Not knowing one’s enemy: fundamental intelligence failures in Australia’s Afghanistan and Vietnam

Feb 15, 2021

There are disturbing parallels between what occurred in Afghanistan and what occurred 50 years earlier in Vietnam. The accidental killing of innocents is one link. So, too, is the intelligence vacuum into which our expeditionary military tradition sucked us in both countries.

The Brereton Report has quite a bit to say about ‘false operational and intelligence reporting’ (p 78) and its routine manipulation within Australian Special Operations Task Group (SOTG) channels in Afghanistan.

Intelligence reporting was ‘controlled in a manner so as to avoid any inconsistency with operational reporting’ (p 453), which was itself chronically flawed. It was also ‘considered normal practice to change the Intelligence Summary that was supposed to drive activity to accord with what actually happened on the ground’ (p 524).

Since professional intelligence advisers are further said to have been ‘marginalised’ in ‘target development’ (p 457), it seems that those changing the summaries were relatively low-level commanders rather than the professional intelligence people.

The outcomes of such corrupted SOTG intelligence work were likely to be far reaching. The redacted Report leaves us reasonably to imagine two consequences: the blinding of higher staff and commanders to battlefield reality and increasing the likelihood of killing the wrong people.

Compounding the mishandling of intelligence within SOTG is a problem raised in a recent article in The Australian – “Afghan henchman ‘used ADF troops’ ” – by a Dutch Afghanistan scholar Bette Dam (with Amanda Hodge): the Australian Defence Force’s ‘reliance on dubious intelligence sources’ and ‘false intelligence’ during its service in Orzugan Province between 2006 and 2013.

Dam argues that the Australian military’s heavy reliance for its intelligence in Afghanistan on a notorious strongman led to ‘unnecessary killings’ that should be scrutinised in a broader review.

When Australian troops arrived in Afghanistan with the mission to build security by fighting the Taliban, the Australian government didn’t explain – most likely because it didn’t know – that its forces ‘were stepping into the outcome of a neglected peace effort [in the region] that had descended into revenge attacks and blood killings’.

Dam says there had been no Taliban in the region before 2002; those that emerged in the post-2004 insurgency ‘weren’t diehard anti-Westerners but locals with tribal grievances who shifted loyalties to latent Taliban commanders to avenge the antagonisms of the provincial strongmen’.

In 2010, NATO’s top military intelligence official in Afghanistan US Major General Michael Flynn was still reported as saying that allied intelligence officers were operating in an information vacuum, were ignorant of local dynamics and, in his words, ‘were unable to answer fundamental questions about the environment in which they were working’.

Australian forces were unaware of ‘the ulterior motives of some they chose to work with’. Directed by the Americans to a local warlord, Dam informs us that our Special Forces Commanders received much intelligence from:

“Matiullah Khan, Orzugan’s police commander and local strong man who – thanks to international intervention – became a powerful and wealthy political player. Anyone not with him was an enemy, and he labelled all his enemies Taliban. This dangerous man – notorious for having tied a man with a rope to the back of a car and dragging him around until he died – was ingrained in local deals and rivalries.”

The ABC’s Andrew Greene reported that Khan, who ‘was a key figure during Australia’s lengthy involvement in the Afghanistan War’ – and who was later assassinated in 2015 – regularly presented Australian Special Forces Commanders with ‘Rado watches worth more than $1,000’.

Tasked by intelligence derived from Khan, Australian soldiers, who believed they were killing Taliban, were more likely to be killing his enemies – and creating more Taliban – while bolstering his power.

Little surprise that, in all the personalised chaos, Australians could accidentally kill the wrong people. Dam’s article details a specific example of an Australian commando-led operation in Sorgh Morghab in 2009; it is alleged to have killed six members of an extended Afghan family, including five children, ‘because Australian intelligence was flawed. The wrong man in the wrong house and wrong village was targeted’.

This incident didn’t make the Brereton Report, which was preoccupied with the murder and torture of defenceless non-combatants. It is unknown how many killings resulting from cases of mistaken identity embedded in an intelligence failures or operational blunders. That other such killings occurred is nonetheless undoubted.

The Brereton Report makes numerous references to ‘throwdowns’ – the practice by which Australian soldiers attempted retrospectively to justify their improper or accidental killing of people by planting weapons or military equipment on their bodies. The report correctly notes that ‘throwdowns’ were also intended to disguise troublesome cases of accidental killing.

