Australia — Stephen Smith on Afghanistan and insurgents, Defence Security Authority, Brett Woods

TOPICS: Pass­ing of Sergeant Brett Woods; Afghanistan and insur­gents; Defence Secu­ri­ty Author­i­ty.
Min­is­ter for Defence — Inter­view with Lyn­dall Cur­tis, ABC 24
LYNDAL CURTIS: Stephen Smith, wel­come to News 24.
STEPHEN SMITH: My plea­sure.
LYNDAL CURTIS: Does the death of Brett Wood change the Government’s atti­tude to Afghanistan? You said the last time you were in this stu­dio that you were a bit more opti­mistic about the prospects, but Sergeant Wood’s death must [indis­tinct] that opti­mism some­what.

STEPHEN SMITH: Well any death is a ter­ri­ble tragedy for the fam­i­ly con­cerned and it’s a ter­ri­ble blow to the nation. So the wind is always tak­en out of your sails when a tragedy and a fatal­i­ty occurs.

But, as a gen­er­al propo­si­tion, we do believe we’ve made progress in the last 12 months; that we’ve con­sol­i­dat­ed some gains over the win­ter months. We’ve always known that we had to steal our­selves for the cur­rent north­ern sum­mer fight­ing sea­son and that fur­ther fatal­i­ties, fur­ther casu­al­ties were in prospect. And it’s deeply sad that it’s occurred so soon into the cur­rent fight­ing sea­son, but our resolve remains. We believe we’re on track to effect a tran­si­tion to Afghan-led secu­ri­ty respon­si­bil­i­ty in Uruz­gan Province by the end of 2014. And we are also — our own analy­sis is that applies equal­ly to Afghanistan gen­er­al­ly.

LYNDAL CURTIS: Two oth­er sol­diers were injured seri­ous­ly in the inci­dent which killed Sergeant Brett Woods, and three oth­er sol­diers were injured in anoth­er inci­dent. Do you have an update on their con­di­tion?

STEPHEN SMITH: Well first­ly, on the three who were injured in the sep­a­rate inci­dent, they are all sat­is­fac­to­ry. At no stage were any of their injuries at the seri­ous; or very seri­ous lev­el. I’m very pleased to be able to indi­cate that the lat­est advice I have this morn­ing is that the two who are seri­ous­ly injured are now in a sat­is­fac­to­ry con­di­tion. They’re both in an Inter­na­tion­al Secu­ri­ty Assis­tance Force med­ical facil­i­ty in Afghanistan, and so we’re now con­fi­dent that they will make a full recov­ery. That’s very good news, because they have var­i­ous­ly been list­ed as seri­ous­ly ill or very seri­ous­ly ill. So they’re now sat­is­fac­to­ry and sta­ble and that’s a very good thing for them and a great relief to their fam­i­lies and a great relief to us.

LYNDAL CURTIS: You say Aus­tralian troops — the forces are mak­ing ground in Afghanistan. There’s a report in the West Aus­tralian, which you may not have seen, that says Aus­tralian forces have killed around 1500 insur­gents in the last 12 months. Do you know if that fig­ure is fac­tu­al, if that’s the sort of scale of effort there’s been against the insur­gents?

STEPHEN SMITH: Well first­ly, I need to say I’m high­ly embar­rassed that I haven’t seen that report in my own news­pa­per, the West Aus­tralian, so you’ve got me — you’ve got me on a bad day in that respect.

I think it’s impor­tant to make this point, which the Prime Min­is­ter made yes­ter­day; we have suf­fered, now, 24 ter­ri­ble fatal­i­ties. In a quan­ti­ta­tive sense, or mea­sure, the Tal­iban casu­al­ties are much larg­er. I don’t think it actu­al­ly helps to do that sta­tis­ti­cal analy­sis. I’m not run­ning away from it. What is more impor­tant than a sta­tis­ti­cal analy­sis is capac­i­ty to hold ground in a secu­ri­ty sense and then to be able to trans­fer that to Afghan secu­ri­ty forces, in par­tic­u­lar the Afghan Police, to enable, if you like, more appro­pri­ate secu­ri­ty mech­a­nisms. When the Afghan Police are run­ning affairs you know that you’ve got a good lev­el of secu­ri­ty con­trol.

So my mea­sure of the progress we’re mak­ing in Uruz­gan Province is not the num­ber of insur­gents that we’ve killed, or cap­ture, or removed from the bat­tle­ground, it’s the way in which we have very sub­stan­tial­ly extend­ed our patrol bases and very sub­stan­tial­ly allowed the local Uruz­gan peo­ple to now con­duct them­selves gen­er­al­ly in a nor­mal way in areas that 12 months or two years ago we would have believed that that was impos­si­ble.

