Thursday, 16 August 2012
by leave—The government is committed to providing regular reports and updates on Afghanistan, including to the parliament. This year, I have reported to the parliament on three previous occasions. In February, I provided an update to parliament on progress in Afghanistan. In May, I reported to parliament twice, once on Australia's detainee management arrangements and, on my return from Chicago, on the outcomes of the NATO/International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) Leaders' Summit, which I attended with the Prime Minister.
Since my last statement, there have been three significant developments in relation to Australia's mission in Afghanistan. On 17 July, transition formally commenced in Uruzgan province, where the majority of Australian forces are based. This follows the province's inclusion in the third tranche of provinces and districts to enter the transition process, as announced by President Karzai on 16 May.
The start of transition in Uruzgan reflects the progress made by Australia and ISAF in training and mentoring the Afghan National Security Forces (ANSF) and strengthening security and development. It is a welcome sign that transition in Uruzgan is on track for completion over the next 12 to 18 months. The commencement of transition in Uruzgan is in line with the strategy agreed by the international community at Lisbon, and reaffirmed at Chicago, namely to transition the security lead from ISAF to the Afghan National Security Forces by the end of December 2014.
On 31 May, I announced that Australia will take on the leadership role of Combined Team-Uruzgan (CT-U) later this year. Combined Team-Uruzgan was established in August 2010 under United States command following the withdrawal of the Dutch, with the role of commanding ISAF operations in Uruzgan province. The United States has had the leadership of Combined Team-Uruzgan since that time. Australia sees leadership of the Combined Team-Uruzgan as part of the transition process through which security responsibility will be transferred from ISAF to the Afghan National Security Forces.
Australia sees this as the appropriate time to take the leadership role in Uruzgan province, to help ensure that transition in Uruzgan is effected in a seamless way. The United States has committed to continuing to provide enabling support in the province, which it has done since August 2010. Assuming leadership of Combined Team-Uruzgan will not require an increase in the overall average size of Australia's presence in Uruzgan. Australia looks forward to continuing to work with our Combined Team-Uruzgan partners—the United States, Singapore and Slovakia—to progress transition in Uruzgan to the Afghan authorities.
Following the 4 August vote of no confidence by the Afghan parliament in the Afghan Defence Minister Wardak and Interior Minister, Bismullah Mohammadi Khan, Minister Wardak announced his resignation on 7 August. I congratulate Minister Wardak on his successes as defence minister. I have worked closely with him and wish him well in his new role as Senior Presidential Adviser to President Karzai on army reform. Deputy Defence Minister Nazari has been appointed Acting Defence Minister.
The appointment of Afghan ministers is of course a matter for the Afghan government and I am committed to working with my new Afghan counterpart when appointed to ensure the transition process in Uruzgan is effected seamlessly.
Tragically, since my last Ministerial Statement, Australia has also lost another soldier in Afghanistan. Sergeant Blaine Diddams from the Special Air Service Regiment, the SAS, was killed on 2 July during a small arms engagement with insurgents. The Prime Minister, the Leader of the Opposition, the Shadow Minister for Defence Science and I all spoke on the condolence motion for Sergeant Diddams on Tuesday. I again offer my condolences to the family, friends and mates of Sergeant Diddams.
High p rofile a ttacks
Despite progress being made, Afghanistan remains a dangerous environment, as evidenced by the recent series of bombings in Nimroz and Kunduz provinces earlier this week on 14 August. Nearly 50 people were killed and more than 130 wounded as a result of these appalling attacks, with Afghan civilians the majority of victims. These attacks are aimed at achieving a propaganda effect and undermining Afghan and international confidence in the progress that is being made on transition.
Green on blue i ncidents
Members are only too well aware of the dangers our personnel face in Afghanistan and the potential for so called 'green on blue' incidents or 'insider attacks'. The causes are complex and range from Taliban infiltrators to real or perceived grievances affecting Afghan soldiers, policemen or locally engaged staff.
