Chief of Defence Force and Minister for Defence - Operational incident in Afghanistan
4 July 2011
TRANSCRIPT: PRESS CONFERENCE WITH CHIEF OF THE DEFENCE FORCE GENERAL DAVID HURLEY AND MINISTER FOR DEFENCE STEPHEN SMITH
TRANSCRIPTION: PROOF COPY E & OE
DATE: 5 JULY 2011
DAVID HURLEY: Good morning, ladies and gentlemen. It's with great sadness that I'm here this morning to advise you that an Australian soldier was killed in Afghanistan yesterday morning local time, early afternoon Australian time.
The soldier was serving with a Special Operations Task Group on an operation in southern Afghanistan when a group of insurgents engaged the partnered Special Operations Task Group and Afghan National Security Forces team with small arms fire.
The 35-year-old from the Sydney based 2nd Commando Regiment sustained a gunshot wound to the head and, despite emergency first aid treatment from a medical officer, he died on the battlefield from his wounds.
Overnight a team from his unit informed the deceased soldier's family of his death. His family has given permission for his name to be released but I ask that you respect their privacy at this time of grief.
Sergeant Todd Langley was an exceptionally experienced and decorated soldier. He was on his fifth deployment to Afghanistan and had also undertaken two deployments to East Timor.
Sergeant Langley was awarded two commendations for distinguished service and a unit citation for gallantry.
A devoted family man, Sergeant Langley's Special Operations Task Group mates describe him as an exemplary warrior, a true leader, who always brought out the best in those around him.
He was a brave and professional soldier who never took a backward step and despite their grief his comrades say he will continue to inspire them.
On behalf of the ADF and the wider defence organisation, I extend my deepest sympathy to Sergeant Langley's family, his friends and comrades.
There are difficult days ahead for them and for us but we will do everything we can to care and support his family and his mates throughout this time and beyond.
In a separate incident during the same operation, a second member of the Special Operations Task Group also sustained a gunshot wound. Combat first aid medics provided immediate first aid and a wounded soldier was airlifted to the Role 2 medical facility in Tarin Kot.
The wounded soldier has since been transferred to the Role 3 hospital at Kandahar for further treatment and from there he has contacted his family. He is currently in a serious but stable condition.
This particular operation followed on from other recent operations in the same area which have uncovered large quantities of munitions and IED components.
The intent was to disrupt the insurgents' operations and deny them a safe haven to plan, coordinate and execute their operations. As the operation is still ongoing I will not answer any questions about the immediate events of the day.
Twenty-eight Australians have been killed in action in Afghanistan and these men are not numbers, they are fathers, husbands, sons, brothers and mates. They are soldiers and Australians will not forget their selfless sacrifice. I'll now hand over to the Minister.
STEPHEN SMITH: Thank you, David. Can I start by expressing my condolences to the family of Sergeant Todd Langley. This will be a tragedy for his family and a tragedy for his mates and his friends.
We're going through a very tough period. This will be a particularly tough period for the commandos coming so soon after the tragic death of Sergeant Brett Wood.
It's also a tough period for Army and a tough period for the Australian Defence Force generally.
It's also a tough period for our nation where we have to be clear-sighted about our objectives and our role in Afghanistan.
At 35, Sergeant Todd Langley was a very experienced soldier, a very experienced commando, well-respected and well-regarded.
As the Chief of the Defence Force has said, this is now our 28th fatality in Afghanistan, seven this year, a heavy blow and a heavy burden for our Defence Force and for our nation.
As well, as the Chief has advised, another soldier wounded in the same operation. That brings to over 180 soldiers wounded in the course of our time in Afghanistan, 17 this year.
As I've said on numerous occasions in the course of this year, particularly in the run-up to the so-called northern summer fighting season, we could expect two things to occur. We could expect high profile attacks which the Taliban and the insurgents would use for propaganda purposes to try and sap political will, not just in Australia, but in the United States and in Europe, and we've seen that on a number of occasions including very recently.
Secondly, that despite the fact that we had taken ground, despite the fact that we had made progress in a security sense, the Taliban would fight back and fight back on the ground, not just in Uruzgan but in the rest of Afghanistan.
And we've seen that occur and we've seen that occur to terrible consequences, terrible consequences for the Langley family, terrible consequences for the Australian Defence Force, terrible consequences for our nation.
Our role in Afghanistan, of course, is to prevent Afghanistan from again becoming a safe haven for terrorists. We know that we cannot be in Afghanistan forever and that's why we strongly support the determination of the international community to transition to Afghan-led security responsibility in the course of 2014 and both in Uruzgan and generally we believe we are on track to affect that.
We also strongly believe that in recent times we have made progress. That progress in a security sense has been reflected by the very early signs of efforts for political reconciliation or political settlement and I very strongly agree with the notion that Afghanistan, our mission in Afghanistan cannot be successful by military action alone. It does require a political strategy and a political settlement.
The ground that we've made up against the Taliban in recent times has been reflected by, as Secretary of Defense for the United States, Robert Gates, said recently, very early signs of outreach so far as a political settlement is concerned.
