Chief of the Defence Force - Three Australian soldiers wounded in Afghanistan 8 November 2011
9 November 2011
DAVID HURLEY: Good morning, ladies and gentlemen. As you're aware three Australian soldiers have been wounded in an incident in Afghanistan overnight.
The soldiers were members of Mentoring Task Force 3, operating at a patrol base in the Charmistan region, north-east of Tarin Kot, when an Afghan National Army soldier located in an overwatch position opened fire on Australian and ANA soldiers using an automatic weapon and a grenade launcher.
The three Australian soldiers suffered serious wounds. They received immediate first aid and were transferred by helicopter to the Role 2 medical facility at Tarin Kot for treatment.
All three Australians have since been transferred to the Role 3 medical centre at Kandahar where they are in a serious condition. The wounded soldiers' families have now been informed. This is always our highest priority following the treatment and care of our wounded.
Two ANA soldiers were also wounded in the attack. They have been treated and are in a satisfactory condition.
We know that the ANA soldier who was a member of the 3rd Kandak, or Battalion, fled in an ANA vehicle. He was initially pursued by ANA members at the patrol base. An operation is currently underway aimed at apprehending him.
Immediately following the incident, members of the 3rd Kandak, or Battalion, at the patrol base were disarmed.
Additional personnel from the Mentoring Task Force from a nearby patrol base have moved forward to the patrol base and are providing security and overwatch at the base.
I understand the reaction that many Australians will have to the news of this latest incident so soon after the death of three soldiers in similar circumstances, however, it is too early to speculate whether the two incidents are linked.
I stress that there is no simple one-line explanation to this incident or the previous incident. This is a highly complex issue and there are many factors at play which will require further examination and analysis and I have already given direction on this matter.
An investigation into the previous incident is already underway and we will work with our ANA colleagues to investigate this incident.
Over the past 10 days we have taken steps to protect our personnel against similar attacks and we continually review our processes and our force protection measures but, as I said, this is a highly complex and dangerous environment and an element of risk will always exist and our aim, my aim, is to minimise that risk as much as possible.
Yesterday I returned from visiting our troops in Afghanistan. While I was there I spoke frankly and in detail with many of them at all rank levels. I also spoke to the Commander of the 4th ANA Brigade, Brigadier General Zafar.
Our people reinforced in my mind how professional they are and how dedicated they are to our mission. This is not in question. These men and women also impressed me with their understanding of the complex issues at play when incidents such as this occur.
They recognise that these recent incidents do not necessarily reflect the performance or behaviour of the many Afghan soldiers they work with and mentor on a daily basis. Our soldiers know that the ANA must be trained and I know that they are determined to do so.
I'm happy to take question but, just to keep it in order, we'll start on the right and move across, if that's okay. Thank you.
QUESTION: Where are these Australian soldiers from? Are they married? Do they have kids? Do you have any more information about them?
DAVID HURLEY: We've only just informed the next of kin so I think we'll leave that a bit for that news to settle in and we can come out later with that sort of detail.
QUESTION: Surely you're - you must now be looking some further force protection measures in these kind of bases. I mean, can you go into what considerations you might now be looking at?
DAVID HURLEY: Yes, in terms of what we've done to date, we've moved to some higher levels of personal protection and some things that we need to do in each of the bases. We'll examine that again. We'll look at where we're at in transition in our mentoring model and our process there to make sure we've got that right so, as I said, there's a number of factors in play here that we need to work through and we also will need to look and talk further with ISAF about the intelligence that's being applied to the issues here, because both this issue and the previous incident, neither of them had any pre-warning to them, so it doesn't tell us whether they're premeditated. We don't have that sort of information so we need to go back and look at the intelligence picture we're getting.
QUESTION: You're not pleased about the fact that you had no intelligence warning?
DAVID HURLEY: If there's no - if these had just popped up, we don't know, as I said, complex issue, could be personal grievance, could be religious ideology. Don't know. No indication.
QUESTION: When you say you've moved to some higher levels of personal protection, obviously the Australians work very closely with the ANA at these forward bases, what does that mean? Does that mean that they're wearing armour around the base? Does it mean that there's a guard between Australian and ANA areas or also can you explain exactly how many ANA soldiers have been disarmed, as part of that - this action?
