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22/07/2009 MECC 90721/09
 
 
 
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CHIEF OF DEFENCE FORCE MEDIA ROUND TABLE: QUESTION AND ANSWER SESSION

 

Russell Offices, Canberra, ACT, Tuesday, 21 July 2009

 

 

E&OE

 

Q:  I just wonder, from what I can see of a quick reading of this, the incidents don't identify where the Australian troops are from. Could you go through each of them and tell us which Australian force element was involved in each of those incidents please?

 

AIR CHIEF MARSHAL ANGUS HOUSTON:  Yeah, OK. Serial 1 was the Reconstruction Task Force. Serial 2 was Special Forces. Serial 3, Special Forces. Serial 4, Special Forces. Serial 5, Mentoring and Reconstruction Task Force. Serial 6, that was the Special Forces. Serial 7, Special Forces. Serial 8, Special Forces. Serial 9, Special Forces. Serial 10, Special Forces. Serial 11, Special Forces. Serial 12, Special Forces. Serial 13, Special Forces.

 

Q:  So we can take from that that the nature of the work that the Special Forces does do puts them in the risky position of causing civilian casualties?

 

AIR CHIEF MARSHAL ANGUS HOUSTON:  Well, I think if you go back to why we deploy the Special Forces - we were concerned about our people doing reconstruction and training, and we decided to enhance our force protection. The mission that the Special Forces have been deployed on is to enhance the force protection for our mentorors, our reconstructors, the people who are doing, if you like, the stabilisation work and the reconstruction.

 

So the nature of their business is to disrupt Taliban operations. The nature of their business is to go out and kill or capture the Taliban leaders. That strategy has been highly successful. Last year, we were the only province where the number of violent incidents actually reduced compared to the year before, and that was because the Taliban were totally on the back foot and totally disrupted all the time. So what I would say to you is that our Special Forces are doing a magnificent job. But again, their task is complicated by the fact that they have to go out and go after these leaders in an environment where the leaders hide in and amongst the population. So if the leader resists, as we've seen on a number of occasions, there ends up -  there is an exchange of fire. Regrettably, sometimes, civilians are caught up in that sort of situation. If we go back a fair way, you might remember when Private Worsley was killed, he was killed as he sort of went into the compound and a firefight ensued and a couple of civilians were killed in the crossfire. Now, was that us or was it them? It's very hard to determine. The point is that when you get a contest in a compound like that, our people have to defend themselves, and from time to time, unfortunately, civilians are caught in the crossfire.

 

Q: Are you acknowledging that prior to today, the Defence Force's public reporting of civilian casualty incidents has been inadequate?

 

AIR CHIEF MARSHAL ANGUS HOUSTON:   No, I wouldn't say that. I think if you look at the incidents that we've reported on, they are the more serious incidents, and we've been open about those. Given the overwhelming interest in the subject of civilian casualties expressed by you, we and my minister decided that the time was right to go out and say to you, you know, “Here is everything that has happened over the last 12 months.” Now, you will note that a lot of the ones that I mentioned are woundings. We haven't as a general, I suppose, rule reported when one or two people have been wounded.

 

Q:  But you are ...

 

 

AIR CHIEF MARSHAL ANGUS HOUSTON: What I undertake to do is any time anybody gets hurt as a consequence of our activities, and of course from here on in, it will be a combined activity, because increasingly, we are working with the Afghan National Army and the Afghan National Police. For example, our Special Forces now, every time they go out, one third of the force is Afghan. And what we're doing now in order to observe the sort of cultural sensitivities of the Afghans, it will be the Afghans that go and knock at the door and ask the occupants to come out when we do one of these compound searches. So our people will not be in the front; it will be Afghans talking to Afghans, and we think that that's a great step forward. We now have Afghans that can do that. If we go back 12, 24, 36 months, we just weren't in a position to do that. So I think that's a positive development, and it will help us mitigate against the risk of civilian casualties.

 

Q:  You're saying that at any time anybody gets hurt as a consequence of actions...

 

AIR CHIEF MARSHAL ANGUS HOUSTON: Yes.

 

Q:  What are you undertaking to do?

 

AIR CHIEF MARSHAL ANGUS HOUSTON: Well, report it to you. We will put a media release out, we’ll put a public statement out that says, “We had a particular set of circumstances and during those circumstances, two civilians were wounded”, or whatever the circumstances are. In other words, we'll take the same approach that we would take if we had killed civilians. I think if you have a look at what I've just spoken about, I just wanted to - I thought it was very important to put everything on the record. This is everything. We're being completely open here. We're being completely transparent, and I went back 12 months. We did an audit and it's all in there. OK?