And on a day like today, this is a terrible blow for the Langley family and a tragic and terrible blow for our nation.
Our condolences are with the Langley family on this day and, as the Chief of the Defence Force has said, his contribution will always be remembered.
The Chief and I are happy to respond to your questions on this matter.
JOURNALIST: Are you able to tell us anything about where - a rough idea of the location where this happened?
DAVID HURLEY: Brendan, I think - at the moment I think we'll just keep it to southern Afghanistan, in our normal operating areas you'll be aware of from the past but until they've been extracted we'll just keep it at that level, if you don't mind.
JOURNALIST: General Hurley, the fact that the Sergeant was a five-tour veteran of Afghanistan, does that mean that too much is being asked of the Special Operations task group?
DAVID HURLEY: I think that's a fairly natural question to ask and it's certainly one on my mind, you know, how frequently can we send these people there? But they put their hands up, they volunteer, they want to go, we create the best care we can around them to support them and obviously the training and experience they have suits them well. So I don't think you can actually relate this to numbers of tours. It's the difficulty of the operations they're sometimes in.
JOURNALIST: Does it surprise you that we've lost a number of decorated veterans, multi-tour veterans who actually have medals or have been recognised for heroism? We seem to have lost a significant number of them over the last few months in particular.
DAVID HURLEY: I don't think there's any rationale behind that but they are certainly very experienced and, as they've moved through their tour most of them have moved up in leadership positions so they're in the front line, leading troops, as we would expect them to do.
STEPHEN SMITH: Sorry, could I just add to that, Brendan? I think one of the reasons this will be a very heavy blow for the commandos is that in such a short period of time after the tragic death of Sergeant Brett Wood, we see another very experienced, decorated commando fall in Afghanistan and so that loss of experience is not just a short term tragedy, it's a long term blow to the commandos and to our capability and I think that's something that we need to reflect upon given Sergeant Langley's death and also Sergeant Wood's death.
JOURNALIST: General Hurley, you said the Sergeant was a family man. Was he married and did he have children?
DAVID HURLEY: The family have asked that we give out no further details on that at the present time and that will come out in due course.
JOURNALIST: General, I appreciate you can't say much about the operation itself but can you tell us, were any of the ANA soldiers that were also involved in this wounded or killed and what about the enemy?
DAVID HURLEY: No, they're the only two – the two casualties that occurred today were both Australian so it was a partnered operation but no other friendly casualties. There were quite a number of enemy casualties so that detail will come out in the wash-up of the operation.
JOURNALIST: Minister Smith, have you been briefed at all by ISAF or NATO or the Americans on the progress of any talks that may be underway with the Taliban?
STEPHEN SMITH: Other than what I've put on the public record I wouldn't be proposing to deal with that on a day like today. I may well respond at a later stage but the approach that I take and the approach that General Hurley takes, on a moment like this we'll restrict ourselves to the substance of the matter we're dealing with.
JOURNALIST: General Hurley, do you have any estimate of the numbers of insurgents that engaged the Special Operation Task Force patrol?
DAVID HURLEY: We do have some figures of the number of people who were observed and engaged during the operation. Again, we'll just wait till the whole of that report comes in.
There were quite significant numbers but at the actual incident, no, we don't have that detail.
JOURNALIST: General Hurley, do you expect that the announcement from President Obama about the first drawdown of troops will embolden the Taliban and has it already?
DAVID HURLEY: I'd be surprised if they didn't try to take advantage of it. We haven't seen any significant increases in activity levels at the present time that you could actually definitely relate to that. The data at the moment frankly says IED activity rates are falling and the number of complex attacks is not as high as we thought they might be this year.
So we need to just watch that work through another month or so to see how that data holds but not as strong as we might have expected. We'll just need to see how that plays out.
STEPHEN SMITH: Just on that, I made the point in my opening remarks, I've been saying for weeks, if not months, we needed to steel ourselves for two types of attacks, the high profile attacks that we've seen recently but also the Taliban fighting back on the ground.
On the one hand it's easy for me to say that but you never quite steel yourself until a day like today so nothing has occurred which we haven't been expecting but the consequences for us have been significant, have been severe and it's been a heavy blow for the Army, for the Force and for the nation.
JOURNALIST: Twenty-eight dead, do you understand the public might be wondering are you really on track or is it just the spin that we're getting there?
STEPHEN SMITH: Well, on days like today I deal with substance and it's not just our analysis, it's also the analysis of the international community, most recently reaffirmed that the NATO, International Security Assistance Force, Defence Ministers Meeting in Brussels a couple of weeks ago. We have degraded the Taliban. We have denuded their capacity. We have made up ground and I think the best sign of that has been the early approaches so far as political outreach or political discussions are concerned.
The only time the Taliban would ever come to the table is when they came to the conclusion that they couldn't win militarily. I've never asserted that that is anything other than that, at a very early stage, a very early stage. There's a long way to go.
But we have tried to steel ourselves for the Taliban to fight back. They're fighting back because they know that we have made up over the last 18 months considerable ground.
