Australia — Stephen Smith on Afghan National Army and International Security Assistance Force

Min­is­ter for Defence — Inter­view with Fran Kel­ly, ABC Radio Nation­al
TOPICS: Loss of Lance Cor­po­ral Andrew Jones and Lieu­tenant Mar­cus Case; Afghan Nation­al Army and Inter­na­tion­al Secu­ri­ty Assis­tance Force.
FRAN KELLY: Stephen Smith is the Min­is­ter for Defence; he joins us in our Par­lia­ment House stu­dio, Min­is­ter, good morn­ing. STEPHEN SMITH: Good morn­ing, Fran.
FRAN KELLY: What’s the lat­est on the search for the man who shot dead Lance Cor­po­ral Andrew Jones?
STEPHEN SMITH: Well, the most recent advice I have from the Chief of the Defence Force ear­li­er this morn­ing is that no progress has been made in terms of cap­tur­ing or round­ing up the Afghan Nation­al Army mem­ber who com­mit­ted the atroc­i­ty yes­ter­day.

I do have a slight vari­a­tion on the facts, in terms of the shoot­ing and this is not unusu­al, and one of the rea­sons why the Chief of the Defence Force and I always say we need to be very care­ful, and await the exhaus­tive inves­ti­ga­tion.

But, in terms of the cir­cum­stances of the shoot­ing, it now appears to be the case that we had two Afghan Nation­al Army sol­diers in the watch­tow­er, our sol­dier was walk­ing down­stairs, one of the Afghan Nation­al Army sol­diers came down from the watch­tow­er, leav­ing the rogue Afghan Nation­al Army sol­dier in the watch­tow­er, he shot our sol­dier on four sep­a­rate occa­sions, and then fled.

So that’s a slight vari­a­tion on the facts, which the Chief of the Defence Force has giv­en me this morn­ing, but in terms of moti­va­tion of the Afghan Nation­al Army sol­dier, we are in exact­ly the same posi­tion as we were yes­ter­day.

FRAN KELLY: Okay, so the inves­ti­ga­tion con­tin­ues, but I mean moti­va­tion as you say is the issue, whether there was some sug­ges­tion the pair had argued, but is there lit­tle doubt real­ly, in the minds of our com­man­ders there, and your mind, that this Afghan sol­dier was what they might call a rogue sol­dier, or a Tal­iban insur­gent?

STEPHEN SMITH: Well, a rogue sol­dier yes, that’s the descrip­tion that the Chief of the Defence Force used yes­ter­day, and one that I’m hap­py to adopt, but in terms of an infil­tra­tor, our start­ing point is that this sol­dier was sub­ject to all of the usu­al bio­met­ric iden­ti­fi­ca­tion tests, so we don’t believe we’re deal­ing with an impos­tor, or an infil­tra­tor.

Now we don’t know whether there’s been a dis­pute or dis­agree­ment between the two, or what the moti­va­tion is, and so I think that’s best left for the inves­ti­ga­tion to effect. But what we do know-

FRAN KELLY: But what about the behav­iour of the sec­ond Afghan sol­dier, did he then race back up the watch­tow­er, and try and stop-

STEPHEN SMITH: Well he just — yes, yes, he raced up the watch­tow­er, and then fired at the flee­ing sol­dier, but I think, you know, always whilst we’re deal­ing here with what I described yes­ter­day as the very dif­fi­cult cir­cum­stances of this fatal­i­ty, I think it’s just worth remem­ber­ing that whilst this has come as a shock to the sys­tem, we’re cur­rent­ly train­ing in Uruz­gan Province, about 3500 Afghan Nation­al Army mem­bers.

The Afghan Nation­al Secu­ri­ty Force through­out Afghanistan is near­ly 300,000, so in our case, whilst this has been an iso­lat­ed inci­dent, it is a shock to the sys­tem, and we’ve seen a hand­ful of these in recent times.

But in the after­math, we’re now deal­ing with that, our sol­diers on the ground are being very pro­fes­sion­al about it and it won’t allow us to devi­ate from our course, which is to put the Afghan Nation­al Army and the Afghan Nation­al Police in the posi­tion of tak­ing respon­si­bil­i­ty for secu­ri­ty mat­ters in Uruz­gan Province, by the end of 2014.

