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Transcript of interview with Lyndal Curtis: ABC 24: 11 September 2012: Combined Team Uruzgan leadership, Chinooks, Fairfax reporting

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Minister for Defence - Interview with Lyndal Curtis, ABC 24

11 September 2012




TOPICS: Combined Team Uruzgan leadership, Chinooks, Fairfax reporting

LYNDAL CURTIS: Stephen Smith, welcome to News 24.

STEPHEN SMITH: A pleasure.

LYNDAL CURTIS: The transition to Australian led security in the Uruzgan province is scheduled for later this year- do we know exactly when it will happen?

STEPHEN SMITH: Well we’ve agreed to take over the leadership of Combined Team Uruzgan, that’s had an American leadership for some time. We agreed with the International Security Assistance Force, with ISAF, and the United States earlier this year, that we would take the leadership. We’d been looking at November but we’ve done all the training together with the United States and we think we’ll take over now in October. So it’s imminent.

LYNDAL CURTIS: Will that mean the US forces that have been leading the team will pull out?

STEPHEN SMITH: The headquarters staff will essentially no longer be required, there’ll still be a US presence but as a result of us taking the headquarters role, the leadership role there’ll be no ongoing need for US headquarters personnel.

LYNDAL CURTIS: Will that have an impact on the number of Australian troops needed in Uruzgan?

STEPHEN SMITH: No, we’ve been able to do it within our existing arrangements, so we have on average 1550 people in Uruzgan - in Afghanistan, the bulk in Uruzgan, but we’ve been able to do it within that current complement of personnel.

LYNDAL CURTIS: And will this be a step towards the eventual transition out of Afghanistan, or is it just simply change in the leadership of Combined Team Uruzgan?

STEPHEN SMITH: Well it’s a change in the leadership in Uruzgan, we’ve taken on that leadership responsibility, we believed it was a sensible thing to do as we moved to transition which started formally in July. It gives us, if you like, a more seamless management approach. General Hurley, the Chief of the Defence Force and I suggested it to John Allen, Commander of ISAF, at one of our meetings in Brussels and we agreed it was a sensible thing to do, and we announced that after the Chicago Summit. We’re responsible for transition so we might as well take the formal leadership of ISAF in Uruzgan.

LYNDAL CURTIS: If I could go now to stories in Fairfax press yesterday and today, saying that the inquiry into the death of Lieutenant Marcus Case last year in a helicopter accident, saying they’ve heard there are problems with the flight control systems of what’s called the D-Model Chinook helicopter that have been corrected in the next model, but those problems in the D-Model have come up three times since Marcus Case was killed- is that true?

STEPHEN SMITH: Well, there are a number of aspects of the Chinook that have been raised, and I’ll deal with them in order. Firstly, we’ve seen the suggestion that the two gunners, the left and right gunners, sit on eskies and, as a consequence, aren’t safe. The Chinook is geared up to transport personnel, but when you’re in a war environment, a combat environment, there are also two side gunners. They’re safely and securely strapped and harnessed, they stand at the gun or they kneel at the gun, and from time to time when they rest, they sit on a secured esky which contains food and water for the crew. So the suggestion that that is somehow a result of budget cuts, or an unsafe practice, is just wrong.

LYNDAL CURTIS: Although the reports say the next model, which was supposed to come into service but has been delayed, has better seating.

STEPHEN SMITH: It may well have better seating for the passengers, but the Chief of the Defence Force, who has just come out of Afghanistan relayed a message to me that he flew in a Chinook F version, courtesy of United States Army, and the gunners were sitting on eskies. So this is pretty much common practice. When you’re manning the guns you do one of two things, you stand or you kneel when you’re at the gun. If you don’t

need to stand or kneel, and you need a rest but want to stay handy at the gun, Australians and United States personnel sit on the esky which is in the middle of the helicopter-

LYNDAL CURTIS: Is there a problem with the Chinook’s flight control system?

