Transcript of joint press conference, Canberra
FRI 31 AUGUST 2012
Prime Minister, Chief of the Defence Force
Canberra, Parliament House
Subject(s): Deaths of Australian soldiers in Afghanistan; Asylum seekers
I’m joined by the Chief of the Defence Force, General David Hurley.
Yesterday was a terrible day of loss for our nation. Today is a day of grief.
I know many Australians will be feeling the weight of this loss from yesterday. Still reeling from the shock. Still asking questions about what has happened here.
And then for five families this is a dreadfully bleak day as they struggle to come to terms with the loss of their loved one.
Last night I returned from the Cook Islands as a result of our losses in Afghanistan.
I've had the opportunity to bring the National Security Committee together this morning for a meeting and to be comprehensively briefed on the circumstances in Afghanistan and what has happened in relation to the loss of these Australians.
What we know from those briefings is we are in a position to confirm the identity of the perpetrator of the insider attack that took the lives of three Australians.
He is Sergeant Hek Matullah, a member of the Afghan National Army. He only recently arrived in Oruzgan Province where we work following training in Kandahar.
At this time, Australian, ISAF and Afghan forces remain in pursuit of him, in pursuit of the perpetrator. At this time too there are a series of investigations underway.
They include our own Australian investigation; the Afghan National Army security forces have also rapidly put together a joint Afghan-ISAF investigative team to conduct their own investigation into these events.
We have reviewed our force protection measures as a result of this incident.
And all Australian personnel, in cooperation with Afghan commanders, have adopted enhanced force protection measures including additional security at this time.
These events from yesterday are grave and truly shocking.
I am going to turn now to the Chief of the Defence Force for a more detailed update, and then we'll take questions on this matter.
GENERAL HURLEY: Thank you Prime Minister. Let me begin by extending my condolences to the families of the five soldiers who were killed in Afghanistan yesterday.
We all feel their loss deeply and our thoughts and prayers are with each member's family and friends during this extremely difficult period.
I'm also thinking of the soldiers who are wounded and we wish them a speedy recovery and we'll continue to support them and their families.
At this time I'm in a position to release the details of two of the soldiers who have been killed in these incidents.
With regard to the insider attack, the families of these men are not yet ready to release the names and other personal details at this time. I do thank the media for your approach on this matter to date and again ask you to respect their privacy.
With regard to the helicopter crash, the family of the two men killed in the accident have agreed to release their personal details.
Private Nathaniel Galagher was 23 years of age. Private Galagher was born in Wee Waa, New South Wales in 1989.
He enlisted in the army in October 2007. Private Gallagher's postings include the 1st Battalion Royal Australian Regiment and the 2nd Commando Regiment.
At the time of his death Private Galagher was on his second deployment to Afghanistan. He is survived by his partner, parents and sister.
Lance Corporal Mervyn McDonald was 30 years of age. Born in Carnarvon, Western Australia in 1982, he first enlisted in the army in May 1999.
He served for five years until his separation in February 2004, re-enlisting again in July 2005.
Since then Lance Corporal McDonald undertook several operational deployments in Timor Leste and six to Afghanistan. During his military career, Lance Corporal McDonald was posted to the 1st Battalion Royal Australian Regiment, the 4th Battalion Royal Australian Regiment, which is now the 2nd Commando Regiment.
Lance Corporal McDonald is survived by his fiancée, his mother and stepfather and three brothers. Again I extend my sympathies to the families, friends and their comrades.
As the Prime Minister said, overnight we confirmed the identity of the man we believe to be the perpetrator, Sergeant Hek Matullah, who arrived as the Prime Minister said recently - mid July – into Oruzgan Province, after completing his induction training in Kandahar.
We are not yet aware of any relationship he has with the Taliban. In addition to our own ADF investigative service investigation, the Afghan National Security Forces have rapidly established a joint Afghan-ISAF investigative team to conduct their own investigation.
As Air Marshal Binskin said yesterday we have again reviewed our force protection measures as a result of this incident and all Australian personnel have adopted these enhanced force protection measures, including some relocations and adapted to that new posture.
I can't divulge the force protection issues as you will understand they are operationally sensitive.
Today and tomorrow, are normally days of lulls in activity being Friday, day of prayer for the Islamic religion, so that gives us a bit of time to reset for the coming week.
Yesterday afternoon I had a conversation by phone with General Allen from Jakarta.