FRAN KELLY: Nev­er­the­less, as you say a shock to the sys­tem. This sol­dier, Shafied Ullah, the one who opened fire, how long has he been train­ing with the Aus­tralian sol­diers?

STEPHEN SMITH: Well I don’t have the pre­cise time, but he would have been train­ing for a num­ber of months at least, but again, I don’t want to go into that detail, because I think we’ve just got to take this calm­ly, step by step, and allow the exhaus­tive inves­tiga­tive process to pro­ceed. We don’t know what the moti­va­tion is and it is best left on that basis, for present.

What we do know is when this type of inci­dent occurs, it is a shock to the sys­tem, it does in some respects take the wind out of our sails, yes­ter­day was a very bad day for two Aus­tralian fam­i­lies, a very bad day for Army, a very bad day for Defence and the nation, but in the clear-sight­ed view of the fol­low­ing day, we don’t in any way hes­i­tate that the course we have set is right. We now believe we’ve got in place, not just in Uruz­gan, but in Afghanistan, the mil­i­tary and the polit­i­cal strat­e­gy to effect the tran­si­tion to Afghan respon­si­bil­i­ty by the timetable that Pres­i­dent Karzai and the inter­na­tion­al com­mu­ni­ty have set.

FRAN KELLY: Nev­er­the­less, I mean it must do dread­ful things to the trust between the Aus­tralian forces and the Afghan sol­diers they’re men­tor­ing and train­ing, what process is in place to try and vet the sol­diers, because this is not a one-off, it’s hap­pened with oth­er forces, US forces have been shot dead by Afghan sol­diers, as have some British forces, as have some Dutch forces, what vet­ting goes on to try and screen who comes in?

STEPHEN SMITH: Well, it’s a one-off for us; that’s the first point.

FRAN KELLY: Sure.

STEPHEN SMITH: Sec­ond­ly, there are, as I say, very care­ful bio­met­ric and iden­ti­fi­ca­tion process­es which are gone through by the Afghan Nation­al Army and by the Inter­na­tion­al Secu­ri­ty Assis­tance Force before Afghans get into the ANA. And whilst it has occurred in the past for us, it is an iso­lat­ed inci­dent.

Now there is no point deny­ing and every point vol­un­teer­ing just what Angus Hous­ton and I, and the Prime Min­is­ter did yes­ter­day, that this will be a shock to the sys­tem. It’s one thing to suf­fer a casu­al­ty or a fatal­i­ty in the heat of con­flict; it’s anoth­er thing when this type of inci­dent occurs.

So in terms of the trust, as I say, we are as we speak, train­ing 3500 mem­bers of the 4th Brigade in Uruz­gan Province. That is going very well, we’ve been very pleased with the progress, and impor­tant­ly, the con­dem­na­tion of what has occurred, has come not just from us, but it’s come from Brigadier Gen­er­al Kahn, the Com­man­der of the 4th Brigade in Uruz­gan Province and I’m ful­ly expect­ing that when I see the Afghan Defence Min­is­ter, Gen­er­al War­dak in the next week or so, that he will share that view.

FRAN KELLY: Well, anoth­er Aus­tralian sol­dier lost his life too, Lieu­tenant Mar­cus Case, when the Chi­nook heli­copter he was in crashed, do we know why the Chi­nook crashed?

STEPHEN SMITH: No, we don’t, and that as well will be the sub­ject of an exhaus­tive inves­ti­ga­tion. The Chi­nook itself was effec­tive­ly destroyed, so there may be some dif­fi­cul­ty in get­ting access to tech­ni­cal detail, but the five sur­vivors are in a sat­is­fac­to­ry con­di­tion and obvi­ous­ly part of the process will be get­ting their accounts. But again, with any avi­a­tion inci­dent, we’ve got to do that care­ful­ly, I think what we do know now, which is — puts us in a bet­ter posi­tion than yes­ter­day, is that we’re now pro­ceed­ing on the basis that ene­my fire was not involved.