DAVID HURLEY: Some of those steps have been put into play but I won't give the whole picture because you can understand the sensitive - sensitivity of some of the things we're doing there.
The base we're talking about is only a small base, platoon size, so not too big.
QUESTION: General Hurley, after the first incident one can understand that there would be quite a quick recovery of confidence and some level of trust. After the second incident you could imagine that it might take some time for trust to build up and both you and the Defence Minister said after the last incident that you were concerned about the impact on trust. These soldiers and their families must be very alarmed about what's going on in these isolated bases. Soldiers can't sleep with one eye open. Is it possible to actually maintain a level of personal protection that will allow our training mission to continue?
DAVID HURLEY: Brendan, I think that's a pretty fair question and I think that'll be on a lot of people's minds at the moment, certainly on mine as well.
Back to our soldiers' attitude, they don't see the last incident and any measures we take about that as being the end of it. I mean, these things will continue so do they understand there's a risk at play here? Yes, they do.
Will their families be apprehensive and anxious, concerned? I'm sure they are. But they, I think, would also be aware that their sons and daughters who are over there at the present time are quite convinced about the job that needs to be done here.
They understand the risks, I think they would be transferring that sort of conversation back home to say, yes, we understand what goes on here, we understand it's dangerous. This is another aspect of it. We've got a job to do there and we're going to do it. So I think that sort of interaction will be taking place.
Again, as I said, this is a complex issue and it could run from just personal grievances here to religious ideology, or a religious position that's triggered by a personal grievance, not quite sure and we need to do some digging, further digging into that.
And we also need to look at the mentoring model we're applying at the moment. Is the balance quite right, as we move through to transition?
So there are a number of risks in this business that we need to be thinking about continually, which we do, and trying to adjust as we go forward.
QUESTION: Lieutenant Dawirsh Khan, I understand, was a Pashtun. Do we know the ethnicity of the soldier responsible for this latest incident and also the ethnicity of the soldier responsible for the first incident?
DAVID HURLEY: We've got that sort of detail but that's under quite considerable analysis at the present time. I don't want to go into any of the networks or issues that we're working through at the present time, simply to say, yes, we know that detail but it's quite sensitive as we work through some leads.
QUESTION: The ANA soldier who was responsible was pursued by fellow ANA members. Can you tell us a bit about how that pursuit played out, how he ended up getting away and how you'll go about tracking him down now?
DAVID HURLEY: Yes, he escaped in a vehicle. I think people tried to apprehend him, stop him from getting away as he was leaving but obviously as he outran them they couldn't do much more than that.
The Brigade Commander immediately sought to put patrols out, release people from the other patrol bases to chase him. They would have used vehicles that would have confused the intelligence picture with our overhead imagery, UAVs, so we stopped that from happening but they were very, very keen to get out and try to catch this fellow.
So we've continued with our more technical means to try to track him down and we have our own forces poised should we get some more information.
I can tell you, as I said the other day after the incident last weekend that the Brigade Commander is quite distressed and agitated about this. I spent an hour or so with him last Saturday night talking through the issues, trying to work out with him how he could respond to this but he will certainly be very focused on this. He understands the sensitivity of this issue to us, make no doubt about that.
QUESTION: General Hurley you've said that you'll be taking steps to protect against similar acts occurring. What specifically can be done to ensure that this doesn't happen again?
DAVID HURLEY: Well I think we need to keep working to understand more of what's going on here as we transition from what's been high force levels to lower force levels across the area of operations - does that have a play in it? There are, you know, people thinking about maybe it's INS Insurgency infiltration - is this a tactic? There's no clear indication that that's playing out in our area at the present time.
So I say that there are a number of factors we need to work our way through here to find out is this systemic? Is it just individual? Is this one triggered by last week's - you know someone's there thinking about it and pondering it for a week? We don't know yet.
QUESTION: General Hurley can you just explain a bit further about what - how many Australians were actually at the base? Were they basically there in a semi-permanent basis or were they just visiting? Were they on a [inaudible] or something like that?
