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Transcript of interview with Leigh Sales, 7.30: 5 March 2013: Afghanistan

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Minister for Defence - Interview with Leigh Sales, 7.30

5 March 2013



DATE: 5 March 2013

TOPIC: Afghanistan.

LEIGH SALES: A short time ago, the Defence Minister Stephen Smith joined me in the studio.

Stephen Smith, thanks for coming in.


LEIGH SALES: In this situation in Afghanistan, how were the two boys killed?

STEPHEN SMITH: Well we want to await the investigation that the Australian Defence Force is

doing through General Hurley, the Chief of the Defence Force, and also await the investigation by

the International Security Assistance Force, but it’s clear that an operation conducted in Uruzgan

Province with both Australian Defence Force and ISAF personnel went tragically and terribly

wrong, but I don’t want to be drawn on any of the details or suggested circumstances until that

review has been done and we’ve seen the final reports and the final conclusions.

LEIGH SALES: You can’t give us the basic facts like were there shots fired on the ground? There’s

been some reporting that it was from a helicopter.

STEPHEN SMITH: Well, in general terms, Australians were engaged effectively on a patrol, Special

Forces. They called in aerial assistance. The aerial enablers or helicopter assistance in

Afghanistan, of course, are International Security Assistance Force or ISAF, more often than not

US personnel, they are in Uruzgan. And as a result of those general circumstances, the tragedy

unfolded where two young boys were killed. And we do everything we can to avoid civilian

casualties and whenever the suggestion, let alone the reality occurs, they’re exhaustively

investigated to make sure that we fully understand all of the circumstances. Other than saying

what General Hurley has said publicly, what Commander of ISAF has said publicly, General

Dunford and what I’ve said publicly, I don’t want to be drawn on speculation about the detail.

We’ve accepted responsibility, both the ADF and ISAF, we’ve apologised, we’ve conveyed that to

Afghan officials at the highest level and to the family and it’s now a matter of awaiting the

exhaustive investigation.

LEIGH SALES: On the families you’ve said that they’ll be compensated. How much?

STEPHEN SMITH: Well more likely than not. It’s part of Afghan culture that when a terrible

incident or accident like this occurs, unintended consequences, it’s part of Afghan culture that

there is a form of compensation.

LEIGH SALES: And how much will it be?

STEPHEN SMITH: Well, we have what’s called now a tactical payments system that was given

statutory or legislative effect back in 2009. Generally, and you need to examine the facts and

circumstances of each case, but generally, given Afghanistan’s circumstances and economy, we’re

talking in the hundreds rather than in the thousands. But it’s invariably the case that in these

circumstances compensation is given and I’m expecting that will occur in this case, either through

ISAF or the ADF or both, but that’ll depend upon the precise circumstances and discussions with

the family.

LEIGH SALES: There might be people listening to this interview who would think - recoil a little bit

at the figure hundreds rather than thousands for a child’s life.

STEPHEN SMITH: Well, you can’t put a price on a child’s life and these payments are effected not

because it’s part of our culture or our regime or approach, if you like, it’s because it’s part of

Afghan culture. And I think one of the reasons that we have managed to have the response that

we’ve had from Afghan authorities, both from Kabul and in Afghanistan itself, is that we have very

quickly accepted responsibility, very quickly made an apology both to the families and to Afghan

officials, again at the highest level, both in the province itself and in Kabul, but also, as a general

proposition, Australia is very well regarded for the way in which it deals with people in Uruzgan

Province and the compensation payment seem is well known to Afghan officials.

LEIGH SALES: Well does this incident create any new dangers for the Australian forces in that

region because presumably it would be something that’s very, very upsetting for locals.

STEPHEN SMITH: No, the Governor of the province has made it clear that he regards this as a

deeply regrettable, inadvertent incident, so I think the facts and circumstances are known. There

was no intention here. These were terrible and tragic unintended consequences. And as I say,

every time I go to Afghanistan and I sit down with the local leaders, they always tell me how well

they regard the Australian soldiers, how well they regard the Australians as dealing with and

treating with the Uruzgan population and that holds us in good stead in addition to our very strict

approach to rules of engagement and doing everything we can to avoid civilian casualties or

fatalities in the course of combat and operations.

LEIGH SALES: A UN body in Afghanistan reported last month that last year in 2012, 2,700

civilians were killed in the war in Afghanistan. That seems like a pretty high number. Do you think

that there is any work that needs to be done on the rules of engagement or anything that can be

done to bring that figure down? We are in a war theatre after all.

STEPHEN SMITH: Well that’s right and the fog of war is one of the reasons why we don’t rush to

judgement or rush to comment about the detail and the circumstances. But the report that you

referred to, the United Nations Assistance Mission in Afghanistan, the report by Jan Kubis, the

senior civil rep, indicates for the first time in a half a dozen years the number of civilian casualties

and fatalities has decreased and for the first time there is a singular call for the Taliban to stop

engaging civilians and stop using civilians for combat purposes. There’s been a big effort by not

just Australia, but a big effort by the International Security Assistance Force to minimise the

civilian involvement.

In our own case, so far as our rules of engagement are concerned, we’re very confident of those,

we’re very confident of our approaches and our traditions, but every time something like this

occurs, we do the exhaustive investigations. If there’s anything to learn from those lessons, we

learn them and incorporate them. But we are confident with our rules of engagement. We need,

as part of this investigation, to make sure that they have been followed, but whatever lessons we

learn will obviously be incorporated for the future.

LEIGH SALES: Stephen Smith, thank you for your time.

STEPHEN SMITH: Thanks, Leigh. Thanks very much.