Australia — Doorstop interview by the Minister for Defence at Fleet Base West, Western Australia

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. 

Press release
Min­is­te­r­i­al Sup­port and Pub­lic Affairs,
Depart­ment of Defence,
Can­ber­ra, Australia 

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