DAVID HURLEY: Well I can say Brendan that there was about nine or ten Australians there, so about a normal mentoring size with a force protection element there. They were sitting in the camp at the time of the incident, so were there without their armour and so forth. They would've just been in a rest sort of period and when the incident occurred.
QUESTION: And can you tell us where was it? Was this in the Mirabad Valley?
DAVID HURLEY: Charmestan Valley runs south-east off the Mirabad Valley so it's an area that the insurgency had used in the past and there's an area point there called the Three Ways where the Mirabad Valley and the Charmistan join with another valley - another road system. It's in that area.
QUESTION: Does the patrol base have a name?
DAVID HURLEY: Yes it's Basir. B-A-Z - B-A-S-I-R. [The Patrol Base is Patrol Base Nasir]
QUESTION: General Hurley, what are the billeting arrangements for Australian troops and their Afghan counterparts in these forward operation bases?
DAVID HURLEY: They have their separate areas to sleep in but they share responsibilities in there. So, it's not as though you've got your side of the camp and we've got ours - they share responsibilities for guarding duties and so forth. So it's a team effort in the place.
QUESTION: General Hurley, sorry, I didn't quite understand the answer to my question I asked before about force protection measures that have been put in place. I think - does that mean that yes there are sentries or armed guards that have been put in place between the ANA or the Australians [indistinct]?
DAVID HURLEY: [Interrupts] No, we haven't. This is a team effort. We haven't separated ourselves by saying you stay over there and we're going to guard you while you're in there at night. This won't work if we go down that model.
QUESTION: And exactly how many ANA soldiers have been disarmed as part of this?
DAVID HURLEY: In this patrol base there's about 30 odd. Not too many.
QUESTION: And General Hurley, you said before that you were still trying to work through the issues or the motivation to why this happened. But considering there's been so many attacks of this nature in the past couple of months is it perhaps a new strategy or tactic by opposition forces to try to destabilise our troops perhaps?
DAVID HURLEY: Again, we've had three since May and two in the last week obviously. Again, we have no indication that there's a systemic effort being applied against us here. So until we find this fellow, try to understand his motives and understand the motives of the previous fellow, it's hard for us to make - draw those conclusions at the present time.
QUESTION: General Hurley could you give us what information you feel comfortable sharing about specifically what happened in the lead up to this shooting? You know, obviously you've told us they were at the base, he opened fire with an automatic weapon as well as a grenade launcher but was there any conversation? Had he been talking to a particular person? Had he been heard praying? Is there anything that might lead you to understand it was perhaps a personal grievance or the logicity of it?
DAVID HURLEY: We don't have any of that information at the moment. The first we knew about it was when the incident happened last night. And to my knowledge at the moment - so when we do the investigation issues might come up - but certainly there was, I'm not aware of anything at the moment that might've prompted people to be think there was something about to happen there.
QUESTION: What about the incident ten days ago? Have you got any further information on what may have sparked that or the lead up to that situation?
DAVID HURLEY: Again, there's some sensitive stuff there I won't - I can't talk about at the moment but as the investigation unfolds in that, we'll - I think some of that will be useful to us and we'll go through our investigation process as we normally do. We'll come back to you about that. There'll be some reductions in it I would be sure now but it's - some information is unfolding for us.
QUESTION: Just - the last two ANA soldiers who have committed this sort of act have both died. How important is it that you catch this bloke alive?
DAVID HURLEY: Look in each - in any of these, if we can question the person it's of great value to help us understand his motivation. Again, on that scale from personal grievance to religious conviction, if there's anything we can find out from him that might have triggered this it's got to be useful to us.
QUESTION: The ANA soldiers who were also wounded, were they interpreters?
DAVID HURLEY: No, they were normal soldiers who were in the base at the time.
QUESTION: And as well as that, the Australian soldiers who've been wounded, they were just part of the normal 2RAR team?
DAVID HURLEY: Yes, part of the MTF 3.
UNKNOWN SPEAKER: Thankyou ladies and gentlemen.
DAVID HURLEY: Thankyou.