 

Q:  You talked earlier about the injuries, wounds to civilians being used against the Australian Armoured Forces, the propaganda element. How do you balance that with being more transparent?

 

AIR CHIEF MARSHAL ANGUS HOUSTON: It's - yeah, I think it's a great strength that we can be open and transparent, but you're absolutely right. We're up against an adversary who uses every set of these circumstances as part of his campaign. They are using information, distorted information, misleading information against us. So every time there's a civilian casualty, they will - even if it was caused by them, they will point to us. And I think I mentioned on the way through that 80% of the civilian casualties, in fact, 80% of the casualties in Afghanistan are caused by the Taliban, because the weapon of choice at the moment are these indiscriminate improvised explosive devices, these antipersonnel mines that they use, and more often than not, these things go off and kill and maim innocent Afghan civilians. Now, we don't use those weapons; they do. So I would say their campaign is immoral and certainly doesn't conform with any of the norms that apply to armed conflict.

 

Q:  Sorry was that 80% of civilian casualties?

 

AIR CHIEF MARSHAL ANGUS HOUSTON: 80%. 80% of civilian casualties.

 

Q:  Incident No. 3 with the dead baby in the car, what's the suggestion there – that the Taliban actually brought a dead child onto the battlefield as some sort of propaganda device?

 

AIR CHIEF MARSHAL ANGUS HOUSTON: No, no, not at all. Look, in the interests of transparency, I just wanted to put it out to you that the baby had no penetration, in other words, there were no wounds as a consequence of weapons being fired. The baby was jaundiced. We don't actually know, you know, what the circumstances were. It's a bit of a bizarre incident. But the baby's body was in the vehicle that was carrying insurgents. And we surmise from the interview with the driver that the baby was being moved from a location where it died to another location where it would be obviously buried.

 

Q:  Is there any global figure for the number of civilians killed by Australian forces, even within the rules of engagement?

 

AIR CHIEF MARSHAL ANGUS HOUSTON: Well, I think if you go through - I haven't actually done the maths, but if you go through, you will see that - over the last 12 months, you will see how many civilians have been killed and how many Afghans have been wounded. It's all there.

 

Q:  In serial 2, was it subsequently verified that the individual shot and wounded in reaching for what appeared to be a rifle did actually have a weapon?

 

AIR CHIEF MARSHAL ANGUS HOUSTON: I don't think it was a weapon. Bear in mind this is nighttime. Very difficult inside a compound. They go in and somebody moves suddenly, a split-second decision, and the individual was wounded.

 

Q:  In the interests of transparency, though, wouldn't you think that crucial fact might be mentioned in this information?

 

AIR CHIEF MARSHAL ANGUS HOUSTON: Um, well, I'm telling you it probably wasn't a rifle, and I can't be more transparent than that.

 

Q:  Would the report you get back actually tell you it was a walking stick? Would you have that recorded even though you might not be able to tell us that?

 

AIR CHIEF MARSHAL ANGUS HOUSTON: I - you know, essentially, the sort of investigation and reporting on that was done at a lower level. It was done at a Joint Operations level. So I only became aware of that incident as we conducted the audit – I mean detail of that incident.

 

Q: You clearly believe that the Taliban are trying to lay blame for civilian casualties with coalition, including Australian, troops. Do you also believe that the Taliban might actually actively seek to harm Afghan civilians so that they have, if you like, the fodder to lay blame with coalition troops? Do you think they're actually seeking harm of their own population?

 

AIR CHIEF MARSHAL ANGUS HOUSTON: Well, the fact of the matter is that 80% of the casualties caused by the Taliban are their own civilians. And that's because the weapon of choice are these dreadful improvised explosive devices, which are totally indiscriminate in their effect. I mean, they're probably designed to target us, but they're placed on roads and tracks, which are used by the civilian population.

 

Q:  So it's inept, it's not by design, or we don't know?

 

AIR CHIEF MARSHAL ANGUS HOUSTON: I think they lay these things and they're not worried about the consequences. That's my own personal view.

 

Q:  I'm a bit confused about the 80%. You said it's 80% of civilian casualties are caused by the Taliban and then you just said 80% of casualties caused by the Taliban are civilians.

