Australia — Stephen Smith on Afghanistan and Taliban

Min­is­ter for Defence Stephen Smith — Inter­view with David Speers, PM Agen­da, Sky News
DAVID SPEERS: To the break­ing news this after­noon, that Spe­cial Forces in Afghanistan have found and shot dead the Afghan Nation­al Army Sol­dier, Shafied Ullah — believed to be respon­si­ble for killing Australia’s Lance Cor­po­ral Andrew Jones in the Cho­ra Val­ley last month.
This death shocked the nation and shocked Defence forces. They, of course, have been there work­ing along­side ANA sol­diers train­ing and men­tor­ing them in the Uruz­gan province.
Now with the death of Shafied Ullah, what do we know about his moti­va­tion, and what con­fi­dence do Aus­tralian forces have in con­tin­u­ing to work along­side there ANA coun­ter­parts?
Well join­ing me now is the Defence Min­is­ter, Stephen Smith. Min­is­ter, thanks for you time. What more can you tell us about the death of Shafied Ullah?

STEPHEN SMITH: Well it was a coali­tion Spe­cial Forces oper­a­tion, pri­mar­i­ly Unit­ed States part­nered with the Afghan Nation­al Army. 

There was some Aus­tralian involve­ment, but-

DAVID SPEERS: What was that?

STEPHEN SMITH: Well I’m not propos­ing to go into the detail of that. Since, he mur­dered Lance Cor­po­ral Jones; he has essen­tial­ly been tracked from Uruz­gan to his home province and dis­trict; Khow­st province, the Lang­hari village. 

DAVID SPEERS: When you say tracked, intel­li­gence knew where he was through­out the journey?

STEPHEN SMITH: Well, as the release from the Chief of the Defence Force and the Defence Depart­ment this after­noon makes clear, intel­li­gence was an aid in track­ing him down. I nev­er go into intel­li­gence for the obvi­ous rea­son, but suf­fice to say, he was con­front­ed by a Spe­cial Forces oper­a­tion. He had a gun and was a direct threat to that Spe­cial Forces oper­a­tion, as a con­se­quence, was killed. 

Now, in some respects, it’s unfor­tu­nate that he was­n’t able to be cap­tured because we then would be in a bet­ter posi­tion to ascer­tain his moti­va­tion for his bru­tal mur­der of Lance Cor­po­ral Jones.

DAVID SPEERS: Well, first­ly, how sure are you that he was the guy?

STEPHEN SMITH: Well, we are pro­ceed­ing absolute­ly on the basis — con­clu­sive­ly on the basis that Shafied Ullah was the Afghan Nation­al Army rogue sol­dier who shot Lance Cor­po­ral Andrew Jones. We had bio­met­ric iden­ti­fi­ca­tion evi­dence of him. It’s been con­firmed pos­i­tive­ly to the Chief of the Defence Force and to me that it is Shafied Ullah. His broth­er was also detained, so he is cur­rent­ly in deten­tion and he will also be ques­tioned as to whether he can throw any light onto Shafied Ullah’s motivation.

DAVID SPEERS: Well, ques­tioned by Aus­tralians as well, as-?

STEPHEN SMITH: Well he — cur­rent­ly he’s being detained by Unit­ed States forces. Obvi­ous­ly, the Unit­ed States forces know the back­ground to this mat­ter indeed, when I met with Gen­er­al Petraeus in Brus­sels recent­ly. It was one of the mat­ters we spoke about, so they will obvi­ous­ly ques­tion him.

DAVID SPEERS: And will Aus­tralians get access to him as well?

STEPHEN SMITH: Well com­mon sense would tell you that we would want to have access to him, but-

DAVID SPEERS: And, is there any­thing that’s come from him, so far that does tell us about the motivation?

STEPHEN SMITH: Not that I’m in a posi­tion to dis­close at this stage.

In terms of the detail of the oper­a­tion, time will tell whether the Chief of the Defence Force is able to pro­vide more detail we want­ed on the pos­i­tive iden­ti­fi­ca­tion and the pos­i­tive con­fir­ma­tion this after­noon to do two things; first­ly to let the Jones fam­i­ly know and whilst in some respects this may well be some form of clo­sure or solace, it will be a ter­ri­ble reminder. 

