terms of force protection, these are appropriate for the circumstances of our objective and our mission in Afghanistan. But in terms of force protection, these matters remain continually under review.
Let me conclude with this remark. It is very easy for people to seek to make these assessments or judgements either from a desk in Canberra or a desk in Sydney. Matters which go to tactical measures, matters which go to operational measures in the end have to be dealt with by people on the ground, and that is way this Government, as has previous Governments, consistently relied upon the military, technical and operational advice that we receive. And that continues to be the case so far as the Chief of the Defence Force is concerned. I’m happy to respond to questions.
QUESTION: It’s not just people behind desks who are making these criticisms. This original email reported upon today is from a soldier, someone on the ground who feels as though the support that’s needed isn’t being given.
STEPHEN SMITH: And one thing which has always occurred, on the advice that I have, and one thing which will certainly occur in this case, is that the views of soldiers on the ground have always been taken into account so far as force protection measures in Afghanistan is concerned.
I have, of course, obviously spoken to the Chief of the Defence Force today and he has indicated to me that he ensures that the views of soldiers on the ground are taken into account in these matters. The email which has been circulated and reported upon will obviously also form part of the considerations which go to the investigation, which will occur by Defence into the tragic death of Lance Corporal Mackinney.
So these suggestions, these matters will all be considered in the course of the formal Defence investigation.
QUESTION: It’s a very serious concern though and it is going to raise alarm throughout the public, isn’t it?
STEPHEN SMITH: Force protection of our troops in the field is a very serious matter. That is why my predecessor very sensibly, when he came to office, asked for a comprehensive review and the results of that review implemented, and those matters are continually under consideration by the Chief of the Defence Force.
As you know, we have indicated we want to have a parliamentary debate on Afghanistan. And so it is appropriate for these matters to be aired publicly.
If I could make a general point as well. There are some people who say that our contribution to Afghanistan is too large; that we shouldn’t be there in the numbers we are, or there at all. There are other people who say that our contribution is not sufficient enough; is too small, and should be complemented either by additional personnel or by additional equipment.
I make this point, that our objective, our mission, our strategic objective in Afghanistan is to provide training and mentoring to the Afghan National Army to enable the Afghan security services to attend to security matters themselves, to prevent Afghanistan again becoming a breeding ground or a haven for international terrorists.
QUESTION: It does seem though, that the situation in Afghanistan is getting worse, because originally Australian soldiers were [indistinct], with any mortalities, whereas now there are more and more [indistinct]. And aren’t you concerned that the public’s [indistinct] for the Australia’s presence in this war is going to wane?
STEPHEN SMITH: A number of issues there. Firstly, we’ve now suffered 21 casualties. Very many of those, nearly half of those have come in recent weeks and months and that is a tragedy. And, of course, the Chief of the Defence Force and the Government is looking at why that has occurred. And the last National Security Committee meeting of the first Gillard Government formally decided, as a National Security Committee of the Cabinet, that an assessment of where we were should be done and provided to the incoming Government, whether that was the second Gillard Government, or a Tony Abbott Government. And so that ongoing review is continuing. That’s the first point.
Secondly, we believe that it is appropriate that these matters are publicly discussed, and that will be a very good feature of the parliamentary debate. And all of these issues, I’m sure, will be canvassed by any number of Members of Parliament in that context.
But I’d underline this point, our strategic objective in Afghanistan is to provide the Afghan National Army with training so that they, themselves, can take responsibility for security matters. And we are seeking to transition to that. That is the strategic objective of the International Security Assistance Force, and the strategic objective of President Obama and General Petraeus.
That is not a strategic objective that can be met simply by military contribution alone. It’s quite clear that that also requires a civilian capacity building contribution and, at some point in the cycle, a political rapprochement or settlement. And the government, I in the past, the Defence Minister in the past, the Prime Minister in the past have also made those points clear.
QUESTION: Is this a first on the ground report linking an Australian death with under resourcing?