 

AIR CHIEF MARSHAL ANGUS HOUSTON:80% of the civilian casualties in Afghanistan are caused by the Taliban. OK?

 

Q:  So the other 20% is obviously coalition's?

 

AIR CHIEF MARSHAL ANGUS HOUSTON: Probably, yeah.

 

Q:  Through air strikes. Would that be the ...

 

AIR CHIEF MARSHAL ANGUS HOUSTON: Well, air strikes. Unfortunately a couple of air strikes have gone wrong, and when an air strike goes wrong, it tends to have a quite dramatic effect and sometimes large numbers of casualties.

 

Q:  Just a general question about the strategy over there. More foreign troops have died this month than since the invasion of 2001. We're coming up to an election in less than a month's time. So what are you predicting, what are you preparing for?

 

AIR CHIEF MARSHAL ANGUS HOUSTON: Well, I think the minister said the other day that this was going to be a very challenging fighting season, and with an election in prospect on the 20th of August, there's absolutely no doubt that the Taliban are going to do everything they can to disrupt the preparations for the election and also disrupt the conduct of the operation. That's why we and other nations have provided additional forces to assist in the security effort during that very challenging activity.

 

Q:  What will be the measure of success of that security effort?

 

AIR CHIEF MARSHAL ANGUS HOUSTON: Well, the measure of success will be a successful election. But I think Ian mentioned in his article this morning that it's going to be - it's going to be a very challenging thing to effect, and we've seen this in other environments. We saw it in Iraq. Ian also referred to the election in Cambodia. You know, conducting elections in an environment where there's an insurgency going on is a very demanding activity for us to conduct. We have an Australian, Brigadier Damien Cantwell - that's John Cantwell’s brother, by the way - actually heading up the effort to make sure that the security is as good as it can be.

 

Q:  Could I just ask you about the overall strategy? What do you think would be the effect if Australian and all coalition forces withdrew now?

 

AIR CHIEF MARSHAL ANGUS HOUSTON: I enjoyed your article this morning, Ian. I thought you were right on the money. If we were to pull out all forces from Afghanistan at this stage – bear in mind, we are well on the way to basically training what will be a very effective army and a very effective police force, but we're only about part of the way through that process, so if we were to all withdraw now, we would leave the country in a situation where I think there would be a civil war, if you like, and there is a very strong possibility that the Taliban would prevail. Now, if the Taliban were to prevail, I think we're likely to go back to the circumstances that we had before 2001, where the Taliban hosted groups like al-Qaeda. There was a very extensive training infrastructure set up by al-Qaeda. They not only trained the terrorists who were part of al-Qaeda; they also trained terrorists from around the world. We know, for example, that some of the Bali bombers were trained in Afghanistan. So in a set of circumstances where we all pull out now, we're going to have another set of circumstances in Afghanistan similar to what we had before 2001. I think the net effect of that will be the terrorists who are currently up in the High Country on the border between Pakistan and Afghanistan will move back into the valleys, will conduct their training activities, and will do their planning for terrorist attacks around the world, and we're likely to see major attacks effected in western countries; indeed, any country around the world where the terrorists decide they need to have an effect. And we've seen this before.

 

Q:  So are you saying the Taliban are a stronger force than the ANA?

 

AIR CHIEF MARSHAL ANGUS HOUSTON: What I'm saying is that if you take out the large number of  the question I had was if you take out the large coalition force that we've got there now, I would not be confident that the government of Afghanistan could survive on the basis of the security forces that have been trained thus far. We’re only probably about one-third of the way through a very long and very important training process to give Afghanistan the security forces it needs to be able to prevail over the Taliban. And to some extent it's probably - if you draw parallels with Iraq, it's like Iraq in 2005. If you look at Iraq now, four years on, Iraq has very robust security forces that will, in a couple of years' time, be able to ensure the security of that country.

 

Q:  So you're looking at another 5 to 10 years to meet that training mark?

 

AIR CHIEF MARSHAL ANGUS HOUSTON: We're looking at still another period of time. I wouldn't like to put a time on it. But certainly, we know, for example, that we are training with our OMLTs. You would know from your time out there that it's a two-year cycle. We've been very successful with the Mentoring and Reconstruction Task Force. They've been going now for about nine months, and we've got them to Capability Milestone 3, which means that the Afghan National Army people that we’re working with can now conduct complex company-level operations. That's a huge step forward, but our ambition is to train them so that they can conduct complex battalion-level operations and, indeed, operate the whole of the 4th Brigade. Now, that's going to take some time yet.