And sec­ond­ly, hav­ing told the Jones fam­i­ly because of the nature of the ter­ri­ble and trag­ic mur­der of Lance Cor­po­ral Jones, to tell the Aus­tralian public-

DAVID SPEERS: Absolute­ly.

STEPHEN SMITH: ‑of the outcome.

DAVID SPEERS: The fact that he was tracked and then found, pre­sum­ably with his broth­er and no oth­ers, does that indi­cate that he was­n’t part of the Tal­iban. But if he was part of the Tal­iban, he would have been pro­tect­ed bet­ter than he was.

STEPHEN SMITH: Well first­ly, from the moment that he fled the for­ward oper­at­ing base — the Afghan Nation­al Army in Uruz­gan and gen­er­al­ly have been very keen to cap­ture him at the high­est lev­els. They were shocked and appalled — as we were — that this ter­ri­ble, ter­ri­ble event occurred.

But that’s the first point. Sec­ond­ly, that effort, togeth­er with the intel­li­gence that I’ve gen­er­al­ly referred to enabled the Spe­cial Forces oper­a­tion to con­front him. He had a gun and was a direct threat to the Spe­cial Forces oper­a­tion. As a con­se­quence, he was killed.

DAVID SPEERS: But, do you think if he was a part of the Taliban-


DAVID SPEERS: -he would — he would have been bet­ter pro­tect­ed? He would have been bet­ter hidden?

STEPHEN SMITH: Well two things. First­ly, the inquiry into the rea­sons behind, or the cause of Lance Cor­po­ral Jones’ death is ongo­ing, albeit, now with­out the prime wit­ness, if you like.

My instinct has always been that this was a rogue sol­der act­ing on his own. But, an instinct does not a con­clu­sion bring. But what leads me to that con­clu­sion is that a few days after the trag­ic mur­der Andrew Jones, the Tal­iban claimed it. Well, they would say that, would­n’t they? They would do that, would­n’t they? My instinct, and it remains an instinct, is what­ev­er per­son­al moti­va­tion or cause there was, it was per­son­al and gen­er­al to Shafied Ullah-

DAVID SPEERS: It’s not the-

STEPHEN SMITH: ‑not a Tal­iban claim.

DAVID SPEERS: This is the first time an ANA sol­dier has killed an Aus­tralian, but oth­er coali­tion forces — I think there have been 20 this year, rough­ly who have been killed by Afghan secu­ri­ty forces. Has there been a review under­tak­en, or is it still ongo­ing into the bet­ting pro­ce­dure for recruit­ing ANA personnel?

STEPHEN SMITH: Well you might recall the day that the new Chief of the Defence Force was announced, the cur­rent Vice Chief of the Defence Force, Gen­er­al Hur­ley. He indi­cat­ed that we were doing a due dili­gence of that. And that’s ongoing. 

But there are very stren­u­ous vet­ting pro­ce­dures and process­es. I think we — whilst this has been a ter­ri­ble inci­dent for us and it rever­ber­at­ed through Army and through the Aus­tralian com­mu­ni­ty, we’re cur­rent­ly train­ing in Uruz­gan Province 3500 Afghan Nation­al Army fourth brigade mem­bers. The Afghan Nation­al Secu­ri­ty Forces now num­ber near­ly 300,000. So whilst this has been the first ter­ri­ble such inci­dent for us, there have been a small num­ber for oth­er Inter­na­tion­al Secu­ri­ty Assis­tance Force coun­tries, but in the con­text they are a small number. 

But because it’s an Afghan Nation­al Army sol­dier or offi­cer killing or wound­ing Inter­na­tion­al Secu­ri­ty Assis­tance Force sol­diers, then it has a, you know, a mag­ni­fy­ing effect. But- DAVID SPEERS: Talk­ing about the Tal­iban, Afghan Pres­i­dent Hamid Karzai has now said that peace nego­ti­a­tions have begun with the Tal­iban and your US coun­ter­part, Robert Gates, has con­firmed there have been very pre­lim­i­nary con­tacts with the Tal­iban over recent weeks. Do you sup­port nego­ti­at­ing with the Taliban? 

