ANDREW FARRAN. Special Forces: The Downside – Impossible missions out of country and out of culture

The Australian Special Forces are again in the firing line for alleged misconduct in combat, in relation to which the Inspector-General of the Australian Defence Force is expected to hand down a report in the near future. The number of alleged incidents are more than previously believed, though relatively small overall.

Recent commentary on this matter has contrasted these alleged actions (indeed war crimes) with the legendary traditions and values of ‘diggers’ at Gallipoli or on the Western Front, or the Kokoda Trail.

Such comparisons are misplaced. In those earlier times the respective wars had clear objectives, the enemy wore identifiable uniforms, and the campaigns were not seen as indefinite in duration. There was a clear ‘end game.’ Moreover, overseas forces in those earlier times were confident in the support they received from home by a fully mobilised nation with a shared purpose.

In the case of Afghanistan the military operations had been undertaken as a response to the terrorist atrocities at the Twin Towers in New York and elsewhere in America, but since then their purpose has degenerated into a fruitless campaign (with some illegal elements) to impose on the Afghans a system of government derived from an alien culture – and which is seen by the Afghans to be intrusive, regardless of how they might view the Taliban.

This has become an insuperable objective, dragging our forces into some seventeen years of military conflict with no clear end in sight. The ‘enemy’ is both everywhere and nowhere; it is virtually invisible, and even if it is visible it doesn’t wear recognisable uniforms. It is concealed deeply among the general population

Elite groups like the Special Forces are deployed in small units to penetrate and neutralise the enemy in what are real life threatening operations. And they do this over and over again. Cumulatively any gains may be short lived. Having survived one or two deployments, and then recycled too soon without any strategic improvement in the military situation, they may ultimately succumb to mission exhaustion, cynicism and frustration.

In this regard terms such as the ‘fog of law’ and the ‘fog of war,’ concealed in a strategic miasma, are coined to rationalise the loosening of legal standards and accountability. The ‘mission’ becomes secondary to personal survival. Sense of purpose may be lost. In a moment of exasperation, despite the best of training, responsible action may give way to anger and something tragic and regrettable may result, along with a culture of indifference and collective impunity.

The combination of prolonged unremitting warfare without a credible strategy to motivate, involving forces highly skilled in killing and deception, in situations that may compromise any sense of a moral compass, is something that governments should take both cognisance of and responsibility for. These troops are sent forth in our name. We might ask in the first place: Why all these many endless wars so carelessly entered into – and not satisfactorily concluded?

The resulting harm may not always be on the battlefield. In might be inflicted in the home when a stressed or disturbed soldier returns to family, then or even years later.

The Defence arm has now seen the wisdom of providing additional and specific training for SAS officers in ethics, morality and courage in leadership. This must be for the good even if it might seem too little, too late.

In conclusion we might ask further: Do we need these forces, apart from their skills, at all? If we do, then it follows that those responsible for these operations should be more careful about how they are trained and deployed overseas. They should ensure that their deployment is truly and directly in the national interest and not just as a lethal force-for-hire to serve opportunist political or quasi-imperial purposes further afield.

This article first appeared in the Australian War Powers Reform Bulletin # 60

Andrew Farran is AWPR Committee Member, former diplomat, trade adviser and senior academic in public and international law

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2 Responses to ANDREW FARRAN. Special Forces: The Downside – Impossible missions out of country and out of culture

  1. Kien Choong says:

    If even the highly skilled Australian SAS can suffer from inadequate training, how much more the under-resourced military or police forces of (say) Myanmar, Afghanistan, Syria and other countries with weak institutions?

    I often think that Western governments spend some of their defence budget on helping conflict-vulnerable countries train their police or military force on basic capabilities like crowd control, it would go a long way to reducing police/military abuses, and promoting long-term peace and security.

  2. Bruce Cameron says:

    Hi Andrew,

    I agree that those who create the ‘envelope of deployment’ of our forces (ie. the frequency, debriefing, training, equipping, stress management etc) must shoulder a considerable part of the responsibility if things go awry. I cannot agree, however, that the absence of military uniforms on the part of an enemy, is a reason for setting different standards. Rules of Engagement are defined for all conflicts to which troops are deployed. A personal example is relevant.

    During a night ambush in Vietnam two enemy were seen approaching (that is, two pairs of legs, one following the other, were seen through the very ‘ordinary’ night vision equipment provided at the time). Rules of Engagement were such that we could not engage unless the enemy were positively identified (ie. we had to be sure that they were carrying weapons) … so what do we do?

    Count Down … Three, Two, One: Switch On!

    The order related to the lights which had been set up prior to the ambush.

    I don’t know who got the biggest shock, us, or the largest buck deer anyone could imagine! (The four legs turned out to be attached to one animal, albeit a big one).

    Now we could have engaged on the basis that the assumed enemy were breaking a curfew and were in an area that they shouldn’t have been … but the ROE were written to ensure that these weren’t local villagers who were late returning from their farming.

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