There are more numerous so-called 'green on green' incidents, involving members of the Afghan National Security Forces carrying out attacks against their fellow ANSF colleagues. There have been no 'green on blue' incidents involving ADF personnel this year, but there has been an unfortunate rise in the number of these incidents involving our international partners. Earlier this month, ISAF implemented force protection enhancements across Afghanistan as a result of an increase in these insider incidents. Australian force protection measures are robust and were already in line with these adjusted ISAF measures.
Our overall relationship with our Afghan partners is positive and productive, with its members equally horrified by such incidents as we are. We should not judge an entire organisation based on the terrible actions of a few and it is vital that we, along with our ISAF colleagues, continue to partner the ANSF closely in the field.
Detainee management update
In keeping with my commitment to provide regular updates to the Australian people on detainee management, and to be open and transparent on these matters, I now update on detainee management issues in Afghanistan. Australia approaches its responsibility for ensuring detainees are treated with dignity and respect with the utmost seriousness and is committed to conducting its detention operations in accordance with our domestic and international legal obligations.
Australia's detainee management framework for operations in Afghanistan has two priorities: first, removing insurgents from the battlefield, where they endanger Australian, ISAF and Afghan lives; and, second, ensuring humane treatment of detainees, consistent with Australian values and our domestic and international legal obligations.
Since the introduction of Australia's detainee management framework in Afghanistan on 1 August 2010, following the Dutch withdrawal from Uruzgan, three comprehensive audits of the detainee management framework have been undertaken, with one more comprehensive audit planned for this year. The last comprehensive audit undertaken in May this year included a review of the interrogation capability, which commenced in February this year; a review of the CCTV systems at the ADF's Initial Screening Area in Tarin Kowt; and consideration of practices and processes at the point of capture. The audit found that all detention activities conducted at the ADF Initial Screening Area over the period of the audit were in full compliance with Australian policy, Australia's international and domestic legal obligations and ISAF requirements. These audits are essential to verify that a strong governance framework remains in place and that we are able to address any issues that might arise.
As part of our detainee management framework, Australian officials monitor the welfare of all detainees transferred from ADF custody to Afghan or US custody. This is to ensure that detainees continue to be treated humanely following transfer from Australian custody. Australia's monitoring regime includes a Detainee Monitoring Team, led by the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade. The Detainee Monitoring Team visits each detainee shortly after transfer and approximately every four weeks after the initial visit. We continue to monitor detainees up until they are sentenced, after a criminal prosecution or released. This reflects the practice of our ISAF partners.
Between August 2010 and 11 August 2012, the monitoring team conducted 106 monitoring visits. This included 51 visits to the National Directorate of Security facility in Tarin Kowt, 16 visits to the Tarin Kowt Central Prison and 39 visits to the detention facility in Parwan. These visits are an essential mechanism to ensure detainees apprehended by the ADF are treated appropriately.
To date, our monitoring of ADF-apprehended detainees in Uruzgan and Parwan has not identified serious issues of concern that would warrant consideration of the suspension of transfers to these facilities. Separate from and in addition to the comprehensive audits of the detainee management framework, the first audit of Australia's detainee monitoring processes is currently underway. An audit team of officials from the Department of Defence and from the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade is reviewing Australia's detainee monitoring regime in Afghanistan. The audit team will report on the adequacy of current training provided to personnel involved in detainee monitoring and on the effectiveness of current practices and procedures and will, where necessary, make recommendations on possible improvements. I will provide an update to the House on the findings of this audit in due course.
Over the period between August 2010 and 11 August this year the ADF has detained 1,653 suspected insurgents. Of these, 115 detainees have been transferred to the Afghan authorities at the National Directorate of Security in Tarin Kowt and 83 detainees have been transferred to US authorities at the detention facility in Parwan.
Between August 2010 and 11 August this year the ADF captured 12 people who were subsequently released then recaptured. Six of the individuals in question were released as there was insufficient evidence to warrant their continued detention. Of the remaining six detainees, there was sufficient evidence to warrant their transfer and prosecution. Three were subsequently transferred to US custody at the detention facility in Parwan, and three were transferred to Afghan custody at the National Directorate of Security detention facility in Uruzgan.