And it's not - as we saw in Iraq, it's not just a question of training the battalions. You've also got to concentrate on the command and control, logistics, combat support and so on, and all of that takes time.

 

Q:  But surely, sir, if we're one-third of the way through the training job after a nine-month effort by the task force involved, we should be within, what, three or four years of doing the training job in Oruzgan, shouldn't we?

 

AIR CHIEF MARSHAL ANGUS HOUSTON: Well, I would hope that over a period of time, we will be in a position, and I would hope it's three to four years, yeah.  But you know, as we saw in Iraq, there's more to it than just, say, drawing a line and saying, “This battalion will be ready at this time.” Once you've done that, you've then got to think about the command and control, the logistics, the force multipliers like combat support and so on, how you're going to carry them around the battlefield and so on. So it's quite a complex business but I would hope that, four or five years, the job will be done.

 

Q:  Do you think that that would change, in the medium term, the nature of the Australian Defence Force - if you’re standing back and letting the Afghans go forward, that as you say they'd still require C2, logistics, armoured support, perhaps helicopter fire support, that that would actually change the nature of the Australian involvement in Afghanistan in the medium term?

 

AIR CHIEF MARSHAL ANGUS HOUSTON: Let me say, our involvement is changing all the time.

I mean, those of you who've seen the OMLT would know when we started we were dealing with very basic training. David was at one of our OMLT locations. If he went back there now he'd see quite a change, because our Afghan colleagues have developed very, very well. Let me say on the public record right now I think Lieutenant Colonel Shane Gabriel and his team have done a magnificent job. We are making real progress with the Afghan National Army. And that is, you know,  that is probably the most important thing that we can contribute at the moment, is raising a competent and proficient and capable Afghan National Army brigade in Oruzgan. If we can do that and everybody else can do similar work where they're doing their training - bear in mind all of the ISAF partners are doing this sort of work - if everybody can do a good job in that regard, we're going to prevail in Afghanistan and we're going to eventually be able to leave.

 

Q:  Could we just clarify something? You said, “I hope in two to five years the job will be done.” Are you saying that the training job will be done, or our job in Afghanistan will be bringing troops home, we will be moved to another area, can you just clarify?

 

AIR CHIEF MARSHAL ANGUS HOUSTON: If you have a look at what we did in Iraq, I think that provides a comparable model. We went into Iraq, we were involved with training and mentoring as part of the Al-Muthanna Armoured Task Force. We eventually did all of the necessary work there. We passed over responsibility for the province to the Iraqi Security Forces. We then went into what we called Operational Overwatch to provide backup should they have required it. In Al-Muthanna there weren’t too many problems.  We had to provide backup a couple of times. And then a little later on, Dikar achieved provincial Iraqi control, and we were asked to do overwatch for that province as well. Now, that overwatch task was quite demanding. We from time to time were engaged, together with the Iraqis, in countering the insurgents. But over time, we prevailed, and eventually we were able to pull out. Now, I anticipate that a similar thing will happen in Afghanistan. Now, we pulled out our battle group. At the same time, elsewhere in Iraq, we have other people doing other things. Indeed we've still got embedded people in the headquarters in Baghdad. They've got about seven days to go. The last ones will come out to meet the 31st of July deadline. So I'd imagine it would be something similar to that. And you know, it will be different because Afghanistan is more complex; Afghanistan is probably more challenging, but we will get there. And again, I take you back to where we were in Iraq 2005 and 2006, and things were looking very, very grim indeed in that place. But look at Iraq now. It's going reasonably well. It's certainly not Switzerland and South Asia, but it's certainly a workable nation. And it's got challenges, but it's going ahead.

 

Q:  Is the difference, though, the people coming across the Pakistan border, the problem with Pakistan compared to Iraq. Is there a difference?

 

AIR CHIEF MARSHAL ANGUS HOUSTON: There were actually elements coming across borders in Iraq too, but yeah, there is a complexity, an additional complexity with, I guess, the terrain along that border, the fact that it is  the fact that they are tribal territories, and to a large extent part of that is ungoverned space. It provides sanctuaries for militants and for groups that want to come back into Afghanistan, groups like the Taliban, to pursue their objectives. So it is different.

