Our Prime Ministers and other senior Ministers must bear the greatest responsibility for atrocious decisions to involve us in wars in Afghanistan, Iraq, and Vietnam. They have shown repeatedly that they are not up to the task.
At least 39 cold-blooded murders have been committed in our name by Australian special forces in Afghanistan between 2005 and 2016. Appropriately there has been much analysis and wringing of hands at the official revelation of these atrocities, which have included experienced soldiers bullying newbies to commit murder so that they would be “blooded”. Can we sink any lower?
And where does responsibility lie? There is surely plenty for sharing.
War is a thoroughly bad idea, albeit very occasionally an appropriate last resort. Even when it becomes a last resort, one can usually identify errors and missed opportunities that might have avoided armed conflict – as in the case of the Second World War, in which, to his great credit, my father fought.
It has always been the case that troops on all sides get killed and injured in war. Going back to at least the First World War, one of the major negative consequences of war is the effect of what was called shell-shock in that conflict – severe psychological injuries. Since at least the Second World War, war has been as dangerous for non-combatants as to the fighters. Especially in earlier times, deaths from disease to combatants and non-combatants alike were massive.
Since at least the Vietnam War, Australia has been much too ready to follow the United States into conflicts which we should have avoided. We should have avoided those conflicts including because, in no particular order, Australian interests were not sufficiently at stake to justify intervention, in some cases, the intervention was likely illegal, the intervention was based on lies and deceptions, insufficient effort had been made to find alternatives to conflict, we partnered in the theatre of war with brutal strong men who were not obviously the white hats in the conflict, or in their own countries, there was no clear objective in the intervention, there was not a proper appreciation or assessment of the prospects of attaining whatever political or other objective was stated, we and our allies fundamentally misunderstood the situation in which we all elected to get involved, and there was no proper appreciation or assessment of the cultural and political environment of the intervention, which led almost inevitably to massive unintended negative consequences.
In Australia, LNP Governments have repeatedly committed troops to other people’s wars. Our Governments have been ever prepared to make speeches on Anzac Day and to take advantage of surprise battledress photo opportunities to Afghanistan or wherever, but they have fallen down badly in their OH&S obligations to the people they have sent to fight. They have failed both in terms of ensuring that exposure to the risks of e.g. PTSD are minimized; and that at all stages – to the end of life of the veteran – those veterans are given the very best of support that a wealthy country can provide. That remains the situation.
Mostly we assume that our political leaders know what they are doing and that they act sensibly and on the basis of the best advice. Rarely do we sit back and carefully analyse what has happened to see if those assumptions are borne out. Even then, at least in the Australian political context, we are greatly hampered until many decades after the event, when the key players are dead or demented, by a lack of information as to what has really occurred.
However, we can, I suggest, make intelligent deductions about how we got Australian military forces – and special forces in particular – into wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. The picture which emerges is not pretty.
Then Prime Minister, John Howard gave as the justification for going to war in Iraq that it possessed weapons of mass destruction and was developing nuclear weapons and that the UN’s disarmament efforts had failed. These assertions were untrue. Overthrowing Saddam Hussein proved easy. But the negative effects of his overthrow have been profound, and continue to reverberate through the Middle East and beyond – sectarian violence between Shias and Sunnis, persecution of Christians and Kurds, civil wars and wars involving Syria and Yemen, increased terrorist activity, extending to Europe, mass killings, including of civilians across the Middle East, mass refugee movements, which have had a very destabilising effect in many European counties, as well of course as involving massive humanitarian suffering and death.
It is inconceivable that these profound impacts of the decision to remove Saddam Hussein were predicted – either by Australia or its allies. It is inconceivable because the price that is still being paid for removing that nasty dictator has been absurdly high. According to Kevin Rudd, the decision to go to war in Iraq was made “without independent Australian analysis of the legitimacy of American war aims, the credibility of American military strategy to both win the war and secure the peace, as well as the long-term consequences for Australian national interests.” That is appalling.
It was also Howard as Prime Minister who put us into the war in Afghanistan. Daniel Flitton of the Lowy Institute has written a recent article: “Australia’s mission in Afghanistan – what was it again?” It is an excellent question.
Flitton argues that the idea of Australian special forces committing war crimes:
“was not a risk to which any government, of any persuasion, was ever alerted. Ministers were briefed that the task was manageable. The responsibility lies in the Australian Defence Force, not with the government of the day. And the inquiry report is right in its emphasis that responsibility for the alleged behaviour lies foremost with the 25 current or former Australian Defence Force personnel involved, the bulk from the elite Special Air Service Regiment.”
Flitton writes that “Afghanistan was a war where most of the Australian public – let alone the government or the top-level military commanders – couldn’t really define what the mission involved … what, really, was the mission?”
Flitton recounts that on 22 October 2001, just after 9/1, Howard sent the special forces to Afghanistan invoking the ANZUS Treaty and that a few days later he declared: “The immediate goal is to seek out and destroy al Qaeda and ensure that Afghanistan can never again serve as a base from which terrorists can operate.”
Just over a year later they returned home. But in August 2005, Howard sent them back, saying that their mission was now to uphold democracy. Over the years, the SAS would have 20 rotations involving 3000 personnel.
Flitton quotes Kevin Rudd as Prime Minister saying that the Australian government remained committed “to assisting the people of Afghanistan and their democratically elected government to achieve a measure of the stability and prosperity that we take for granted in our country.”
In October 2011 Julia Gillard as Prime Minister said: “I’m also very conscious of the need to see the mission through”. She reiterated that in August 2012, and spoke of progress being made.
Tony Abbott as Prime Minister finally pulled the plug on the deployment to Afghanistan in October 2013, “not with victory, not with defeat”. Politicians can spin anything.
Flitton’s conclusion is that:
“this was a mission where the prospect of victory had long been surrendered. The insistence of ‘seeing the mission through’ gradually replaced any actual purpose for the mission. As one SAS trooper is now reported to have said when confronted by atrocities in 2012, ‘No, we’re definitely not trying to win the war any more’.”
What was achieved on the positive side of the ledger?
Liberal MP and former SAS captain Andrew Hastie have spoken about his Afghan experience. Hastie is Chair of the Parliamentary Joint Committee on Intelligence and Security: “I had soldiers who deployed three, four, five and six times and people were tired, they were calloused, and it was a very, very challenging environment.
Hastie said it should be no surprise that sending soldiers repeatedly back to Afghanistan with insufficient accountability led to war crimes: “War is incredibly degrading. It’s inherently violent, and it’s escalatory”.
Back in full colonial times, the objectives of military interventions in small countries were straightforward enough – it was about using just enough force to keep the natives quietly terrorised so that the economic business of colonization could prosper. For a whole lot of reasons, the world is much more complicated today. Our political – and perhaps also our military leaders – seem to be slow to learn that lesson – to the cost of many.
I disagree with Flitton that the fault lies primarily with our military leadership. Fortunately, we live in a country where the military is subservient to the political leaders. Our Prime Ministers and other senior Ministers must bear the greatest responsibility for atrocious decisions to involve us in wars in Afghanistan, Iraq, and Vietnam. They have shown repeatedly that they are not up to the task.