That has been a result of the surge. It has been as a result of the significant number of Afghan National Army and police both local and national that we have trained, the Afghan Security Force is now in the order of some 300,000 and it has also been as a result of the significant impact that Special Forces operations have had.
I've made the point previously that whilst we are the top 10 contributor, very importantly in the current context we are the third largest special forces contributor and there is no doubt that the special forces contribution has been deeply significant in recent times.
STEPHEN SMITH: On a day when there is a fatality I understand all too well, all too well that the Australian community would question our effort and our mission in Afghanistan and that is why on a day like today I state with crystal clarity we believe it's in our national interest to be in Afghanistan, that it's in our national interest to continue to make the effort, it's in our national interest to make the transition to Afghan-led responsibility.
We can't be in Afghanistan forever, we don't want to be in Afghanistan forever, but if we were to leave now we would leave a vacuum into which the remnants of Al-Qaeda and other terrorist organisations would move and we have, whilst we suffer a terrible blow, with Australian Defence Force personnel fatalities, we've also in the past suffered the terrible blows of Australians being on the receiving end of terrorist activity in Europe, in the United States and in south-east Asia.
JOURNALIST: Minister, are you able to point to a detail of somewhere in Afghanistan where Australian forces have, as you say, made an impact, improved the situation in some aspect?
STEPHEN SMITH: The ground that we now hold and cover in Uruzgan is significantly greater than it was two years ago or 18 months ago. A larger number of forward operating bases or posts, we now have in terms of posts, forward patrol bases or forward operating bases, over 30 that are now held or operated by ISAF forces in Afghanistan - in Uruzgan. That's a combination of Australian personnel, a combination of, Afghan National Army both local police national police and local police, so the ground that we cover and control is significantly larger than it has been in the past and that's had its impact.
I've said previous to the Parliament that on my last visit to Afghanistan coinciding with Anzac Day, speaking to a couple of young diggers who were at a forward operating base, and they were getting towards the end of their tour, they'd been there for six or seven months, I asked the question: what's different six or seven months in than when you first arrived? To which the response was the locals are much friendlier. Now, that's anecdotal but in terms of a counter-insurgency it reinforces the point that as you make up security ground and local circumstances are in a better security position. Local people can return to their everyday activity, you know you're making progress.
There is a long way to go but there is no doubt the combination of the surge, the training of Afghan security forces, both in terms of quality and quantity, and the effectiveness of Special Forces operations, has had an adverse impact on the Taliban.
JOURNALIST: General, how degraded are the Taliban then?
DAVID HURLEY: Within Uruzgan area, Taliban find it extremely difficult to operate cohesively. They certainly find it difficult to provide appropriate - appropriate experienced leaders in the area. We know that the Uruzgan leadership, the Taliban leadership in Uruzgan will not come to Uruzgan. They sit outside and they know that should they come into Uruzgan their operational life span is very short and we could see that from a lot of evidence.
Cohesive operations by the Taliban are difficult in Uruzgan area. In the broader southern Afghanistan scheme of things, the surge troops have certainly extended in Helmand and Kandahar the areas that we control and that the Afghan government is able to begin to build and hold and grow in terms of governance and development.
That's under attack by the Taliban but they haven't cracked it and the signs are at the moment they won't.
JOURNALIST: Given that Australia is the third largest contributor of Special Forces, a question to both of you. Would you like to see some other countries doing more of the heavy lifting with Special Forces?
STEPHEN SMITH: In our own case I've made the point repeatedly, we believe that the contribution we're making is appropriate-
JOURNALIST: But other countries?
STEPHEN SMITH: -both to discharge our obligations and our mission. So far as other countries are concerned, we're not there by ourselves, we're not there just with our alliance partner the United States, we're there with 47 under - other countries under United Nations mandate and in a 48-country contribution, some contributions will be large, some contributions will be small. We are very pleased with the contribution that the United States and the United Kingdom and other countries make.
We have suffered 28 fatalities. That's a heavy number for a country of less than 25 million but the United Kingdom and the United States, Canada and other countries have also suffered severe fatalities and terrible casualties and woundings.
What other countries contribute is a matter for them. The most important criteria so far as we're concerned is that we are very happy that in Uruzgan Province under the banner of Combined Team Uruzgan, that we have the appropriate resources on the ground to meet our mission and we're also of the view that across Afghanistan generally that there are appropriate resources to effect the transition to Afghan-led security responsibility by 2014.
JOURNALIST: General Hurley, you said you can't talk too much about the specifics of this operation and without giving too much away can you give some details about how far apart the two shootings were in terms of distance and - and time and whether air support was called in, a few sort of basics like that?
DAVID HURLEY: Roughly about the same time. They were 15 - 10 to 15 minutes apart and about a kilometre apart. So not co-located.
And during the operation close air support was called in on various targets but again, we'll just need to see the complete report. As you imagine, we're getting reports from the field now. We need to piece that all together and look at the whole issue.
STEPHEN SMITH: All right?
DAVID HURLEY: Thank you very much.
STEPHEN SMITH: Thanks.