George Orwell, are you listening? Truth warping about Afghanistan war crimes

We are being asked to believe that a cosy coterie of retired public servants and academics are going to drive Army change and make things all wonderfully transparent for us. What rubbish. Where do I get my tickets for that show?

Credit – Unsplash


Who controls the past controls the future. Who controls the present controls the past.” ― George Orwell

And so it begins. This week the government moved to consolidate total control over that ticking bomb called Afghanistan. The Prime Minister and the Defence Minister jointly announced a new deceit on the Australian public. This was a blueprint of new structures to apparently carry the Brereton Inquiry findings to the next level. So byzantine are these structures that Brereton’s findings are more likely to be cattle-prodded into a huge bureaucratic maze to wander around for years. Governments have long been wise to the exercise of control by the slow bureaucratic strangulation of a matter of public concern.

First, David McLure SC, was appointed special prosecutor by the Commonwealth Director of Public Prosecutions in May to manage the arraignment of people who have been the subject of serious adverse findings by the Brereton Inquiry or either of the two Australian Federal Police inquiries. McLure is a colonel in the Australian Army Reserve and was in Afghanistan with special forces in 2008.

Added to that we have a new Office of the Special Investigator. This person, a senior counsel or retired judge, will address potential criminal matters raised by the Brereton inquiry, and will investigate allegations, gather evidence and (where appropriate) refer briefs to the Commonwealth Director of Public Prosecutions. That sounds very much like what McLure has been asked to do. Welcome to the maze.

In the same announcement the PM said he was stripping the AFP of any further single agency involvement in the investigation of Afghanistan war crimes. This must have come as a surprise to the AFP Commissioner, Reece Kershaw, who, in October, was talking about extra resources for his war crimes unit. Morrison said the AFP, which would normally prepare a brief of evidence for the CDPP, lacks resources and talent to investigate the people named by Brereton and would be “overwhelmed” by the task. Not if you resourced them, Prime Minister.

After all, the AFP have been running two war crime investigations for some time now. This included forensic visits to Afghanistan to collect evidence. In September, the Federal Court heard that the AFP have obtained eyewitness accounts implicating Ben Roberts-Smith in war crimes. I wonder what happened to that investigation.

The government has also announced a new extension to its bureaucratic maze in the establishment of a new “independent” oversight panel to drive cultural change within the ADF and implement the Brereton report’s recommendations. Defence Minister Reynolds said the oversight panel was being established so there was “accountability and transparency that sits outside of the ADF chain of command and outside of government”. A cosy coterie of retired public servants and academics are going to drive Army change and make things all wonderfully transparent for us. What rubbish. Where do I get my tickets for that show?

Media reports this week suggest that 10 Special Air Service troopers, mostly from 2-Squadron and 3-Squadron, are to be charged with horrendous war crimes. And so they should be. But if that’s it, then Brereton’s four-year fishing trip has left a lot of killer whales out there.

We are not going to get anywhere as a nation unless the military commanders, all the way up to the then chiefs of the Defence Force, Admiral Chris Barrie (1998-2002), General Peter Cosgrove (2002-2005), Air Chief Marshall Angus Houston (2005-2011), and General David Hurley (2011-2014), are held to account. Together these men ran a war machine inside of which were some very dark Mad Max moments. They should be talking to us, explaining what they did when reports of war crimes landed on their desks.

And then there’s the political commanders. John Howard who took us into Afghanistan and Julia Gillard who kept us there. Where is the evidence that they asked hard questions of the free ranging Dr. Strangeloves in Special Forces Command?

Such accountability is not going to happen through the bureaucratic maze Morrison and Reynolds have built. There are only two mechanisms guaranteed to hold to account more people than the shooters, in this, our My Lai moment. Parliament, not the government, should be orchestrating change, healing, and (to pick up on a lost agenda), compensation to the families of Afghan victims of Australia’s war of shame.

Parliament is perfectly able to come together and explore how it should handle this point in our history. It has already done so with three current national issues; natural disaster arrangements; the abuse, neglect and exploitation of people with disabilities; and the crisis in our aged care sector.

A royal commission into Australia’s War in Afghanistan would make a lot of sense. We have never had one into war. It would bring out voices that have not spoken. In fact, it could act as a massive enfranchisement. How we went to war in Afghanistan, how we made war when we got there and what we have done in the aftermath to correct the abuses, care for our damaged soldiers and make war reparations to the Afghan people.  It’s worth thinking about.

The other avenue, beyond Morrison’s and Reynolds’ horticultural interest in maze-making, is a self-referral to the International Criminal Court. In fact, the current blueprint for getting to post-Brereton is a conscious attempt to pre-empt the Hague option. The Prime Minister recently said as much.

After 10 years of snail slow diplomacy, on 5 March, the Appeals Chamber of the International Criminal Court in The Hague announced that it would start a criminal investigation into numerous allegations of atrocities committed during the armed conflict in Afghanistan. The ICC prosecutor appears to be targeting the Taliban, its affiliated Haqqani network, the Afghan National Security Force, US armed forces and CIA personnel. It is not clear interest will extend to the behaviour of Australian troops in Afghanistan.

Meanwhile tomorrow (19 November), some morsel of the Brereton Report will be made public. I could sleep all that day and still tell you what is going to happen. Anzac sacredness will kick in, as it always does, and there will be a rush to protect our soldiers. Morrison has said it is going to be a be a particularly difficult time for our serving and veteran community. It won’t be difficult for the Afghan victims because they are all dead.

The Cisco Kid, Peter Dutton, on the Nine Network has said that “we owe it to the soldiers” that the allegations are taken seriously. Just the soldiers, Peter? No one else? Meanwhile, that beating heart of Aussie idealism, Karl Stefanovic, said on Nine’s Today: “We have to be careful here that the men and women of our Defence aren’t tainted with the same brush… No one can know the sacrifices they make, no one can know what it’s like to be in the hills of Afghanistan for months.” Well, except the Afghanis, Karl, who have been in those hills for bloody centuries.

If the redacted report does not mention names but incidences, then joining the dots will identify a particular person. If that happens that will be the only news that day, both here and internationally.

Tomorrow is shaping up to be momentous, one way or the other.

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William De Maria’s next book, Australia’s War of Shame. Afghanistan 2001-2013, is due out in 2021, the 20th anniversary of the occupation of Afghanistan year.

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