 

Q:  The problem is today nearly every engagement ends with either engagement in close air support, helicopter flyover or UAB fire and that's all surveilled. Are you seriously suggesting that in two to three years or three to four years we would train the Afghans and then we would leave them to deal with all that; there wouldn't be some indication that Australia would have to provide that background support with either hard forces or we'd have to turn that job over to the United States?

 

AIR CHIEF MARSHAL ANGUS HOUSTON: No, I think I wouldn't characterise it that way. A lot of our engagements - a lot of our engagements are completed without any resort to air support. One of the realities is if you're working in close proximity to compounds in the Green Belt, it's very difficult to use close air support in a way where you can mitigate the risks involved with civilians.  So we only use close air support when we can be absolutely certain we're not going to hurt civilians.

 

Q:  You could use an MCCC and an Excalibur round, popped inside an ordnance?

 

AIR CHIEF MARSHAL ANGUS HOUSTON: Yeah, well, we don't - I mean, we don't I would not want to use that sort of firepower in those circumstances. I think that we have other ways of doing the job, and I think the other ways we do the job are very effective. Our Special Forces go in and they are very discriminate in the way they use lethal force, and with the new arrangements with the Afghans in front, you have an Afghan soldier go through the door first. He speaks the language, he has - he'll know exactly what's going on in that compound before our fellows get anywhere near the compound. So I think it's working well.

 

Q:  I know it’s a different area of the country, but are Australian troops doing anything with regard to finding this American soldier who has been captured, handing out leaflets or anything like that? Also, what's the latest thinking as to what the Dutch are going to do in Oruzgan?

 

AIR CHIEF MARSHAL ANGUS HOUSTON: In regard to the American soldier, he's nowhere near Oruzgan. We have people in headquarters positions, and I would imagine that some of them would be involved in staff activity related to the recovery of that individual, but we have not got any

combat forces that are directly involved.

 

In terms of the Dutch, I think Prime Minister Balkenende was in the US recently. He confirmed that the Dutch will be ceasing leadership in 2010 - and it is 2010 by the way, August 2010 - and I don't see any change to that at this stage. Minister Faulkner was recently in Europe, and our Dutch friends were quite emphatic that they will be pulling out of a leadership role in Oruzgan in August 2010.

 

Q:  So where does that leave the Australian operation there?

 

AIR CHIEF MARSHAL ANGUS HOUSTON: Well, we're working with the other coalition partners and certainly working closely with our American friends, and I would imagine that at some stage we will get a replacement force that will come in behind the Dutch. Let me say straightaway - the government's already indicated this - that Australia is not in a position to lead in Oruzgan.

 

Q:  In terms of Afghan and Afghan soldiers - taking account of cultural sensitivities, an Afghan soldier going through the door first, are you finding that they are respecting cultural sensitivities among their own people in that role?

 

AIR CHIEF MARSHAL ANGUS HOUSTON: We have - we are in the business of mentoring and training these people. We've had a lot of experience at doing this, not only in the Middle East but in other places, and one of the things we try to get across to people who work with us is our ethos and our values, the way - our military standards. So we would want to have them have the same respect for civilian life and civilian property that we have.

 

Q:  One other thing. In terms of actually the credibility of the process that you're setting in place and augmenting, could you just explain to us how the Defence Force investigates incidents in which there are civilian casualties - so against the allegation that “Here’s Defence investigating itself so they're bound to come up with this response”?

 

AIR CHIEF MARSHAL ANGUS HOUSTON: Well, one of the reasons I want to go with this more transparent approach is that these investigations in Afghanistan where there’s been civilian casualties are very difficult and very challenging. Sometimes you can't get into those areas because fundamentally you can go down to Mirabad but you couldn't conduct an investigation the way you might investigate something here in Australia. So you really need a military person to do that investigation because the risks are significant to the investigation team. Now, having accepted that reality, we will - we do a quick assessment. We then do an investigation. That investigation is subject to legal review. Following the legal review, the investigation will come to me, the report will come to me. I will have a look at it. The report will then go up to the government, to the minister, and then a redacted version of the report will be released. Now straightaway you'd probably say to me, “But your report's redacted.” The reason we redact the reports is because there's a lot of information in those reports that is extremely valuable to our adversary, who is - as I said many times before - Internet savvy and is able to extract from the Internet the sort of information we put on our web site. So I regret that we have to do it that way. But we will be as open as we can be, noting that my prime responsibility and accountability is to those wonderful soldiers who are out there doing a magnificent job for Australia. I have to put their safety, their security at the forefront of my mind, and that's why we do it the way we do it.