I have reinforced with General Allen my view that these incidents are of strategic significance to the ISAF campaign. This is a point I raised at the NATO chiefs of defence meeting over 10 months ago.
General Allen will be seeking further actions and responses from the Afghan government in relation to these insider attacks. And I will again be speaking with General Allen this afternoon.
At this stage of our operations in Afghanistan we see the Taliban claiming all insider attacks as being of their initiative.
The evidence does not necessarily support this but regardless of the motives, these attacks will be used by the insurgency to try to undermine our confidence and our relationship with the ANSF.
This relationship is based on trust. Trust has been hard to build and is hard to maintain. This most recent incident has challenged that trust, but we must and will continue to work with our Afghan partners to strengthen our relationship and improve their capability.
We'll work to complete the current task to conduct a successful transition to ANSF lead responsibility for security.
To return to the helicopter crash - we received an update from ISAF and as yesterday Air Marshal Binskin reported that one ISAF service member had been wounded; there were actually four wounded in the crash.
On behalf of the ADF I wish them a speedy recovery.
The helicopter has now been recovered. However, due to operational security measures, I can't disclose any further details about the location of the crash or information on the mission at this time.
An air accident investigation will be conducting by the United States Marine Corps and as Air Marshal Binskin briefed yesterday, we expect to be involved in that investigation.
In addition, Defence will undertake its own normal inquiry process.
It is fair to say that there is a range of emotions in the ADF today. That’s understandable in the circumstances.
The advice I received from our commanders on the ground in Afghanistan, however, should offer some reassurance. They say that there is a positive relationship in the operating bases.
The members of the Afghan National Army share our sense of outrage at this attack. The ANA has been proactive in supporting the changes to our force protection posture and is actively attempting to capture Hek Matullah.
Our advisory teams are resetting themselves in the province to continue with their work. Our people have performed extremely well in Afghanistan.
I'm proud of them and the progress we have made and I intend to see that work honoured. Thank you.
PM: Thank you. We'll take questions on this issue.
JOURNALIST: Prime Minister, The Greens Leader Christine Milne has said today that 2014 is too far away to wait to bring our troops home and Andrew Wilkie has said that the five soldiers, he says that they died unnecessarily and that yourself and Mr Howard and Mr Rudd, his words, have blood on their hands, and he also said that it is again quoting one of the great lies of the Afghanistan war that we need to stay there to keep Australia safe.
I was wondering if you could respond to that?
PM: Well, it's no secret that there are a variety of views in the Australian community and indeed in the Australian Parliament on our mission in Afghanistan.
That's been very clearly shown when we've had the annual debates about our mission in Afghanistan.
I've been very clear too with the Australian people about the purpose of this mission and why it's in our national interest to be there.
We've got to remember why we went. We went because we had seen a terrorist attack which did take the lives of a number of Australians.
We witnessed other terrorist attacks where the terrorists have been trained in Afghanistan and took Australian lives.
As I reminded yesterday when I spoke from the Cook Islands, we were only a very limited number of weeks away from commemorating the 10th anniversary of the Bali bombing in which we saw Australian lives taken.
So we went to Afghanistan for our national interest, because people were being trained there who were taking Australian lives.
If we left now we would leave a security vacuum which would mean that in Oruzgan Province and then more broadly across Afghanistan if ISAF forces withdrew that you would see a security vacuum and what would fill that security vacuum would be what has been there in the past.
The kind of power structures that enabled terrorist training in Afghanistan.
So it's in our national interest to be there, to complete the mission of training and to enable Afghan people to provide security in their own nation. Now I don't in any way try and sugar coat how hard it is, how difficult it is.
We know from the way we all felt when we heard the news yesterday from the way we all feel today and from what we can imagine these families are feeling, I think we all know how hard it is.
It's incredibly hard, but it is also the right thing to do, to see our mission through and that's what I intend to do.
JOURNALIST: You mentioned that you had spoken to the US Commander some time ago on your view that these insider attacks are increasing in significance. Could you please explain a little more about that?
We've been bombarded over the last few months with a whole range of theories on what's causing the attacks, whether they're cultural factors, whether they're infiltration by the Taliban.
Do you believe that soldiers in the Afghan army are being coerced perhaps by families being kidnapped or threatened, or is it ideological? What's your belief is actually driving this and how serious (inaudible)?
GENERAL HURLEY: All of the above. There are many factors that drive members of the ANSF to conduct these attacks. Some have been subverted by the Taliban to conduct these attacks, some might be members of the Taliban.
