Ministerial war crimes

Those who will not be put on trial as a result of investigations into Australian operations in Afghanistan will be those most responsible – the ministers who committed Australian troops to a protracted war where our forces could not readily distinguish friend from foe.

In apologising to the people of Afghanistan for the alleged behaviour of some Australian soldiers in Afghanistan, the Chief of the Defence Force General Angus Campbell perpetuated the lie that successive governments have used to justify our presence in the country.

He said the alleged behaviour profoundly disrespected the trust placed in us by the Afghan people “who had asked us to their country to help them”.

Where might we find the invitation or the Afghanistan national plebiscite with an affirmative answer to the question: Would you like soldiers from Australia to come to fight in Afghanistan? Of course, there’s no such thing.

How did we get involved? We all know. On 11 September 2001 Al Qaeda terrorists (none of whom were Afghani, but 15 of whom were Saudi Arabian) hi-jacked planes and crashed into the twin towers in New York and the Pentagon.

In response, the Americans launched special forces raids into Afghanistan in an attempt to kill or capture Al Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden and his supporters who were held responsible for the attacks. Then prime minister John Howard dispatched Australian special forces to join the operation.

At the time Afghanistan was run by Islamic fundamentalists known as the Taliban. Much as we may not like them, the Taliban governed Afghanistan and at no time did they invite the Americans or the Australians, British or other foreign troops into their country. Over the years the mission changed from killing or capturing bin Laden, who it turned out had left Afghanistan early in the piece and holed up in Pakistan, to a mission to overthrow the Taliban.

To this day the Defence Department’s website dishonestly states: “Since 2001, Australia’s mission in Afghanistan has been to support the Afghan Government help contain the threat from international terrorism.”

Since the 1960s such lies seem to have been an essential part of the justification for Australian participation in invasive wars. Then prime minister Robert Menzies argued that we had to join the American war on Vietnam to stop the communist Chinese. Speaking in the House of Representatives on 29 April 1965 he claimed to have had a request from the South Vietnamese government for military assistance. In fact, he held no such request.

Even worse, Menzies was apparently unaware that the Vietnamese had a long history of resisting the Chinese. He did not know that the war was a continuation of the Vietnamese fight for independence from colonial control and he could not see, or did not care, that foreign fighters would inevitably come to be seen as the enemy.

Another Liberal PM, John Howard, took us to war in 2003 based on the lie that Iraq had an arsenal of weapons of mass destruction. There was no UN authorisation for this invasion. If anyone should be put on trial for war crimes it those who co-sponsored this invasion — US president George W. Bush, British prime minister Tony Blair and Howard.

But we know it won’t happen, despite the thousands of lives lost and destruction of the region.

In these wars — Vietnam, Iraq, Afghanistan — social, cultural, religious and political differences and the actions of the troops ensure that foreign forces will never be seen as liberators. They will always be invaders.

In Afghanistan, serious casualty incidents emerged from early in the operation, as Brian Toohey documents in his book Secret. On 17 May 2002, Australian SAS troops mistakenly caused the death of at least 11 civilians wrongly assumed to be Al Qaeda members.

Then defence minister Robert Hill was confident they were Al Qaeda and told Toohey in a fax on 21 May 2002: “There are well-defined personnel identification matrices used by our special forces to identify al Qaeda. In general, the tactical behaviour and the weapons and equipment they are carrying are quite distinct from the behaviour and weapons carried by the local Afghan people.” But the following month the New York Times reported details of the clash and revealed that the Afghans involved were not Al Qaeda and were from two tribes opposed to the Taliban.

Coalition governments are not alone in feeling the need to ingratiate themselves with the Americans and blunder into these conflicts. Labor prime minister Julia Gillard, for example, enthusiastically supported Australia’s involvement in Afghanistan when she told parliament on 19 October 2010 that Australia would stay “for at least another decade”. In the following year, Western special forces maintained night-time raids on Afghan homes at the rate of 1,000 a month, actions hardly likely to be seen by the sufferers as friendly support.

Some effort might be made to determine how far up the chain of command the actions of the special forces soldiers who are alleged to have committed crimes, were transmitted and known. Possibly some action will be taken against those in command. Questions should also be asked of the dozen ASIS people in Afghanistan. Did they know of any of these alleged crimes? And if so what did they do about it?

The allegations also draw attention to the problems arising from secrecy and privileges given to agencies. Over recent years an increasing number, such as ASIO, the AFP, Australian Crime Commission has been given increased powers to question and detain in secret, opening the way to an abuse of power.

But equally, or more, important is the need to question the political processes and mindset that starts from the top with lies, half-truths and propaganda and ends with us engaged in war.

Today China is the subject of the US propaganda campaign and where the White House leads, Australia is sure to follow.

Prime Minister Scott Morrison may claim that Australia makes its own decisions on foreign policy but nowhere does he demonstrate this independence through his government’s actions. If he wanted this country to be seen as a sovereign nation he could start by pulling all our forces out of Afghanistan and Iraq and promising careful consideration before we join any other expeditionary ventures.

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Paul Malone is a journalist and author with over 30 years of experience having worked for the Sydney Morning Herald, The Age, The Australian Financial  Review and the Canberra Times, where he was Political Correspondent for five years and wrote a weekly column until late 2017. His latest book Kill the Major – The true story of the most successful Allied guerrilla war in Borneo will be released in July

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