Thursday, August 30, 2012

Smith Says Australia Will Stay the Course In Afghanistan

Smith says Australia will stay the course in Afghanistan

Defence Minister Stephen Smith says Australia remains committed to "staying the course" in Afghanistan, after the ADF suffered its worst day in combat operations since the Vietnam War.

Five Australian soldiers died in Afghanistan on Wednesday - three when an Afghan army sergeant shot them at close range as they rested at a patrol base in the Baluchi Valley in Uruzgan.

Another two special forces soldiers died in an unrelated helicopter crash in Helmand Province.

Mr Smith returned to Australia early this morning after being told of the soldiers' deaths during a visit to the Vietnamese capital Hanoi.

Seven Australians have now been killed in so-called 'green on blue' attacks, while 12 have been wounded.

Speaking to reporters in Perth this morning, Mr Smith said Australia remained unshaken in its commitment to the 2014 pull-out date set by United States president Barack Obama.

"It doesn't do anything to my resolve to stay the course because staying the course is absolutely the right thing to do," he said.

"Through the Lisbon summit and through the Chicago summit we have set a path for transition to Afghan-led responsibility for all of these matters.

"We can't stay in Afghanistan forever, we don't want to stay in Afghanistan forever, and equally it would be wrong to leave prematurely or to leave tomorrow as some people suggest.

"The Government's view is if [an early withdrawal] were to occur we would add to the risks. We would increase the risks. We would increase the prospect of Afghanistan again returning to a breeding ground for international terrorism.

"And so we remain very firm in our resolve, we remain very clear that we will see through the transition strategy.

"To leave now would be to increase the risk to the international community and as a consequence increase the risk ultimately to Australians.

"We have been, in addition to suffering the terrible pain of fatalities in war, we've also been on the receiving end of terrorist activity, whether that's been in the United States, in Indonesia or in Europe."

Gunman named, on the run

The Afghan who shot the Australian soldiers has been named as Sergeant Hikmatullah, who was working as a guard at the base, 20 kilometres north of the main Australian base at Tarin Kowt.

After shooting the Australians, killing three and wounding two more, he climbed over the base's fence and ran away.

Afghan and Coalition forces are currently hunting for him, and Mr Smith said an investigative team from the Afghan National Security Force would arrive in Tarin Kowt today to start investigating the incident.

"He's known to us and the Afghan security forces, including, not in a personal sense, but known to the chief of police of Uruzgan who has publicly identified him, and we have no qualms with that public identification," Mr Smith said.

"In terms of what is behind his motivation, when we have examined previous terrible events we have found it very difficult to come to a conclusion as to what the motivation has been.

"On two occasions of course, that was because the culprit, the murderer, was killed by International Security Assistance Forces or by Australian forces either subsequent to the event or in the aftermath.

"So there's been no chance to interrogate the person concerned.

"The person who wounded three Australian soldiers is on the run, he's not in our area of operation, we know that, but he continues to be pursued."

The dead men were all from the 3RAR Task Group based at Brisbane's Gallipoli Barracks.

Mr Smith would not be drawn on reports that there was no guard on duty at the time of the shootings, but said Australian forces in the area had adopted a 'guardian angel' policy - where one soldier in each group is tasked with keeping watch on Afghan soldiers and stopping any green on blue attacks.

"The Acting Chief of the Defence Force put on the record yesterday, and I was happy for him to do it and I'm happy to do it myself today, we do utilise the so-called 'guardian angel' approach, that has been one of the force protection measures that we and ISAF have put into place in recent times," he said.

Mr Smith said he had received calls from US defence secretary Leon Panetta and from his New Zealand Jonathan Coleman to express their condolences over the deaths.

"To use Secretary Panetta's phrase, every Australian feels the pain. This is a terrible blow to a group of families," he said.

"It's a terrible reminder to other families who have lost loved ones and it's a terrible blow to the morale of all of the Australian Defence Force."

Asked whether the green on blue killings would lead to increased security at Australian bases, he said: "We will leave no stone unturned to see if there's anything more that we can do."

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