Others are purely cultural disagreements, and the way the Afghans express a cultural disagreement is quite different to how we might.
They will pick up a weapon, they will fight, it's part of their cultural approach to these issues. There are about half a dozen different reasons we’ve identified why these events occur.
We've conducted our own detailed analysis with DSTO, consulted broadly on this, so has the United States. We've shared that information and we've shared it with studies from NATO to try to get underneath the lid of this to try to see what can be done.
So it’s part of our force protection. It’s not only what we do on the ground, it's the cultural training, cultural awareness and sensitivity that we train our people in before they go to Afghanistan.
So when this do their mission rehearsal exercises and so forth, this is part and parcel about how you conduct yourself when you're around them particularly in close quarters in a camp.
So it's a very complex issue. There are no absolutes here. People want to drive to absolutes, there are no absolutes. It's complex.
My discussion last year at the NATO chiefs of defence meeting, my view was that this is an own approach by the Taliban in the past to subvert your enemy. You get inside, create uncertainty.
We're seeing that play out now. I'm not saying I'm on my own here.
Others were thinking this. That's why you saw a lot of work over the last 12 months in these studies and prior to that analysis of data, studies, development of codification of force protection measures and so forth to allow us to stand this, but there's no 100% guarantee that you can stop it.
JOURNALIST: Do you still work despite this?
GENERAL HURLEY: It can still work and why is this a strategic issue? Because if we blink, the Taliban win.
JOURNALIST: Prime Minister, it's one thing to have a view on whether we should still be in Afghanistan, but it's another thing to accuse the Prime Ministers of this nation of blood of their hands and of lying.
These remarks surely are offensive, aren't they?
PM: We're dealing with really serious issues here today. We're literally dealing with matters of life and death for our troops in the field.
And I'm not going to get side-tracked or waylaid into domestic Australian debate even if some ugly language has been used during the course of it.
The important thing isn't me talking about language which may have been used by others, it's talking about our national interest and our national purpose in Afghanistan.
I really feel that Australians were yesterday and today not only in a state of shock and sadness and grief, though they were certainly in all of that and I think people are feeling the weight of this very heavily today, but they're wanting to clearly understand why we're still there and what we're doing there that matters so much for our nation.
So for me, I'm going to be pretty single minded about explaining that to the Australian people and I'm not going to get side-tracked by some language use by Members of Parliament.
JOURNALIST: Prime Minister, you said if we were to leave now, there would be a vacuum that would inevitably be filled by the Taliban or whomever.
On that basis, either that's going to change dramatically in the short time between now and the time we leave, for that vacuum not to be filled that way, or else it is.
Are you confident that in the short time before we withdraw, the circumstances in Afghanistan are going to change that dramatically?
PM: We calibrated a mission to train Afghan forces to take security leadership of their own country. That's what our mission is now. And we calibrated the time to do it, and I've spoken to the nation before about the time to do it.
We've entered into transition and that's a process that will take 12 to 18 months.
Now, if we pulled out before that process had been completed, then we would be pulling out in circumstances where we knew that the Afghans were not ready to step up to security leadership of Oruzgan Province, were not ready to step up to security leadership of their nation.
And as you've just heard the Chief of the Defence Force say, if we, to use his terminology, if we blinked, then we would be handing a strategic victory over to the Taliban.
Well, after all that we have been through and all that we have lost, and all that we have done in Afghanistan, I cannot countenance leaving before the mission is completed, and I cannot and will not countenance giving a strategic victory to people who have made it their work to kill Australian soldiers.
JOURNALIST: If I could ask the General just a couple of things. It’s been said that special measures – more measures – are being put in place to try to ensure more safety for Australian troops.
But given the problem of distrust and lack of trust that arises out of these incidents, are you putting in place any greater system of counselling of those people to cope with the ambiguities they must feel toward their Afghan colleagues.
And secondly, on this question of the reasons for this attack, these attacks, there seems to be quite a difference between the emphasis that the Afghan government puts on Taliban infiltration and the readings by governments outside who tend to put a lot more emphasis on cultural factors and personal grievances and so on.
What’s your accounting for that?
GENERAL HURLEY: In relation to support in the field for our soldiers, we have counselling systems and staff in place to support people on operations.
I haven’t received any call yet that we should beef that up and at the moment I think we’ve probably got the right mix in theatre.
