Our MPs and Generals hope we forget the foolish Afghanistan war and the wounds it left on our honour

Apr 20, 2021
Afghanistan feature
(Image: Unsplash)

The aftermath of the Brereton inquiry into war crimes committed by SAS soldiers involves much more than continuing efforts to prosecute. It also involves findings of the degree of culpability of officers at all levels above the non-commissioned soldiers accused, as well as the whole culture of the SAS, perhaps of the whole army.

That some of those at the top of Australia’s military establishment, including General Angus Campbell, the Chief of the Defence Force, were at various times in command positions in the SAS or closely involved in the Australia deployment has made some of the questions even more embarrassing.

By the time of the Brereton report’s release, most of the patrols on which atrocities occurred involved only five or six men, usually led by a sergeant or corporal. Junior officers did not embark on these and relied on reports given to them by patrol leaders. Some patrol leaders, indeed, were said to have prevented communications from base to scene of operations so that superiors at base could not second guess their actions.

But Brereton suggested there were many signs of things which were seriously out of order. Among these were formal complaints of unlawful killings, many of which came from Afghan human rights figures. Other complaints were sent to the department of foreign affairs, which, apparently, could scarcely be bothered to pass them on to defence, let alone record them for Canberra purposes.

SAS officers showed their “loyalty to their men” by dismissing Afghan complaints out of hand, suggesting that complaints were made up so as to get compensation. Officers who asked questions were effectively punished by their superiors and openly dissed by those below them. A junior officer, in particular, would know that his next promotion would depend on a warm endorsement by a patrol leader – sometimes a corporal.

Thus, officers at all levels could pretend that they had no idea of the killing of civilians and other abuses. The perpetrators were secretive and close-knit. The possible exception being their Perth headquarters, where rumours which could no longer be ignored began to circulate.

It has seemed to me, as it did to Brereton, that claimed ignorance was a cop-out. Officers, at all levels, had duties of ordinary management over their men and had to know them, and their temperament, closely. No superior in a bank or an airline would be allowed to escape censure for failing to know what staff were doing. In any event, the SAS was an elite military environment, as well as a 24-hour operation. SAS soldiers might be expected to have unusual arrangements for supervision and initiative on duty – a measure of the danger and the nature of the missions they did. But the very sensitive nature of their missions required an unusual understanding by superiors of where they were and what they were doing.

It was once of the essence of SAS activities – involving, sometimes, the bringing on of sudden explosive violence well inside enemy lines that they rehearsed and practised operations, and afterwards conducted searching inquests for any mistakes, or for any lessons which could make an operation work better. This seemed to go by the wayside in Afghanistan, with reports to officers made deliberately perfunctory, so as to avoid questions and scrutiny, and with officers deliberately making reports further up the chain bland and uninteresting, in part to conceal the writer’s own ignorance, lack of curiosity or incapacity to satisfy curiosity. How strange that the most senior officers were so easily satisfied.

If we now know that many SAS patrols were being monitored by high altitude drones, well capable of demonstrating discrepancies in what was reported, and, occasionally, murder, assaults of civilians, the planting of evidence to suggest that civilians were combatants and so on, it seems a remarkable thing that no one ever used them to check up on the men in the field. If they were not in fact used for such purposes, why were they in place? And if they were in practice superfluous to the mission, why all of the palaver about their very existence being top secret?

Morrison government ministers, including the then minister for defence, Linda Reynolds, were mysteriously absent when the Brereton report was released, leaving General Campbell to face most of the music. He gave every appearance of acting decisively, including foreshadowing a major attack on the culture which had developed in the SAS and stripping some units of citations.

It soon became apparent that the government itself had very little appetite for a tough response. Campbell was, in effect, told to leave some responses for later government consideration, and generally to play things fairly low key. Nothing much happened after the report, and since then the government has become inundated with issues of respect for women and protection against assault, particularly in the workplace, plus the sidelining, and eventual replacement of Reynolds as she became enmeshed in controversy over her handling of a rape in her office.

Whether Peter Dutton will demand action, or whether, instead, he decides to embark on some new crusade which further relegates matters into the too-hard basket, is yet to be seen. Campbell has not helped the reform cause much by his having chosen, as a person to lead cultural change, a middle-ranking officer soon shown to have been a participant in SAS hi-jinks of the sort he was supposed to stamp out.

Pray there is no victory parade. We leave, as we left Gallipoli, well beaten

Meanwhile, Morrison has been looking for some public relations triumph to offset his run of disasters in recent months. When President Biden announced the end of an American military presence in Afghanistan (and the abandonment of promises of protection from the Taliban), Morrison had little choice but to follow suit. Announcing it, he tried hard to separate the overall engagement – which had been, he said, about “freedom” – presumably for Afghans – from the war crimes inquiry, which was, he said, a matter for another day.

He shed tears for a fallen soldier and tried hard to salvage some dignity and sense of achievement from an enterprise doomed from the start by an Australian political leadership which did not set clear objectives or have much share in deciding what was going on. Pray that someone stamps on any Morrison impulse for a victory parade. Australians leave, as they left Gallipoli, well beaten.

No doubt most Australians fought bravely and honourably in fights that were usually at less than platoon level. One salutes their sacrifice, their courage and mateship. They did what they were told, and are to be honoured, not judged, for their service. But they gained no ground, won no support among tribalised and often fickle local Afghan populations, and depart, knowing, as they did when they left Vietnam, that their battlegrounds were to fall immediately to the enemy.

 Nothing much to commemorate or boast about, at the war memorial in particular, and certainly nothing justifying a high-cost low-rent military toy and medal theme park now being planned against the wishes of soldiers and most of the community. Afghanistan was a military, moral, social and economic disaster, having nothing whatever to do with freedom. It certainly has not secured it, and our involvement increased, not reduced,  our exposure to Islamist terrorism.

The $500 million indulgence to Kerry Stokes is but a down payment on the long-term cost to the nation, one which is the more terrible given the want of anything that could be called glory, or success and the shadow of war crimes trials. A vast toll of casualties, particularly men and women with post-traumatic stress syndrome, incredible suicide rates, give far better witness to the futility of war, and the long-term costs of our foolish, poorly led, military adventurism.

A fit subject for contemplation come Anzac Day.

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