In February this year, I announced the deployment of trained ADF interrogators to Afghanistan to question detainees apprehended by the ADF. Interrogation expands the ADF's ability to obtain information of operational and tactical value to help protect Australian personnel, the ANSF and the local Afghan population. Interrogation is conducted by ADF personnel who are qualified in interrogation—that is, only those personnel who have received specialised training undertake interrogation activities.
In February I also advised that the government had agreed to extend the time selected detainees could be held in Australian custody at the initial screening area, prior to their release or transfer, for the purpose of comprehensive screening. Any interrogation is undertaken during the approved period of extension for comprehensive screening. Comprehensive screening enables the ADF to determine whether a detainee has knowledge which could assist in the force protection of the ADF, ISAF and our Afghan partners.
As at 11 August this year approximately 28 per cent of detainees apprehended by the ADF while on operations in Afghanistan have undergone interrogation within the initial screening area since interrogation operations commenced in February. The length of time for which detainees can be held in the initial screening area may be extended beyond the standard 96 hours, or four days, for an additional three days, and a possible further extension of three days. Since the introduction of interrogation in February, on the advice of the Chief of Defence Force, I have authorised the extension of detention for one detainee for a further period of 20 days. That detainee was assessed as having valuable information that would directly assist the force protection of Australian, ISAF and Afghan personnel. The detainee was treated humanely and with dignity and respect at all times while in Australian custody. A review of the detention was conducted after every five-day period to ascertain a continuing requirement to detain for interrogation. The CDF and I were advised of the outcomes of each review, including the detainee's fitness for further detention. ISAF, Afghan authorities and Afghan human rights organisations were advised of the extension of detention. At the end of the further extension of detention, the detainee was transferred from ADF custody. The detainee was assessed on transfer as being in a fit and sound state.
Incidents and allegations
Allegations of m istreatment
Australia takes all allegations of detainee mistreatment seriously. I have provided regular updates on complaints and allegations of mistreatment the ADF has received since August 2010. During the period 1 August 2010 to 11 August 2012, there have been 141 allegations of mistreatment against Australian forces. Of these, 125 relate to treatment or an incident at the point of capture. To date, 123 of these allegations have been considered and have been assessed as unsubstantiated, while 18 allegations remain under investigation. In Australia's detention operations, the term 'allegation of mistreatment' is used to describe any perceived or alleged incident involving an individual who is in Australian custody. When a detainee is brought into our initial screening area, each detainee is specifically asked if they have any complaints about their treatment. Any complaint is treated as an allegation.
This terminology does not imply any wrongdoing on the part of the ADF or its personnel but simply that a person has made a complaint or an allegation about the treatment they, or another individual, has received or witnessed during the course of their interaction with the ADF or the Afghan National Security Forces.
Every allegation of detainee mistreatment received or observed by the ADF is required to be reported through the Australian military chain of command. Once reported, such allegations are promptly assessed or investigated. This process may include taking witness statements, examining any medical evidence as well as reviewing records and CCTV footage. Allegations and the outcomes of any assessments are reported to ISAF and key human rights and humanitarian organisations.
Treatment of d etainees by ANSF
Not only is Australia committed to holding our own personnel to the highest standards on detainee management, but, if ADF personnel become aware of concerns regarding the treatment of detainees by our ISAF or Afghan partners, this is treated with the same utmost seriousness. If a detainee consents, the specific allegation is brought to the attention of the Afghan authorities for investigation.
During the period August 2010 to 11 August this year, 46 allegations of detainee mistreatment have been made against the ANSF at the point of capture. These allegations have been referred to the ANSF for investigation.
During operations with the ANSF in Uruzgan, Australian forces promote adherence to human rights standards and other international legal obligations relevant to the treatment of detainees and the protection of the local civilian population. As part of the ADF's role in training and mentoring the ANSF, Australia provides human rights training to Afghan personnel and advises Afghan personnel on the correct procedures for handling detainees under applicable international law.
As well as the training provided by Australia to the ANSF, the ANSF in Uruzgan receives specific human rights training which covers detention operations from the Afghan Independent Human Rights Commission. The ADF also provides Afghan personnel practical advice on these issues in the field.