STEPHEN SMITH: Well absolute­ly. I mean Aus­tralia has made the point for a long peri­od of time, two or three years, that we would nev­er achieve our mis­sion in Afghanistan by a mil­i­tary solu­tion or strat­e­gy alone. We also had to have a polit­i­cal strat­e­gy. And a cou­ple of weeks ago when I was in Brus­sels, speak­ing includ­ing with US Defence Sec­re­tary Gates, I made the point from Brus­sels — and when I returned — that part of the con­se­quence of effect­ing an improved secu­ri­ty posi­tion in Afghanistan, not just Uruz­gan but Afghanistan gen­er­al­ly, was that at some point the Tal­iban would come to the con­clu­sion that they could not win mil­i­tar­i­ly. And as a con­se­quence might sue for peace. 

Now, so we’ve been strong sup­port­ers of the rein­te­gra­tion efforts, the rec­on­cil­i­a­tion efforts, and the polit­i­cal rap­proche­ment efforts. But I very strong­ly agree with what Gates said overnight, you need to look at it care­ful­ly. Very-

DAVID SPEERS: So this could end up with some Tal­iban involve­ment in the Afghan Government. 

STEPHEN SMITH: Very pre­lim­i­nary out­reach is how Gates described it, and I think that’s right. 

DAVID SPEERS: But would be com­fort­able with some Tal­iban involve­ment, inclu­sion in the Afghan Government? 

STEPHEN SMITH: Well we’ve — 18 months to two years ago there was a very major con­fer­ence in Lon­don on Afghanistan and the theme was rec­on­cil­i­a­tion and polit­i­cal set­tle­ment and we made the point at that con­fer­ence that you would have peo­ple, mem­bers of the Tal­iban who were not ide­o­logues, who were not hard-core inter­na­tion­al ter­ror­ists, who would want to see a bet­ter oppor­tu­ni­ty for them and their fam­i­lies whereas-

DAVID SPEERS: But they are mem­bers of the Tal­iban and the argu­ment for 10 years has been that we can’t let the Tal­iban back into pow­er; that these are the guys who gave shel­ter to Al Qaeda. 

STEPHEN SMITH: Well there is in our view a dif­fer­ence between hard-core ter­ror­ists, who won’t abide by the Afghan con­sti­tu­tion, won’t lay down their guns, will con­tin­ue to run with Al Qae­da and oth­er ter­ror­ist net­works and those peo­ple who for what­ev­er rea­son came to the con­clu­sion the only way that they could carve out a eco­nom­ic and social role for them­selves was by run­ning with the Tal­iban, and we’ve seen both in Uruz­gan and gen­er­al­ly small scale but nonethe­less emerg­ing rein­te­gra­tion efforts where Tal­iban sol­diers — or sup­port­ers — have said we’re pre­pared to lay down our arms. 

We’re pre­pared to abide by the Afghan constitution. 

DAVID SPEERS: But they’re leav­ing the Taliban. 

STEPHEN SMITH: We’re pre­pared — that’s right. 

DAVID SPEERS: We’re talk­ing here about nego­ti­at­ing with the Tal­iban, with active mem­bers of the Tal­iban who aren’t about to leave the Taliban-

STEPHEN SMITH: Well — and I’ve said in the past and Bob Gates has said in the past and US Sec­re­tary of State Hillary Clin­ton said in a major speech in Jan­u­ary or Feb­ru­ary of this year that if you have mem­bers of the Tal­iban who are pre­pared to abide by the Afghan con­sti­tu­tion, pre­pared to lay down their arms, pre­pared to work with­in the demo­c­ra­t­ic forums, then there’s no rea­son why they should not be excluded. 

DAVID SPEERS: Can you under­stand Aus­tralian sol­diers feel­ing a lit­tle con­flict­ed about this? The Tal­iban has killed 27 of our sol­diers over there, wound­ed many more, we’re fight­ing against them every day, and now there’s talk about sit­ting down and negotiating. 

STEPHEN SMITH: Well there’s nev­er been a counter-insur­gency effort which in the end or in the event has not been set­tled in some man­ner or form by a polit­i­cal outcome. 

