Friday morning in Brisbane. Everything seems normal expect for that gleaming black Toyota Crew Van brooding across the street. Before time allows a second look, BAM!! Members of the Queensland Police Service’s Special Emergency Response Team (SERT) burst like shrapnel from the back of the unit.
Bristling with Heckler & Koch USP sidearms and M4 carbines, the black ninjas were soon back at the muster point with three handcuffed Afghanistan men. All accused of importing heroin.
“Too many”! Shouted the SERT driver. Four ninjas, one driver and three prisoners. “One has to be left behind” said the driver. “No problem” says the SERT leader. He draws his gun and shoots dead one of the Afghani men and boots him out on to a Brisbane street and the van speeds off.
This couldn’t happen in Brisbane…
Probably not. But that is what allegedly happened in Uruzgan Province, Afghanistan, in mid-2012, the most violent year of the war in Afghanistan. The Brisbane event remains a fiction because the use of state power must submit to the rule of law. In the Badlands of Uruzgan Province during the Afghanistan War, it seems Special Forces were the law.
Again, thanks to the powerful work of ABC Investigations (Mark Willacy, Alexandra Blucher and Dan Oakes take a bow) the curtain of military silence is slowly being pulled aside to reveal events that no Australian should be proud of.
A night mission takes off from Camp Bastion, the main British base. Soldiers from November Platoon of the 2nd Commando Regiment are squeezed into the frumpy Huey UH-IN chopper as it heads north to the village of Shina. It’s a drug raid, trying to disrupt the flow of heroin dollars to the Taliban.
The night did not give up its secret. A killer was onboard – an army trained killer.
The chopper landed and within no time seven Afghan man were captured and handcuffed. The men sat shivering with fear in the dust waiting for the chopper to return. They knew they were at the mercy of Australian special forces whose reputation for brutality exceeded the battle practices of the Dutch and even the Americans, who were also deployed to Uruzgan Province.
The pilot told the troop leader: “That’s too many people, we can’t carry that many passengers.” An American door gunner who was on the chopper said “… you just heard this silence and then we heard a pop. And then they said, ‘OK, we have six prisoners’.
The quiet sound the dead Afghan made as he slumped into the yellow dust of his motherland was drowned out by the “frap” “frap” of the chopper as it returned to base. No one on board reportedly spoke because if they did, they would be heard through the communication system back at base.
Back at base, the marine door gunner, given the pseudonym of Josh by the ABC, said: “This was the first time we saw something we couldn’t morally justify, because we knew somebody was already cuffed up, ready to go, taken prisoner and we just witnessed them kill a prisoner.”
This and other incidents of unlawful killings led the joint partner, the US Drug Enforcement Agency, to refuse to go on further missions with Australian soldiers from November Platoon. The marine door gunner who witnessed the alleged killing had worked with US Marine Corp Special Operations and British and Australian special forces. He said “The [British] SAS always had an incredible restraint, at least in the times when me and my friends worked with them. Sometimes a frustrating amount,” he said. “Everybody else would step on the lines, but the Aussies would just see the line and just hop right over it.”
The successful combination of intrepid journalism and brave military whistleblowers continues to reveal stories of morally vile behaviour by our special forces in Afghanistan. However, these misdeeds cannot be amalgamated into a complete story of moral breakdown and a complete explanation of what happened in Uruzgan Province. Yes, the system failed on the battleground. As well, the system failed away from the battlefield. Moral responsibility is found on every step up the military chain of command and on every level of the government hierarchy. The question is, who will take this responsibility when the government responds to the Brereton Inquiry into alleged war crimes committed?
History’s answer is that the only ones who will cop it will be the “bad apples” on the ground. Bu they sit low on the tree of accountability. Higher up, swinging with impunity, are the military and political commanders. Apples out of reach. It is up there where our attention should be focused if we are to understand the failure of moral leadership in Afghanistan.
The first act in making accountability a concept with bite, not some chapter in a public administration textbook, is to put names to positions. When the hogtied Afghan prisoner was allegedly murdered on that night in Shina village who were the people in positions of responsibility above the person responsible?
The first name that comes up is Lieutenant Colonel Jonathan Hawkins, the Special Operations Task Force Commander. In other words, the senior Australian field commander in Afghanistan. The military levels between the alleged killer and Hawkins remains secret. Their identities should be revealed. On the next level was Major-General Daniel McDaniel. He was SOCAUST at the time, the supreme commander of all special forces in Australia. Climbing further up the tree of accountability we find David Morrison. At the relevant time Morrison was Chief of Army. Further up is David Hurley, Chief of the Defence Force.
So, what do we do next? We hold them to account of course. Initially this is done by asking each person the same questions. Were you told what happened that night in Shina village? If you were not told, why now? If you were told, what did you do? If you did nothing, why was this?
We all know that these people will never be asked these questions. The alleged shooters will face the music while the string pullers dance, as their careers progress. Military and political answerability in Australia is in crisis.
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.