Allegations of p rocedural m isconduct
On occasion, issues arise with respect to the implementation of our detainee operations. I now update the House on those issues.
In February 2011 I advised the House that in late January 2011 the ADF Investigative Service (ADFIS) initiated an investigation into allegations made by a Defence member that previous members of the Detention Management Team in Afghanistan, responsible for managing the ADF Initial Screening Area at Tarin Kowt, may not have complied with procedures relating to the management and administrative processing of detainees. In my last statement to the House in May, I provided an update on these allegations, noting that three members of the previous Detainee Management Team had been charged with disciplinary offences relating to falsification of service documents.
I can now advise the House that in June this year, a fourth member of the previous Detainee Management Team was also charged. I also advise the House that the first of the hearings for these disciplinary offences occurred on 27 July this year. The accused ADF member was initially charged with 'falsification of a service document' but this charge was substituted at trial with a charge of 'prejudicial conduct'. The accused entered a plea of guilty to the charge and received a 'severe reprimand'. Further hearings are expected to occur later this year.
There continue to be no allegations or evidence to suggest that any detainees were mistreated by the Detainee Management Team. As this matter is subject to continuing disciplinary proceedings, I do not propose to comment further but will provide the House a further update as appropriate when these proceedings are complete.
R eview of questioning techniques
In May this year I advised the House that the ADF is conducting a review into aspects of the questioning techniques used during the initial screening of detainees in Afghanistan during 2010 and 2011.
During 2010 and 2011, the ADF was limited to conducting the tactical questioning, intelligence interviewing and debriefing of detainees apprehended in Afghanistan. The Chief of Defence Force has advised that a review of records from this period found potential irregularities in written reports stemming from initial questioning of detainees. This review is still underway and I will provide a further update to the House in due course. Again, none of the issues suggests any alleged physical mistreatment of detainees in the Initial Screening Area by ADF personnel.
Australia remains committed to transparency and providing information on civilian casualties in Afghanistan. The ADF takes the question of civilian casualties very seriously. The ADF operates under strict rules of engagement intended to minimise civilian casualties and deeply regrets any loss of innocent life.
In my 24 May statement to parliament I provided information on inquiries into four suspected civilian casualty incidents. Defence has finalised consideration of the inquiry into a possible civilian casualty incident during a partnered mentoring task force and Afghan National Army patrol in the Baluchi Valley region of Uruzgan province on 2 November 2010. Defence expects to be able to make public shortly the findings of the inquiry officer report following consultation with Afghan and ISAF partners.
The inquiries into the incident on 27 March 2011, when a small Afghan boy and an Afghan man were killed, and the incident on 29 October 2011, when Australian soldiers engaged and killed a man who approached their site at speed and failed to adhere to directions to stop, remain under consideration. I will advise the House of the outcomes of this consideration in due course.
An inquiry is also underway in relation to an incident on 1 May this year, when an Afghan boy was injured during an engagement between insurgents and Australian Special Forces and elements of the Afghan National Security Forces undertaking a partnered security operation. When complete, the inquiry will be considered, and I will advise of the outcome in due course.
Defence has acknowledged the delay in the public release of such reports of inquiries into civilian casualty incidents, and the Chief of the Defence Force (CDF) has instituted improved governance arrangements for the future management of such inquiries comparable to those instituted in relation to combat fatality reports.
I will continue to update the House on these issues and Afghanistan more broadly as appropriate. I table a paper in conjunction with my ministerial statement and ask leave of the House to move a motion to enable the honourable member for Fadden to speak for a period of 19 minutes.
That so much of the standing and sessional orders be suspended as would prevent the honourable member for Fadden speaking in reply to my statement for a period not exceeding 19 minutes.
Question agreed to.
I thank the minister for his update to the House and for his three previous updates this year, building on the work he did last year in keeping the House informed.