Throwdowns also occurred in Vietnam, although they might not have been as prevalent as the Report suggests; soldiers were too overloaded on patrol to carry extra weapons and equipment. Still, there were often indications of civilians being killed when they did not know they were in a ‘free-fire zone’, accidentally wandered into an Australian ambush, or were victims of something-like US Phoenix Program operations, which targeted presumed enemies in villages with clandestine death squads that became notorious for killing the wrong people.

Killing the wrong people is shocking to contemplate. That is, however, part of what happens when armies are sent to war: lethal mistakes go with lethal force. In complex counterinsurgencies involving civilians, the risk of mistakes by Australian commanders, intelligence officers and soldiers is then heightened when they can’t for the most part be expected to understand the histories, cultures, politics and languages of the countries, in which they are operating. Neither are the armies responsible for sending themselves to war; the government and people are.

The accidental killing of innocents by Australians in Afghanistan is not the only link with Vietnam. Something else that doesn’t make the Brereton Report is something we’d also prefer to forget: the intelligence vacuum into which the persistent historical absurdity of our expeditionary military tradition sucked us in both countries.

So ignorant was the Australian government of what was going on in Vietnam that it anticipated no need to talk with the local people. When the First Australian Task Force (1ATF) was ordered to occupy it base at Nui Dat in Phuoc Tuy Province in 1966, our force planners had forgotten to allocate funds for intelligence officers to hire interpreters. The officers had to purloin the monies from other allocations.

Inevitably, the go-to man for the Commander 1ATF was the local strong man, the Saigon government Province Chief. My book The Minefield: an Australian tragedy in Vietnam (2007) is then about one of the main outcomes of contact in 1967 between the two.

With the Province Chief’s concurrence and appearance of operational support, that outcome was the plan devised by the Australian Commander Brigadier Stuart Graham to lay the 11-kilometre barrier minefield containing more than 20,000 lethal M16 mines, which brought on the largest Australian military disaster since the Second World War.

Again, much as in Afghanistan, the government had not provided the army with adequate forces to fight the war, to which it had also willy-nilly committed them without adequate intelligence.

In Afghanistan, this eventually conditioned the alleged spate of Australian war crimes we’ve recently been talking about.

The importance of the Brereton report on our alleged war crimes in Afghanistan

Lest we also forget what happened when Graham laid the minefield to try to compensate for the shortage of manpower and armaments, with which the government had abandoned him in a highly complex tactical situation in Vietnam.

Regardless of Graham’s discussions with the Province Chief, people in the village he was trying to protect turned out to be his enemies. He left the village side of the minefield unguarded, so that the people there – young women – entered the minefield and began lifting them.

Before long, otherwise very lightly armed local guerrillas were lifting the mines in their thousands and, by replanting them, turning them back with deadly effect against 1ATF and its allies. Mines lifted from the Australian minefield killed and mutilated more than 500 Australian and allied soldiers and civilians.

Australian war leaders have failed a primary requirement of the art of war: know your enemy. Remarkably, those driving our wars for at least the past 50 years have had little, if any effective idea of who or where their enemy was.

The surface reason is no mystery. In at least Vietnam and Afghanistan, the American armies, with which Australian strategists have deeply desired an Australian military connection, have been no better at knowing their enemy than our armies have.

The mystery is, rather, that we don’t want to know this.

There has been justified criticism in relation to the war crimes issue that the government is still far from establishing responsibility at the highest as well as the lowest levels for what Major General Findlay described last June as the ‘poor moral leadership’ leading to the alleged commission of the crimes. We should add that the government also seems to be evading the even larger, persistent problem that goes beyond the issue of leadership itself: our systemic military failures.

The large historical question is why we participate in US campaigns with inadequate forces, even as the campaigns continue to feature US strategic failure as well as our own, and even as there is, in any case, no discernible connection between those campaigns and the defence of Australia.

The problem is not so much that Australian warmakers don’t know the histories and cultures of the countries that have repulsed our US led interventions over the past half century and more. It’s rather that they operate in a culture that prevents them from reflecting on the spurious sense of threat that drives our expeditionary military tradition from within.

The profound intelligence problem is that we don’t know our own history.

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