STEPHEN SMITH: I have, in the past, seen suggestions that I’ve seen today. Firstly, suggestions about operational matters, secondly suggestions about force protection issues and personnel issues. And as I say, there are some people who are arguing today that there should be a greater personnel contribution from Australia. There are other people who equally argue that we should have no contribution, or a much smaller contribution. On the operational issues, it is entirely appropriate for Defence to conduct this formal investigation as it always does. And in due course, that also will be made public.
General Evans, the Chief of Joint Operations, today has made extensive remarks about some of the details of that operation. And people should listen very carefully and closely to what General Evans has said.
Secondly, on issues of force protection, they are constantly under review. And so far as personnel numbers are concerned, we are the largest non-NATO contributor to Afghanistan in the International Security Assistance Force, in the ISAF forces, the largest non-NATO contributor.
And in the last couple of years we have increased our contribution from 1100 to 1550. The advice that we have from the Chief of the Defence Force, the advice which my predecessor had, was that that contribution is sufficient to achieve, and appropriate to achieve our objective.
QUESTION: Will there be any repercussions [indistinct]?
STEPHEN SMITH: [Indistinct] matter that has come into the public domain. As I say, that will cause distress for the family concerned. That will cause deep distress for Lance Corporal Mackinney’s wife and his family and our hearts go out to them today. But the issues that are raised in the email will be considered in the course of Defence’s investigation of this matter. That’s as it should be.
And the issues that generally have been raised today, I’m sure, will be the subject of contribution and discussion and debate in the course of the parliamentary debate. For myself, this is the first occasion which as Defence Minister these issues have been raised with me publicly. And I again return to some, what I regard as, central and important points.
I’m not proposing to second guess on operational matters. We need to see the exhaustive assessment by Defence. And that will become public in the usual way in due course. In the meantime, people should listen to and read very carefully General Evans’s remarks earlier today.
Secondly, we continually review the force protection measures. And the advice we have from the Chief of the Defence Force is that those force protection measures are appropriate, and the personnel that we have in Afghanistan is appropriate and sufficient for the purposes of achieving our objective in Uruzgan Province.
QUESTION: Of course that email will cause distress. But isn’t it better for a soldier on the ground to voice his concerns, to get it actually debated, rather than not?
STEPHEN SMITH: I’m not in any way critical of the fact that the email has become public, critical of the fact that there’s public discussion about it today.
Of course, the mere mention of Afghanistan will cause distress to those families and those loved ones who have lost people in the Afghanistan conflict over the last decade. But it is very important that we have a sensible and considered consideration of these issues. People should not, in my view, seek to second guess operational matters. That could only be done on the ground. And Defence will do, in the usual way, an exhaustive assessment and investigation of that.
On the framework points, what is our strategic objective in Afghanistan? The Government is absolutely committed to achieving our strategic objective, which is training the Afghan National Army, and the Afghan Security Forces in Uruzgan Province so that a transition can be made to the Afghan authorities, so that they can take care of security matters to ensure that Afghanistan does not again become a hot bed or a training ground or a breeding ground for international terrorism.
Your earlier question about the attitude of the Australian public, the Australian public will strongly support the deployment of Australian forces overseas if they believe that it is in our national interest.
And the Government’s very strong view, shared by the Opposition, is that it is in our national interest to seek to stare down international terrorism. Australians have regrettably been on the receiving end of the adverse consequences of international terrorism, whether that has been in New York, whether it has been in London, whether it has been in Jakarta or Bali.
QUESTION: I would say a large proportion of people, though, would say that this is a war we can’t win anyway.
STEPHEN SMITH: We believe on the advice that we have, it’s also the same advice that General Petraeus is giving to President Obama, it’s also the same advice which is going to International Security Assistance Forces, that our objective in Afghanistan has to be to transition to the Afghan Police Force, the Afghan Security Services and Forces taking responsibility for security matters in Afghanistan.
We are making progress on that front, but that is our objective. That objective is shared by the United Nations-mandated International Security Assistance Force. And I’ve said today, and I’ve said in the past, that cannot be done just by military enforcement action alone. It also requires political action, it also requires civilian and governmental capacity building which, of course, Australia is also making a contribution to.
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