I join the minister, as we did on the first sitting of parliament this week, in acknowledging the tragic loss of Sergeant Blaine Diddams, a patrol commander with the Special Air Service Regiment who had done 10 tours of duty across Australia's conflict zones, including seven in Afghanistan. He was, tragically, the 33rd soldier to be killed in action on combat operations in Afghanistan and the 16th SOTG soldier killed in action. Since the beginning of this year, 21 further Australian soldiers have been wounded in action, 14 from strikes from improvised explosive devices. A total of 234 Australians have been wounded in action serving their country since the start of combat operations in Afghanistan.
We will not forget them. We will not leave a stone unturned to assist them. I note that, a few weeks ago on Channel 10, Matt Moran aired a story of Private H, from the 2nd Commando Regiment, who was shot in the neck during the engagement that tragically saw the death of Sergeant Todd Langley. What was disturbing about what Channel 10 aired was that Private H was having to pay for alternative treatment to address some of his disability or, indeed, using unit trusts. This should not be. The Chief of Army has quite rightly noted that the system is not perfect and that there are some delays and perhaps too much red tape. This should not be. I simply commit this morning that the coalition will ensure that every wounded soldier is cared for and provided every support, including alternative therapies if needed. I know that the minister is a man of great compassion and will be working towards this end as well.
I note that on 24 June MTF4 handed over its mission to my battalion, the 3rd Battalion, the Royal Australian Regiment, now known as the 3RAR Task Group. I commend the commanding officer of the 3rd Battalion, a classmate of mine from the academy and from RMC Duntroon, Lieutenant Colonel Trent 'Wobbler' Scott. I wish him and his boys and girls—there are many women serving with the 3rd Battalion—all the very best as they seek to do their duty within a very difficult environment. It is an outstanding battalion. They performed exceptionally well during the mission rehearsal exercises. They are well prepared. They are well trained. They are well configured. They have the right gear and the right support.
They are mentoring 4,000 soldiers of the ANA 4th Brigade through numerous valleys, hills, mountains and ravines. Be under no doubt: this is a tough gig. They fight a tough and resilient enemy. They are training the Afghan 4th Brigade from a base that is good, thanks to the great work that the previous battalions at MTF have done. It is still a difficult task.
Recently, members of this House from both sides came back from the Australian Defence Force parliamentary program. Some in Afghanistan spoke very highly, not only of our command elements but of our men and women and the work they were doing—high praise indeed from a bipartisan group that went over to Afghanistan.
I note the minister's comments on 17 July: Uruzgan province has started the third tranche of handing over. Command of the CT-U is now with an Australian command element, noting significant US logistics are still in place. That transition is all in line with the Lisbon and Chicago summits and has been agreed with the Afghan government.
I note the CDF's recent comments that that most ADF personnel will probably be out of Afghanistan by Christmas 2013, in line with the minister's statement that drawdown from 12 to 18 months will be predominantly complete for most of our force. I again posit the coalition's contention—it has been consistent for the last two years—that this should be, and it has been stated by the government that this will be, a metrics based, commander's-judgment-led drawdown. We will come home—we should come home—when the training work is done. I am pleased that from 1 July this year the 205th Hero Corps, of which the 4th ANA brigade is part, assumed lead command for security operations in Regional Command South, which includes four southern provinces, Uruzgan among them.
I note that the post-transition work is still being done. Again, the coalition agrees with the minister that a kinetic element based on the SOTG will remain. We contend again that Australian forces—I believe the minister has made this statement previously—will join our US colleagues for what they call 'Sandhurst in the sand,' and what I call 'Duntroon in the desert'. I still contend that we should let our gunners continue to train in the school of gunnery. Gunners like doing that and they do it well.
Clearly, as we are now 12 months out from an election and 18 months out from transition, the minister will need more and more information as the time gets closer as to how the transitions will look and how it will be done in reality. I thank the minister for his update on detainee management. I thank him for the work that the detainee monitoring team has been doing—106 visits since August 2010 well assures us that the issue of detainee management is being well monitored and well supervised.
