Transcript of press conference, Rarotonga, Cook Islands
WED 29 AUGUST 2012
Subject(s): Deaths of Australian soldiers in Afghanistan
E & O E – PROOF ONLY
PM: Our nation is confronting the most awful news. We have lost five soldiers in Afghanistan and two have been wounded. Five soldiers and two soldiers wounded in two separate incidents which have occurred very quickly after each other. These incidents are unrelated.
We have lost three soldiers in an incident at a patrol base when a man dressed in an Afghan National Army uniform opened fire on Australians. Three Australian soldiers were killed and two were wounded. In a separate incident, two Australian soldiers have died when a helicopter has crashed. This is a very big toll. This means that in a war of so many losses, this is our single worst day in Afghanistan. Indeed, I believe this is the most losses in combat since the days of the Vietnam War and the Battle of Long Tan.
This is news so truly shocking that it’s going to feel for many Australians like a physical blow. This is news so saddening that many are going to feel the immense weight of it, and if we are feeling that, then it is hard to imagine what the families of these five men are feeling. Their loss is immense, their grief will be sharp, and our condolences go to each of them as they are confronted by this news.
Our Australian Defence Force family too will be grieving; the mates of these men, people in the Australian Defence Force more broadly will feel this very deeply. In particular, our hearts go out to those who are in the field, to the people who are now hunting down or endeavouring to hunt down the Afghan who has killed Australians, to those who are in the field on search and rescue mission associated with the helicopter crash, our thoughts are very much with them as they continue to show resolve in the face of such incredible sadness.
Whilst it will be cold comfort for me to say so, I will say that as we absorb this news, it is important that Australians understand this is a war with a purpose and it is a war with an end. We went to Afghanistan because we knew that in Afghanistan people had been trained who came and took Australian lives. We are only a few short weeks away from the 10 year commemoration of the loss of life in Bali – people trained in Afghanistan. So we went for the right reasons in our national interest, to prevent Afghanistan being a safe haven for the terrorists who would come and kill Australians and kill so many innocent others.
This is a war with a purpose and it’s a war with an end. We have already entered transition in Uruzgan Province. We expect the process of transition to take 12 to 18 months and after the process of transition is completed, the bulk of the Australian forces will be able to come home. Some forces will remain to support with training, and we have left open a potential role for continuing special combat forces. To Australians who are absorbing this news, I do say today, I understand that this news is bringing immense sadness, but even as we feel that immense sadness, we must continue to show resolve. As Prime Minister, I have spoken to families who have lost loved ones in Afghanistan. I have attended a lot of funerals. And one of the things that has always struck me is the resolve of family members to complete our mission. It is for us to show the same resolve.
I’ll take questions on this matter and this matter alone.
JOURNALIST: Prime Minister, how will this affect your travel plans?
PM: I will return to Australian this evening. I have spoken to Prime Minister Puna of the Cook Islands. I have explained the circumstances. He has personally said to me he understands the circumstances and my need to return to Australia, and he wants me to understand that the people of the Cook Islands express their condolences to the people of Australia. So Richard Marles will represent Australia at the balance of the Pacific Island Forum. This is an important meeting for Australia, but in the wake of this news, I’ve made the judgement call that it is appropriate for me to return. That will mean that I can be in Canberra tomorrow to receive the most extensive briefings about each of these incidents.
JOURNALIST: Prime Minister, are you willing to contemplate any change to the withdrawal timetable for Afghanistan.
PM: No, I’m not.
JOURNALIST: Prime Minister, nearly 12 months ago there was a similar incident to this while you were at the CHOGM meeting in Perth. What has changed being in Afghanistan to give you faith that the reasons that you stated then for staying the course – what’s changed in Afghanistan then that gives you the confidence that we should go on now in light of these incidents?
PM: Well my faith then is the same as my faith now. We are making progress, and I can tell you that, I’ve seen it with my own eyes when I have visited Afghanistan, but more particularly I’ve seen it through the eyes of our Defence Force personnel who have been deployed there on more than one occasion. And for our troops who have been there more than once, they can speak to you about the progress that is being made; about the security progress; about the progress in training Afghan troops.
We have entered the final process, the process of transition, we know that that process will be 12 to 18 months long, and we know that at the end of that, the bulk of our forces will be able to return home. So our strategy is well-defined, our strategy is constant, and we cannot allow even the more grievous of losses to change our strategy. We cannot have a circumstance where loss dictates how we will engage in this war and see our mission through. In my view, that wouldn’t be appropriately honouring the men we have lost. In my view, it would be letting our nation down. We went there for a purpose and we will see that purpose through.
JOURNALIST: Prime Minister, the increasing numbers of attacks on Australian and other NATO soldiers from members of the Afghan Army is deeply concerning. NATO pointed that out earlier this year. What precautions are being made to prevent these sorts of attacks, and how can you have any confidence, given their increasing prevalence, that we won’t see further examples of this sort of attack?
PM: We have seen attacks of this nature in the past, and so have other nations who have their troops in Afghanistan. These insider attacks, these green-on-blue incidents, there have been a number of them. We, in response to the last such incident reviewed our Force protection in Afghanistan and stepped our Force protection up. For all the obvious reasons about security, I cannot take you through the individual measures that were taken to step our Force protection up.
In the wake of this incident, some special measures have also been taken. This incident will now be reviewed. We’ve lost three Australian soldiers, we’ve seen two wounded in this incident; we’ve lost the other two in the helicopter crash. Both will be thoroughly reviewed and anything that we learn from those incidents will be implemented to better protect our troops.
But right now we have Force protection in relation to insider incidents that is above that that the ISAF team in Afghanistan adopts as its own procedures.
JOURNALIST: Do we know at this stage whether it was a case of Taliban infiltration?
PM: No, we don’t. We are not in a position at this stage to speak with any confidence about the motivation of the man from Afghanistan involved. We know he was in an Afghan National Army uniform. Apart from that, I’m not in a position to speculate about further details. This is something that’s ongoing. The hunt for this person is ongoing as I stand here.
JOURNALIST: Prime Minister, some of the soldiers in Afghanistan must feel uncomfortable or at least uneasy about training Afghan National Army soldiers when there are these kinds of attacks. What’s your message to those soldiers?
PM: We can’t speculate on the motivation of this person, but what I can certainly say to you is these insider incidents are very difficult for trust between Australian soldiers and the Afghans that they train. They are corrosive of trust. That is a real difficulty for our soldiers in the field.
At the same time, their mission is to train Afghan National Army personnel so that they can provide security for their own nation and most particularly security for Uruzgan Province in which we work. And so, for our troops in the field, they do know what the mission is. They know that the mission is about training Afghan National Army soldiers. They know that that mission does come with risks, and we obviously take the best steps we can to deal with those risks based on the best advice that we get from the ADF.
JOURNALIST: Prime Minister, do you believe that public enthusiasm or support for the war will run further (inaudible)?
PM: I think people will be incredibly shocked. It is news of such dimensions that it’s very, very shocking. I think people will be very saddened, and I do think many Australians will say to themselves, why are we still there, why can’t we get everybody home? I think there will be that sense in the Australian community; many Australians will feel that. Which is why it is important for me to explain why we are still there, why it’s in our national interest to be there, and the timeline in which we will see our troops come home.
Thank you very much.