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-
STEPHEN SMITH: Well I-
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.
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