STEPHEN SMITH: So far as the D version is concerned - so we’ve got the current D version which is being overtaken by a newer F version. The Chinook D, the older variety, is the workhorse of Afghanistan. Dozens of Chinook Ds are in Afghanistan doing the heavy lift work. In the Marcus Case example, that is the subject of a formal commission of inquiry. And yes, some of the early evidence which has gone to that Commission of Inquiry is that there did seem to be difficulties with some of the flight controls. The advice I have from the Chief of the Defence Force is that we’ve taken all the necessary precautions that we believe are possible to manage that potential danger into the future. But that’ll be the subject of the exhaustive investigation of the Commission of Inquiry. But we have dozens of Chinook Ds in operation, not just by us but by others, in Afghanistan. We’re simply not able to move directly to the newer version because that would mean, effectively, no Chinooks in Afghanistan.

LYNDAL CURTIS: And also today, the Fairfax papers are reporting that an Australian and an Afghan raid searching for the rogue Afghan soldier who killed three Australians, shot two men in the head and ripped the hair from another woman’s head while they were searching for insurgents. There are questions raised about whether the men shot were insurgents. Has - will this incident be investigated? Do you know if there’s any truth to these claims?

STEPHEN SMITH: Well, a week and a day ago at a full press conference, I said that invariably when there are deaths occurring - and any death is regrettable - and where there are suggestions or allegations about those deaths, they’re the subject of a so-called quick assessment, and then if necessary or required or desirable, subject to a formal Inquiry Officer’s Report. Now, the Acting Chief of the Defence Force, the Vice-Chief, has advised me today that he’s now received the quick assessment. The quick assessment confirms a number of things. It says that this was a properly authorised, partnered operation between Afghan and Australian forces, that it was as a result of intelligence or evidence received with respect to people facilitating Hek Matullah’s escape- who murdered the three Australians in that terrible incident.

The quick assessment comes to the conclusion that the two deaths which occurred in accordance with Australian rules of engagement, and the two deceased were insurgents or Taliban. Now, that’s the quick assessment. It’s the view of the Chief of the Defence Force and the Vice-Chief of the Defence Force, that because of the other allegations that have been made, it is appropriate that this be the subject of an Inquiry Officer’s Report, and that will be effected. And the other allegations which have been made, which variously go to detaining other people, to the treatment of bodies and the treatment of individuals, they will also be part of that inquiry. Now-

LYNDAL CURTIS: And will that inquiry be made public?

STEPHEN SMITH: Well, the substance and the outcome will be made public, as I do on a regular basis, as you would know, given my parliamentary reports. There are a couple of things. Firstly, whenever allegations are made about attacks upon civilians or improper or inappropriate treatment, they are investigated, and on a regular basis I give reports to the Parliament about the outcomes of those investigations. This should be, in my view, the starting point. It’s also the case that the Australian Defence Force and its personnel have a very highly regarded international reputation for the way in which they deal with these matters, complying with sensible rules of engagement, taking very great care in the management of detainees, and particularly taking very great care to avoid involving civilians in warlike operations.

Whenever allegations are made, they are investigated. That’s what I said a week and a day ago, and that is what will occur. I’m not proposing to go through all of the allegations that have been made or retold in the Fairfax papers today, but there are a couple of things which I will say. The advice I have is that, for example, no Australian Defence personnel entered a mosque, that no military dogs were involved in the operation concerned, and the suggestions of ages of the two deceased were on the one hand 70 and the other 20 is not reflected by ISAF’s reporting, which is on the public record, which is ages of 50 to 30.

So there are different versions of the facts. But to make sure that we have a very clear understanding of all the facts, it’ll be the subject of an Inquiry Officer’s report. But the quick assessment has confirmed the advice I had from the Chief of the Defence Force over a week - over a week ago, and what I relayed to the Australian public. This was an operation which was a joint operation between Australian and Afghan

forces; it was properly authorised. There were two deaths- that is clearly regrettable, but those deaths occurred in accordance with Australian rules of engagement, which are at a very high standard, and the two deceased were Taliban or insurgents.