So again we’ve got to fol­low that process through very care­ful­ly, both in terms of the indi­vid­ual inci­dent in the Chi­nook, and what con­se­quences, if any, that has for the future. FRAN KELLY: Min­is­ter, you say these deaths and the cir­cum­stances of them won’t change our com­mit­ment to this mis­sion, but let’s look at the mis­sion more broad­ly. The Tal­iban say they’re defend­ing Afghanistan from for­eign occu­piers, now Pres­i­dent Karzai says NATO could be char­ac­terised that way, as an occu­py­ing force, if deaths of civil­ians con­tin­ue in this bat­tle. If we get to the stage where both our ene­my and our ally con­sid­er us a for­eign occu­pi­er, is it time to come home?

STEPHEN SMITH: Well, I don’t want to be in any way crit­i­cal of Pres­i­dent Karzai in respect of civil­ian casu­al­ties, he has been, as you would expect, the leader of a gov­ern­ment in a coun­try which is war-torn, he has been very, very crit­i­cal of any inci­dents where there are civil­ian casu­al­ties, so far as Aus­tralia is con­cerned, we pride our­selves on doing every­thing we can to avoid civil­ian casu­al­ties in the heat of con­flict, and from time-

FRAN KELLY: Do we believe NATO is doing enough to do that?

STEPHEN SMITH: Absolute­ly, both NATO and ISAF very strong­ly share that view. Any civil­ian casu­al­ty in the heat of bat­tle is a ter­ri­ble tragedy, and it has adverse impli­ca­tions, not just for the home coun­try, but it pro­vides pro­pa­gan­da mate­r­i­al to the insur­gency.

Pres­i­dent Karzai has been in the past very strong­ly crit­i­cal of civil­ian casu­al­ties, that is his right, but I’ve nev­er — I’ve nev­er gone the next step as some com­men­ta­tors and oth­er peo­ple have, to draw the con­clu­sion that that would cause Pres­i­dent Karzai to do any­thing oth­er than to remain com­mit­ted to the tran­si­tion process.

FRAN KELLY: Just final­ly and briefly, on that tran­si­tion process, we now have Lieu­tenant Gen­er­al Buck­nall, the deputy head of NATO’s Afghan mis­sion, say­ing allied forces must remain unchanged for two years, to con­sol­i­date the gains made over the last 12 months, and yet we have Britain pulling out 450 troops by the end of this year, we have Pres­i­dent Oba­ma con­sid­er­ing with­draw­ing as many as 10,000 mil­i­tary per­son­nel this year, should the draw-down stop?

STEPHEN SMITH: Well first­ly, so far as the British are con­cerned, they’re draw­ing down near­ly 500 from a com­mit­ment of 10,000, so they will sta­bilise at 9500, they’ve made that clear.

Sec­ond­ly, Pres­i­dent Oba­ma has always said that post the surge, he would look to the mid­dle of this year for a draw-down, we don’t have the details of that, and I’ve said in the past I think includ­ing on your show, we should just calm­ly wait until the Amer­i­cans indi­cate that draw-down.

We have received assur­ances from the Unit­ed States that there’ll be no adverse impli­ca­tions for the force, and our forces in Uruz­gan, but we’ve also made it clear that we see our own con­tri­bu­tion con­tin­u­ing, 1550, doing the train­ing and men­tor­ing task, and we see that con­tin­u­ing until we’ve done our job, which is the tran­si­tion to Uruz­gan — the tran­si­tion to Afghan-led respon­si­bil­i­ty in 2014. But as cir­cum­stances change, then you are enabled to real­lo­cate resources, and give some of your troops dif­fer­ent roles, and dif­fer­ent respon­si­bil­i­ties, includ­ing niche train­ing and spe­cial­ist train­ing.

So it is impor­tant that the inter­na­tion­al com­mu­ni­ty, through the Inter­na­tion­al Secu­ri­ty Assis­tance Force, retains its com­mit­ment, but I again say that we believe we have made progress, but we have always steeled our­selves for this fight­ing sea­son, and in the last few weeks we’ve seen three ter­ri­ble fatal­i­ties in our own case and we have to steel our­selves for more into the future.

FRAN KELLY: Min­is­ter, thank you very much for join­ing us.

STEPHEN SMITH: Thanks, Fran. Thanks very much.

FRAN KELLY: Defence Min­is­ter Stephen Smith

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

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