In relation to who calls the reason, or describes what the balance is, in many of these cases we don’t know what drove the person to do it because either we don’t find the person or they’re dead.
And unless you can then forensically track down (inaudible) contacts and so forth, either through our intelligence means or what the ANA might be able to tell us, we really would be guessing for some of the incidents.
But what our analysis shows, there is a variety, there is some outside influence. No doubt the Taliban play into that, but yes there are also a range of cultural responses that come into play as well, and unless you actually find the person and can talk to them as to what drove it, you really don’t get the evidence.
JOURNALIST: For the General, while troops withdrew from other wars like Vietnam, the number of casualties spiked in the final few months. Do you expect something like this to happen over the next 18 months?
GENERAL HURLEY: I’ll certainly try my darnedest to make sure it doesn’t happen.
So again in terms of how we are planning to conduct the transition, the lessons learnt from, for example, the Australian Army Training Team Vietnam is foremost in our minds about how we structure that.
Let me just raise another point about what we’re doing here in transition. There is a sense that we’re just going to continue on with the same sort of work we’re doing now for the next two years.
I’ve said on a number of occasions publicly that’s not so. This is like letting a child learn to ride a bike. Gradually we take our hands off the steering wheel with the ANSF.
So for the next 12 months or so we’re going to reduce the number of troops we have in the field over the ANSF, and that will change our risk profile.
So we just won’t continue as we are for the next two years. We’ll gradually step down, and step out of battalion-level operations, back up to brigade-level operations, and then up to corps-level operations, providing advice at that level so our exposure in the field changes dramatically over that two-year period.
JOURNALIST: We’ve heard about the danger of leaving this vacuum if Australia does pull out too early. Does that mean if things don’t progress as planned there could be the possibility of staying longer?
PM: We’ve been very clear about the progress we’re making and how we’ve taken that into account as we’ve moved into transition.
We believed Oruzgan Province was ready for transition, it was marked for transition through the processes within Afghanistan and we’ve started transition now.
Now we wouldn’t have made that judgment call about saying Oruzgan is ready for transition unless we believed it to be true, and there’s nothing that has happened since that suggests to me, that suggests to Defence, that we should change our perspectives on the time.
So we are in transition, we’ve always said that would take 12-18 months, that’s what we anticipate it will take. Then at the end of that time period the bulk of Australian forces will be able to return home.
We’ve said that we would leave some forces engaged in Afghanistan in the NATO Train-Advise-Assist mission, and we’ve also said we would consider but no decisions have yet been taken, about a continuing role for Special Forces in counter-terrorism work.
JOURNALIST: Can I ask General Hurley, the unit the soldier’s from, have any of his comrades been disarmed or had their weapons removed as a result of this incident, and can you give us a flavour of the hunt for this sergeant now, in terms of how it’s being carried out and how important is it to capture him alive?
GENERAL HURLEY: In terms of the Afghan response, when the incident occurred the Afghan army with us voluntarily started disarming their people in those areas and helping separate and so forth.
Again, high-proactive in understanding the significance of what had happened and what needed to be done to reduce continuing risk there. So they’ve been very supportive in those approaches.
In terms of the search for this fellow at the present time, obviously we use a range of means to do this.
There will be patrols out there at the present time, our human intelligence sources, our electronic sources and so forth will all be put to work to try to track this fellow down.
JOURNALIST: General Hurley, I’m just wondering if you can give a more general circumstance of what happened at Patrol Base Wahab, which I understand is an Afghan-only facility.
Were our troops in residence there or were they just visiting?
GENERAL HURLEY: It was part of a patrol activity, so they have a main base in the area and depending where the patrols might take them through over the day they might need to overnight in a particular patrol base and then move on the next day. So I think it was conducted in that sense.
JOURNALIST: They’d only been there that afternoon?
GENERAL HURLEY: I don’t know that detail, I’m sorry.
JOURNALIST: General Hurley, you said he’d just finished induction training in Kandahar. Was he a new recruit then, and what, if anything, can you draw from that?
GENERAL HURLEY: I believe he was. I don’t have a lot of detail on him at the moment but he did a five-month induction course at Kandahar and then was posted up to Oruzgan Province, arriving in mid-July.
JOURNALIST: Was he a sergeant?
GENERAL HURLEY: Yes. They do have a difficulty with NCOs – it’s not a concept – non-commissioned officers – that they deal with. He may have been selected, I don’t know his background, I’d be only just guessing on that but that sort of thing we’ll hunt down.