 

Q:  Of 400 ANA security forces and ISAF troops killed in action in the calendar year...

 

AIR CHIEF MARSHAL ANGUS HOUSTON: That's to 30 June.

 

Q:  To 30 June.   What's the civilian total for that period?

 

AIR CHIEF MARSHAL ANGUS HOUSTON: Well, it's probably significantly more, in line with the statistics that I gave you earlier on.

 

Q:  In the interests of transparency, we’ve found when Australian soldiers lose their lives that many families are very keen to talk about the soldier concerned and to express their thoughts about the soldier's life. Does Defence have a blanket rule that it always says that the privacy must be respected, and should we be getting more access to families who are prepared to talk about their loved one that they've lost?

 

AIR CHIEF MARSHAL ANGUS HOUSTON: Well, let me just run you through what we do. We have a casualty. I will get the phone call. I will inform the minister. The minister will inform his colleagues in government. I will then initiate a process whereby the first priority is to go and tell the next of kin. Now, our army is getting unfortunately very expert at doing that. They go out, they go round with a full support team and then inform the next of kin of the dreadful news. What we’ve found as a consequence of that is that, at that stage, the family's distraught. The family's in deep shock, and it would be very inappropriate to open the doors and say, "Here's the family."  So to a certain extent we will protect them. That's why we don’t put the name out, because without exception, the family doesn't want the name to go out in the first instance because they're not ready to, you know, confront this dreadful news that they've had, so they need time. Usually I then go out and make the announcement to all of you and the people of Australia. And then shortly after that, we usually find the family's prepared to release the name, put some information out. Some of them put a press release out, some of them don't. But at that stage they're probably ready to talk. So we put the name out but it's up to the family how they handle circumstances from there. As you know, some of them are prepared to go out and say quite a bit; others are more private. We respect the wishes of those families because at the end of the day, they've lost a son, or a daughter – touch wood, it’s no daughters thus far - but they've lost a loved one, and you know, we need to respect that.

 

Q:  This morning an academic who did have a British background was talking about coalition figures wanting Australia to do more or a different role, and talking specifically about moving out of Oruzgan, moving Afghan troops out of Oruzgan complete with Australian mentors. How feasible is this and is it a likelihood, and are we doing it up in Oruzgan?

 

AIR CHIEF MARSHAL ANGUS HOUSTON: Yeah, I - this is the Matt Brown story. I looked at that. First of all I'd say counter-insurgency - General Formica when I visited him on one of my recent visits told me that our OMLT was the benchmark of all OMLTs in Afghanistan. OK? That's the first point I want to put on the record. In terms of the way we work with our Kandak, a decision has been made by the Afghan Government, I guess in consultation with the coalition, that 1 Kandak Brigade will be raised in Oruzgan. So that's where we are. We're fully committed to doing the training. Now, at this stage, the Kandak is not ready to go on battalionable operations. It needs more work before it can be deployed into somewhere like Helmand. They're doing good work in and around Oruzgan, but you know, it's walk before you run. So depending on the level of capability, when it's fully capable, it's really up to the Afghan National Army where they might deploy. And say when we complete the training process and it needs to be that Kandak needs to be deployed somewhere else, well, so be it. But something that you should be aware of, I was in Tarin Kowt just a short time ago with the minister. There is a full aviation battalion of the US Army going into Tarin Kowt. The whole south side of the airfield is a building site. The US Army are going in there in force. Saw a couple of C130s from the US Air Force land while we were there, disgorging equipment, so that the US could operate many more helicopters out of Oruzgan. So I'm not quite sure that, you know, the commentary this morning is consistent with what's happening on the ground.

In terms of an area approach to doing business - I reported that to the Senate back in November last year, the fact that I anticipated that, in the fullness of time, there would be more of an area approach, RC South approach, rather than a provincial approach. But at the end of the day, the place we're at in the training cycle for our Kandak means that that Kandak needs to stay in Oruzgan to continue and eventually complete its training.

 

Q:  But you do see Australian forces. as time goes on and as the training that you say is progressing well - you do see Australian forces moving further afield from Tarin Kowt than they already are?

