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Transcript of joint press conference: Alice Springs: 7 June 2011: Afghanistan

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Subjects: Afghanistan

PM: The last fortnight has been one of tremendous sorrow for our nation. Last Friday we mourned and we all, I think, followed the funeral of Brett Wood. I attended that funeral, a family grieving a lost man, and yesterday we brought home to Australia both Andrew Jones and Marcus Case, two soldiers who'd lost their lives in Afghanistan.

Now we have more bad news to deal with so it's with a great sense of sadness that I offer my condolences to the family of a young man whose life has been lost in Afghanistan. Our loving thoughts are with them. They would be going through a tremendously difficult time today having heard this news.

The young man we lost was a 23-year-old soldier. He was participating in a partnered Afghan National Police and Special Operations Task Group mission when he was shot by insurgents.

He was a brave man and he was doing important work. In this operation they had discovered a major weapons store, weapons that would have been used, could have been used, to take the lives of other Australian soldiers.

So this very brave 23-year-old young man wasn't just fighting for our nation, he was fighting for the safety of his mates.

At this time, his family has asked that further details not be released and I'm sure everyone will respect their need for privacy at this very difficult moment but our thoughts are well and truly with his family as they try to come to terms with this dreadful news.

The Chief of the Defence Force has described this young man as a superb young man and a dedicated and professional soldier. We've lost a fine person and, as Prime Minister, I offer the nation's condolences.

This has been a hard time for Australia, these two weeks, one of our hardest in Afghanistan. Our resolve is being tested the way the resolve of our coalition partners has been tested on other occasions and I can't promise that there will be no more hard days. I can't promise that.

As we enter the fighting season in Afghanistan we have to prepare ourselves for the possibility of more hard days to come but I can promise you this:

Afghanistan is not an endless war and it is not a war without a purpose. We are crystal clear on our mission and we have a defined time frame for our strategy. We are making progress towards our goal of an Afghanistan that will never again be a safe haven for terrorists.

As the Chief of the Defence Force has said earlier today, our soldiers on the ground believe they are winning. Progress is being made and this year we will see the first areas of Afghanistan begin to transition to Afghan-led security and in Oruzgan, the province where we work, we are on track to achieve this transition by 2014.

Now this progress is difficult but it's being made because of the courageous work of our soldiers in very difficult circumstances. Progress is being won because of their bravery and their service.

Our nation owes them a debt of thanks.

After the events of the last fortnight I want to say this to the Australian people: I know our resolve is being tested but it will not waver as we work to complete our mission in Afghanistan.

I turn now to the Acting Defence Minister for some comments and then we'll take questions on this matter. For broader issues associated with my visit to Alice Springs I'll be available later in the day.

MINISTER SNOWDON: Thank you Prime Minister.

Firstly I wish to express my deepest condolences to the family of this man who sacrificed his life for our great country.

I want to assure them that they will have the support of all Australians and the Australian Government and the Australian Defence Force's continued and ongoing support as they absorb this heartbreaking news and as they grieve.

I also ask all Australians to take a moment to think of the soldier's mates still serving in Afghanistan. They will be feeling his loss deeply.

As this brave young soldier has done, our people in the Australian Defence Force continue to do outstanding work in a very demanding and dangerous environment. They deserve our thanks and our highest praise.

JOURNALIST: Prime Minister you say our resolve has been tested, is public support for the war waning?

PM: Look I think our resolve is being tested. I use those words deliberately because I understand there would be many Australians who over the past two weeks have turned their eyes to the TV screen or listened to the radio or looked at the newspaper and seen there these soldiers' names, the soldiers we've lost, seen the death and seen the grieving that that's meant for Australian families, and that has probably meant many Australians have

asked themselves what are we doing there, why are we still there, should our soldiers be there? Which is why today as we absorb more very sad news, I do want to say to the nation we know why we're there, we are very clear about our mission and our mission is being accomplished. We are doing what we intended to do and we have a timeline for achieving our goal.

So for those who look at this news and feel perhaps a sense of despair or a sense of hopelessness, I do want to say to people this is not an endless war without a purpose. We are clear on the mission and progress is being made.

JOURNALIST: Do the number of deaths show that there needs to be a change in strategic approach in Afghanistan now?

PM: No, the strategy I believe is right and the strategy is clear. This is a fight against a determined and resilient insurgency and we unfortunately know, tragically know, that in Afghanistan when the fighting intensifies it is a very dangerous place and it is a very difficult fight.

But the fight has been breaking the momentum of the insurgency. That's why the soldiers who are there, the soldiers that you speak to, can tell you in great detail about the gains that they have made. That's why the Chief of the Defence Force has said today the soldiers on the ground believe we are winning. They can point to progress being made but it is a resilient

insurgency, this is a dangerous time in the fighting season for our soldiers which is why I can't say to people that I can guarantee that there won't be more days like this.

JOURNALIST: Prime Minister can you give any more details on the weapons that were found in Afghanistan?

PM: Look, I can give you the same details that the Chief of the Defence Force did. The big stock of weapons that the soldier who died, working in the partnered patrol, had identified included mines and ammunition and components that can be used to make roadside bombs. As many of you, I think, would be aware and the Australian people are very and tragically all too familiar with, we have lost a number of Australian lives in Afghanistan to improvised explosive devices so the kind of componentry that makes the building of those bombs possible was amongst this weapons store.

JOURNALIST: You talk about hard days to come, given it is the fighting season, do you think the country should brace themselves for more deaths?

PM: Well, I've always just tried to be as honest and frank with people as I can about this. It's a dangerous fight, it's a fight that is intense during the fighting season, when the weather permits the insurgency to try and regain and rebuild and so these are difficult and dangerous days in Afghanistan.

JOURNALIST: Has the mission changed at all? What do you put this surge in deaths down to? Has Australia taken on more responsibility in terms of the dangers?

PM: Our mission is defined and clear. It's the mission I spoke to the Australian people through the Australian Parliament about last year. So there's nothing that's changed in our mission definition or our strategic settings.

What, of course, does change in Afghanistan is that with the long cold winters fighting tends to subside and in the summer season fighting intensifies which is why we use the disturbing in itself term: fighting season.

We'll have to make this the last one we do.

JOURNALIST: What have you been told about the progress towards the handover to the Afghan security forces and where that's at at the moment?

PM: What I've been able to speak to the Australian people about before is still the case. We are on a strategy of transition. Transition is not going to be a moment in time, there's not going to be transition day for Afghanistan. What

there is going to be is place by place a transition to Afghan-led security. We are working to a timetable of transition in Oruzgan Province, where we work, by 2014. Of course some parts of Afghanistan will be able to transition during the course of this year.

Thank you.