I note the minister's statement that in the last two years 1,653 suspected insurgents have been detained. That is a reasonably large number considering the logistic challenges of, post-capture, detaining someone and bringing them back for tactical questioning and interrogation if needed. I thank the minister, as I have previously, for moving our detention, in line with ISAF partners, to 10 days. I also commend the minister on taking action to extend the detention in one case by a further 20 days. As a former military interrogator I understand the challenges of interrogating. The Afghan soldiers are tough men. It was a good decision to extend the time period out to 20 days. It was a difficult decision. I am sure it would have been the right decision.
I note that our enemy continues to use our open and fair processes against us, with 141 allegations of mistreatment in the last two years—90 per cent complaining about treatment at the point of capture. I remind the House that, at the point of capture, taking a suspected insurgent who does not want to be taken involves a modicum of force! It is not surprising that our enemy would complain about that modicum of force being used to detain them, when that is not what they want. I note that no findings have been substantiated and that every issue of complaint has been investigated. I can only conclude, using the language of the Australian outback, that our enemy at times are 'a pack of whingers'. I note that we have seen what the enemy do to ISAF soldiers: when they capture ISAF soldiers they are brutally tortured and killed. That does not stop us from being fair minded, open, democratic and accountable. The minister has certainly shown that to be the case, to the government's and ISAF's credit.
Minister, I note that it is still taking an inordinate amount of time to investigate tragic killed-in-actions in theatre. The green on blue incident of 29 October has still not been finalised. I note that the US routinely does this in 60 days. Previously, the minister has said that he would expedite this through extra resources. Minister, it would appear, with this incident still being seven, eight or nine months from being completed, that those resourced are not yielding the result that the parliament would like to see.
I think it is fair to say that these investigations need to happen more quickly. If the US can conclude them in 60 days there is no reason why Australia should still be taking nine months. Minister, I also note that the government has 10 sitting days for the Minister for Defence Personnel to respond to my disallowance motion in the House seeking to disallow the cutting of single leave entitlement travel for single members—22,000 single soldiers, sailors and airmen and airwomen.
Indeed, the disallowance stops on Monday, 17 September. It is important to state the coalition will not allow the pay, travel or leave entitlements of our soldiers, sailors and air men and women to be cut in search of a vain surplus. We have seen the impact of pride in terms of the disaster on our borders. We will not allow that to permeate into our ADF, resulting in the loss of entitlements.
So, Minister, I say to you respectfully: please instruct your Minister for Defence Science and Personnel to schedule a vote on the floor of the House on the cuts to single travel leave entitlements on or by 17 September. We cannot hide behind the CDF's coat-tails on this issue. It is time to vote. Frankly, I am keen to see how the member for Eden-Monaro will vote. He is a man I have great respect for, sitting at the front bench across from me. I want to see how he will vote when it comes to the leave entitlement for single men and women—of whom I believe you have a lot, Sir, in your electorate. I am keen to see how the member for Canberra will vote, considering she has much of the Defence establishment in Canberra. I am very keen to see how the member for Wakefield will vote, considering he has the base at Edinburgh—on or before, Minister, 17 September.
Minister, it will come as no surprise that today I will be moving an amendment to the veterans bill to seek to stop any further debate until DFRDB has been fairly indexed. I have been reliably told, Member for Eden-Monaro, and I am happy to be corrected, Parliamentary Secretary, that you told a veterans forum recently that you may be looking to introduce a private member's bill to index DFRDB pensions CSS and PSS. If that is not the case, the coalition will provide leave as soon as I finish speaking to allow you to correct the record. If it is the case, I say to the member for Eden-Monaro: bring on the private member's bill now—or, more importantly, support the coalition as we seek to stop debate on the minor amendments to the veterans bill coming before the House and support us as we seek to index DFRDB. Either way, the choice is yours. Respond to my contention here. The coalition will provide leave—I am looking at the Manager for Opposition Business—for the member for Eden-Monaro to point out that I am wrong, that he is not intending to bring it in, or to support the coalition. Sir, the choice this morning is yours.
Minister, thank you again for providing an opportunity to update the House on Afghanistan. You have been true to your word in terms of keeping the House informed. We look forward to further updates, especially now we are 12 months from an election and 18 months from the full drawdown. We look forward to further advice and information as to how the drawdown will continue.