 

AIR CHIEF MARSHAL ANGUS HOUSTON: We do it already. That's an individual. I'm sure he is a fine academic. But we had our Special Forces - I mentioned the incident up by the Kajaki Dam. The Kajaki Dam is one of the hottest spots in Helmand. We had people up there for 28 days. I mean, we have the largest element of Special Forces in Afghanistan other than the Americans. In fact, in ISAF, we have the biggest element of Special Forces. They've operated in Helmand, they've operated in Kandahar, and our Reconstruction Task Force has gone down into Sarbul and also into Gasnier. We operate where we need to operate. And our Chinooks fly all over RC South. Our Chinooks - there was another report just a couple of days ago mentioned Australian helicopters involved in one of the air assaults in Helmand. We have artillery people in Helmand. We have other people who are working down in Kandahar, and of course, we've got people in the headquarters at Kabul. So you know, I think – you know, let's talk what the reality is on the ground. We have done great work. That bridge work - we repaired all of those bridges on Highway 1, not just once, but twice. Sarbul and Gasnier.

 

Q:  Why is Kandahar and Helmand just consistently more violent and frustrating than, say, Oruzgan?

 

AIR CHIEF MARSHAL ANGUS HOUSTON: Well, I think Kandahar is the Taliban heartland and Helmand is probably the richest province in the south. Now, Oruzgan is a very dangerous province. You have a look at all of provinces in Afghanistan, Oruzgan was the birthplace of Mullah Omar. It's a very dangerous place. Sure, it's not the heartland but it's not far off it. RC South is recognised as being the most high-threat area in Afghanistan, and fundamentally, Oruzgan is probably the third or the fourth most violent province, and that's again RC South. You know, you’re gotta be careful about drawing comparisons because you say it's here and then the next day there's a huge incident in RC East. But RC South and RC East are where the real fighting is. I think we might – we’re at 11.30, so just a couple more questions.

 

Q:  A quick clarification. You talked about Australian forces doing the ISAF's counter-insurgency course in the future. Who will be doing that and what does that involve?

 

AIR CHIEF MARSHAL ANGUS HOUSTON: That's ISAF. ISAF will be doing that course. We do our own training here in Australia. The training lasts the best part of six months. I think you know that if you go with the embedding program, if you want to be embedded, we will expose you to that training. That training basically involves training about Afghan culture, Afghan custom, religion and so on, but also, how to operate in an environment where you have to avoid civilian casualties and so on. We then have a full-blown mission rehearsal exercise. The people who are going to do the course run by ISAF are the Command Team, and what we'd anticipate is when they go in to do their reconnaissance before they're deployed, as part of that, they will go in and do the ISAF course.

 

Q:  And they haven't done that before?

 

AIR CHIEF MARSHAL ANGUS HOUSTON: Not up till now, no. And anybody involved in the targeting cycle will also go and do that course. So we think that that's a sensible thing to do and we think it will work well. The soldiers, the soldiers are all - particularly the guys going into the OMLTs, they are trained to the NATO standard. As I said, General Formica told me the way we are doing our OMLT work he sees as the benchmark, which was very pleasing from my point of view, and I think speaks volumes for the work that is done in army before we deploy. Last question.

 

Q:  The US forces now moving into Afghanistan are moving in with a new series of weapons – armour, Imrak 2s, different types of equipment. Do you remain satisfied that the Australian Defence Force is equipped with the most appropriate equipment for the threat, including IEDs, or there are other things you might think are required, and have you made any requests of the minister to that fact?

 

AIR CHIEF MARSHAL ANGUS HOUSTON: We - dare I say, government keep the equipment requirements under continuous review. In terms of our equipment, let me say that the Bushmaster has been absolutely magnificent. I don't know what we'd do without the Bushmaster. It's been a magnificent vehicle. In terms of vehicles, we have a whole bunch of things happening, but we keep upgrading the Bushmaster to make sure it stays with the requirements of the threat we face. We have the ASLAV, and of course we have the Special Forces Vehicles. Now the Special Forces Vehicles, we are going to get the new NARI vehicles very shortly, and that will be an improvement. Our Chinooks are very well equipped for the task. And in terms of personal equipment, we do everything we can to ensure that the soldiers have the very best equipment that's available to them. One of the realities of contact, though, is that when it comes to the high-tech equipment, there's usually a long lead-time to be able to find that equipment. So sometimes, we have to wait longer than I would like, and longer than they would like, to actually acquire that equipment. As far as the Government's concerned, I went to the government earlier this year on the subject of some counter-IED equipment, and they just didn't hesitate. They met the request straightaway and authorised $60 million worth of equipment to be purchased to ensure that we were in the optimum position to face this deadly, dreadful IED threat.

 

 

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