Our mis­sion in Afghanistan which is to hand over respon­si­bil­i­ty of secu­ri­ty to the Afghan Nation­al Secu­ri­ty Forces, to stop Afghanistan and the Afghanistan Pak­istan bor­der area becom­ing a breed­ing ground for inter­na­tion­al ter­ror­ism again, that won’t be achieved by a mil­i­tary effort alone, it will be achieved by a mil­i­tary effort which brings secu­ri­ty; by a polit­i­cal set­tle­ment which sees the Afghan peo­ple gov­ern in a man­ner which pre­vents secu­ri­ty breaches-

DAVID SPEERS: So there will have to be some Tal­iban involve­ment in the gov­ern­ment that we leave in Afghanistan? 

STEPHEN SMITH: But only those mem­bers of the Tal­iban who eschew vio­lence, who lay down their arms and who are hap­py to abide by the Afghan con­sti­tu­tion. Those hard-core ide­o­logues, who run with Al Qae­da or who run with oth­er ter­ror­ist net­works, who don’t believe in democ­ra­cy, who believe that points of view should be affect­ed by the bar­rel of a gun; they will not have a role. 

DAVID SPEERS: Okay. So they can lay down their guns and abide by the con­sti­tu­tion, but pre­sum­ably they won’t be sup­port­ive of the sort of free­doms for women that we would want. 

STEPHEN SMITH: Well time will tell. We have seen in the course of our time in Afghanistan from a very low base the num­ber of women in employ­ment, the num­ber of girls going to school sub­stan­tial­ly increased. 

DAVID SPEERS: But that’s not with the Tal­iban involved. 

STEPHEN SMITH: No, absolute­ly. But the adher­ence to the Afghan con­sti­tu­tion, the adher­ence to demo­c­ra­t­ic val­ues and virtues car­ries with it those notions. DAVID SPEERS: So that’s a must. 

STEPHEN SMITH: Aus­tralia has made that clear. 

DAVID SPEERS: A final ques­tion if I can just back on a domes­tic mat­ter. This week of course is the anniver­sary of Julia Gillard replac­ing Kevin Rudd as Prime Min­is­ter. A year on has the change been worthwhile? 

STEPHEN SMITH: Well the Gov­ern­ment was re-elect­ed, albeit as a minor­i­ty gov­ern­ment, but we were re-elect­ed and the next elec­tion will be I sus­pect in the third or fourth quar­ter of 2013. We’ve got some very sig­nif­i­cant chal­lenges. No-one — no mem­ber of the Gov­ern­ment is walk­ing away from that. We’ve got some- DAVID SPEERS: But has the change in lead­er­ship been worthwhile? 

STEPHEN SMITH: Well it’s where I start­ed. We won the elec­tion. We-

DAVID SPEERS: You don’t think you would have with Kevin?

STEPHEN SMITH: Well I said on the night of the elec­tion that with­out the change I don’t believe that we would have been in a posi­tion to form a Gov­ern­ment. DAVID SPEERS: Okay.

STEPHEN SMITH: But we — there’s a lot of water to go under the bridge between now and Sep­tem­ber or Octo­ber or Novem­ber of 2013. We’ve got some very seri­ous chal­lenges; we’re work­ing our way through those. But they’re chal­lenges not just for the Labor Par­ty or the Labor Gov­ern­ment; they’re chal­lenges for the nation. And we’re con­fronting them. 

DAVID SPEERS: You did­n’t par­tic­u­lar­ly want to hand over the For­eign Affairs role to Kevin Rudd. You did so for the good of the par­ty and the good of the Gov­ern­ment. Is he doing a good job in For­eign Affairs and is he being a team player? 

STEPHEN SMITH: Absolute­ly. No, no. He’s doing a very good job. He and I work very closely. 

DAVID SPEERS: So crit­ics of Kevin Rudd should back off? 

STEPHEN SMITH: Well the only peo­ple in pub­lic life who are nev­er crit­i­cised are those peo­ple who do noth­ing and Kevin Rudd is not a per­son who does noth­ing. I’m not a per­son who does noth­ing and the Labor Gov­ern­ment is not an insti­tu­tion that does nothing. 

So any num­ber of com­men­ta­tors will be crit­i­cal of all of us. That’s because we’re actu­al­ly doing things. The only peo­ple in pub­lic life who aren’t crit­i­cised are peo­ple who do noth­ing and Kevin’s not one of those. 

DAVID SPEERS: All right, Defence Min­is­ter Stephen Smith, thank you. 

STEPHEN SMITH: Thank you. Thanks very much. 

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

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