JOURNALIST: It’s been said today that he was known to Australians and I took from that that he had some kind of record of making trouble.
Is that an incorrect assumption and can you tell us anything about this suggestion that there may have been some even short-term history of engagement?
GENERAL HURLEY: I’ve not any report of that kind.
JOURNALIST: And do we know where he was from – was he actually from Kandahar or was he from elsewhere?
GENERAL HURLEY: No, he was from another province – Ghazni Province.
JOURNALIST: Just one shooter? One rogue soldier?
GENERAL HURLEY: That is all I’m aware of at the moment, he was the only person who fired.
JOURNALIST: Do you know any more details of the circumstances on the (inaudible) base?
Air Marshal Binskin wasn’t able to tell us a great deal yesterday, except that the soldiers, the Australians, were relaxing. Do you know if there was a verbal exchange between the perpetrator and-
GENERAL HURLEY: I don’t have any of that detail. As Mark said yesterday, that’s about as much as we know at the present time.
JOURNALIST: General, on the helicopter, does all the evidence point towards an accident, there’s no evidence is there other than an accident?
GENERAL HURLEY: We believe at the moment there’s no evidence of any contact at all, not at the time. I think this was an accident that rolled on landing.
GENERAL HURLEY: No, ISAF is.
JOURNALIST: Are you able to say what sort of helicopter it was yet?
GENERAL HURLEY: It was a Huey.
JOURNALIST: Prime Minister, have you spoken to any of the families personally?
PM: No I haven’t. We have an arrangement with Defence and there is a protocol here that we go through.
Ultimately this is all about the families’ wishes but ordinarily, the Chief would speak to the family at the appropriate point and then following that if they wished to receive a call from me then I certainly would make it. But we’re not at that stage yet.
JOURNALIST: And looking forward to, presumably the funerals, does that change your plans for APEC at all?
PM: Well look, we’ll work through on all of those arrangements. I mean, first and foremost we would have the return from Afghanistan. We would have the ceremony as soldiers leave Afghanistan.
We would have a ramp ceremony as they return home. And then it’s once again a question for the families, what they would like as the best way of honouring their loved one.
Whether they want a completely private funeral or one in which I and the CDF and the Leader of the Opposition attend.
So all of those arrangements are for the future.
JOURNALIST: General, it was a Huey helicopter, does that mean it was a civilian-contracted helicopter?
GENERAL HURLEY: US – United States Marine Corps.
[GENERAL HURLEY DEPARTS]
JOURNALIST: Do you have any update on the search for missing people in the water off Indonesia?
PM: I think they details of that are now best obtained from the various government agencies that work in this area.
They are periodically releasing updates. My advice is that around 54 people were rescued and that they are being transferred to Indonesia.
JOURNALIST: Prime Minister, is there a precedent now that asylum seekers rescued in Indonesian waters will be taken to an Indonesian port?
PM: It was a decision taken by Indonesia in this case. The vessel was very near to Indonesia when it got into trouble, and it’s Indonesian search and rescue that have oversighted this search and rescue operation.
JOURNALIST: There’s been some criticism of the Indonesians for how they’ve handled this. What is your view of it, and when Ministers go to Indonesia next week, will they be offering any further assistance beyond what you announced after your talks with the President?
PM: I believe Indonesian authorities did the best that they could.
Can I make a broader point, it’s obviously a point that’s on my mind following this incident but it’s a broader point. We have seen what’s happened this week, we have seen tragedies like this at other times.
It should reinforce the message about how dangerous these journeys are. It’s a big ocean, it’s a dangerous ocean.
We’ve seen too many people lose their lives trying to make the journey to Australia, and the message for people contemplating getting on a boat is first and foremost, the dangers are ever-present and second, they are at risk of being transferred to Nauru or PNG any event.
On the other aspect of your question, I did have an opportunity when President Yudhoyono visited to speak about capacity-building measures. Those discussions will be followed up at a ministerial meeting next week.
JOURNALIST: Prime Minister, are you able to say when the first people may be transferred to Nauru now after you signed the agreement (inaudible) Cook Islands?
PM: The setup is as has been described to you by Minister Bowen.
The setup at Nauru particularly you would have received emails from Minister Bowen about that, and so we are looking to finalise the first 500 places of accommodation using tents and the like.
Minister Bowen has consistently said that he wants that to be in place by the end of September.
Thanks very much.