LYNDAL CURTIS: So it’s not only the gain­ing ground, but the hold­ing it and the trans­fer­ring of pow­er, that’s the-

STEPHEN SMITH: It’s-

LYNDAL CURTIS: -mea­sure of suc­cess.

STEPHEN SMITH: -it’s wrest­ing the ground from the Tal­iban. It’s hold­ing that ground. It’s trans­fer­ring respon­si­bil­i­ty to Afghan secu­ri­ty forces, both Afghan Nation­al Army and police. Hav­ing the con­fi­dence to know that when that trans­fer has occurred, that the ordi­nary peo­ple of Uruz­gan can go about their dai­ly lives with­out the ever present fear of attack by the Tal­iban.

Now again under­lin­ing the point that we have made it clear that the gains in the ground that we have made up is ten­u­ous. There will be a fight back. We do need to con­sol­i­date and, in addi­tion to Tal­iban efforts to recov­er that ground, there will also be the high pro­file sui­cide bomb­ing and pro­pa­gan­da-type attacks which we have seen a num­ber of in recent times.

LYNDAL CURTIS: Now there are a few things hap­pen­ing in oth­er areas of your port­fo­lio. Late­line report­ed that there have been ques­tions raised about secu­ri­ty checks on civil­ian and mil­i­tary per­son­nel work­ing in mil­i­tary bases, alleg­ing they had been fab­ri­cat­ed. There’s been an inquiry launched into that. Do you have any update?

STEPHEN SMITH: Yes, I’ve just in the last 24 hours or so received a pre­lim­i­nary report from not just the Sec­re­tary of my Depart­ment, by the Inspec­tor Gen­er­al of Defence and a num­ber of points it’s impor­tant to make. First­ly, as soon as these alle­ga­tions were raised on Late­line we took them very seri­ous­ly. I imme­di­ate­ly asked the Sec­re­tary of the Depart­ment to insti­tute an inves­ti­ga­tion led by the Inspec­tor Gen­er­al of Defence.

The pre­lim­i­nary advice is essen­tial­ly that we’re deal­ing here with secu­ri­ty clear­ances for Defence per­son­nel only. This was done by the Defence Secu­ri­ty Author­i­ty before we moved to a more gen­er­al Aus­tralian Gov­ern­ment vet­ting agency. So we’re deal­ing with secu­ri­ty clear­ances for defence per­son­nel first­ly.

Sec­ond­ly, we’re deal­ing here with the very first instance of crunch­ing data into com­put­ers, so the whistle­blow­ers or the per­sons con­cerned were data entry peo­ple. There are a range of lay­ers of scruti­ny and check­ing that these mate­ri­als — this mat­ter had to go through before a secu­ri­ty clear­ance could be grant­ed. So it was the start of the process, not the end of the process. Impor­tant­ly what our inves­ti­ga­tion has uncov­ered is that whilst we don’t believe there’s been a whole­sale secu­ri­ty breech, we do want to essen­tial­ly run down every secu­ri­ty clear­ance that was giv­en over this peri­od of time and that will be affect­ed.

It’s also — we’ve also — it’s also been drawn to atten­tion that the whistle­blow­ers con­cerned have pre­vi­ous­ly raised issues about work­place arrange­ments, harass­ment and the like, and that was inves­ti­gat­ed ear­li­er. It’s now clear that some of the sug­ges­tions made on Late­line were made in gen­er­al terms ear­li­er. They weren’t picked up by the Defence Secu­ri­ty Author­i­ty. They should have been picked up by the Defence Secu­ri­ty Author­i­ty and so there’s been an over­sight in that respect as well, which is regret­table.

What I’m cur­rent­ly doing is giv­ing con­sid­er­a­tion to whether the Inspec­tor Gen­er­al of Defence might need some fur­ther assis­tance as he effects a more com­plete inquiry into each of the indi­vid­ual secu­ri­ty clear­ances and the pos­si­bil­i­ty include either the cur­rent Inspec­tor Gen­er­al of Secu­ri­ty, or one of her pre­de­ces­sors, but I’m giv­ing some con­sid­er­a­tion to that now.

LYNDAL CURTIS: Stephen Smith, thank you very much for your time.

STEPHEN SMITH: Thank you. Thanks very much.

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

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