A dark day for Defence shows the path to redemption

The report on the Afghanistan inquiry conducted by Major General Paul Brereton could not have come to a more devastating judgement: what happened ‘is possibly the most disgraceful episode in Australia’s military history’.

The report identifies the alleged killing of 39 Afghans in 23 separate incidents in which 25 current or former Defence personnel were involved, ‘either as principals or accessories, some of them on a single occasion and a few on multiple occasions’.

These were not incidents that happened in the heat of battle. In most cases the victims were physically restrained, having been detained. The largest number of these killings appear to have taken place in 2012 and 2013 and were the result of ‘the criminal behaviour of a few’ that was ‘commenced, committed, continued and concealed at the patrol commander level, that is, at corporal or sergeant level’.

We learn that in several cases junior soldiers were ordered to kill a prisoner in a practice known as ‘blooding’, their first operational kill, and that dead Afghans would have ‘throwdowns’—a radio or weapon—planted on them to imply that they had been killed in combat.

Combat reports were written in ways that would minimise attention from higher command. ‘A kind of collective organisational blindness’ descended on special forces rotations in Afghanistan in ways that meant professional standards were grossly compromised where excesses could be justified or overlooked in pursuit of the overall mission.

Listen to the despair in the voice of this anonymous witness interviewed for the review:

If they didn’t do it, they saw it. If they didn’t see it, they knew about it. If they knew about it, they probably were involved in covering it up and not letting it get back to Canberra. And to make it even harder, if they didn’t know about it, the question will be: why didn’t you, because you should have.

Justice will take its slow course for those involved, and hopefully there will be compensation for those Afghan families who lost loved ones. This was a war where we came to better people’s lives and ended up taking them instead.

Apart from the Afghans, no one will feel more pain over this ugly reality than the 26,000 Australians who served in Afghanistan with decency and honour. Many brave souls met with Brereton and his team, wanting to clear the stain these killings leave on the special forces and wider Defence organisation.

It is essential for Defence and for Australia’s standing in the international community that we look this evil in the face and take steps to make things right, heal the veterans, restore the Special Air Service Regiment and the commandos, because we need their fighting skills, and change the way Defence operates so that this doesn’t happen again.

Substantial steps have been taken to make this come about, particularly around cultural change in the special forces. We should not lose sight of the fact that the SASR and commandos are filled with good people who want to serve the country in some of the most arduous roles government can ask Defence to perform.

The chief of the defence force, General Angus Campbell, is a soldier with long service in the SASR and someone I have known for 25 years. There is no doubting his determination and that of the senior Defence leadership to accept the painful realities revealed by Brereton and to make good.

But this is not just the story of junior soldiers in sections, platoons, squadrons and companies, nor is it just about the special forces and the various command elements that ran the war in Afghanistan.

In fundamentally important ways, the higher Defence leadership, the wider public service, government and indeed the Australian people all need to ask that anguished question: ‘Why didn’t you know, because you should have.’

Brereton’s report is too lenient on the higher Defence command system. He says:

The Inquiry has found no evidence that there was knowledge of, or reckless indifference to, the commission of war crimes, on the part of commanders at troop/platoon, squadron/company or Task Group Headquarters level, let alone at higher levels such as Commander Joint Task Force 633, Joint Operations Command, or Australian Defence Headquarters.

This is not comforting. I sat on Defence’s Strategic Command Group for six years from 2006 to March 2012. The group met daily, and we had no illusions about the nature of the hard fighting our special forces were asked to do. We knew that our forces were exacting a heavy toll in their combat engagements with insurgents.

When incidents occurred—I recall an Afghan driver was shot as he failed to slow at a checkpoint guarded by regular forces—they were investigated and publicly reported at the time.

It is deeply disturbing that the crimes investigated by Brereton could apparently be so thoroughly expunged from reporting that Defence’s higher command was not aware of them until March 2016 when Campbell, who was at that point the chief of the army, asked for an investigation into ‘rumours of serious misconduct by Australia’s special forces in Afghanistan’.

We should have been asking more questions, been more sceptical of field reporting, taken more steps to find assurance about what was happening, listened more attentively for warning signs and acknowledged them when they were heard.

The Brereton investigation includes a short report by David Whetham, professor of ethics and the military profession at King’s College London, that reflects on leadership and ethics in the Special Operations Command. He points to a wide set of factors that contributed to a loss of discipline, including frustration with what soldiers called ‘catch and release’ of enemy fighters, exhaustion and a general sense that the mission was losing its purpose.

Whetham notes that incidents that should have been looked at closely were not followed up because commanders had become ‘characterised by an abandoned curiosity to explore these matters further’.

In fact, there seems to be a jarring contradiction between Brereton’s conclusion that commanders from troop and platoon levels all the way up to Defence’s top leaders had no ‘knowledge of … the commission of war crimes’ and Whetham’s assessment based on access to inquiry interviews that ‘many people spoke of how widespread the knowledge of wrongdoing was’.

Whetham quotes one interviewee: ‘What was really concerning was everyone knew which SF units, Squadrons and patrols, and under which commanders, most of the killings were perpetrated. The same names would pop up with remarkable frequency.’

Can these assessments be reconciled? That will need to be explored as part of the changes Defence makes to reconstruct our special forces and military command arrangements.

An obvious point, which Brereton grasps, is that special forces necessarily do things in secret, but the command and strategic direction of them need to be based on observable lines of control that extend to top Defence leaders, and through them to government.

This is a challenge for government as much as it is for Defence. For way too long prime ministers and defence ministers have been happy to cite ‘Defence advice’ as though that is the clinching argument in any policy debate. That’s not good enough. Governments must set strategies and provide the means to pay for them. And they must treat Defence advice as the contestable commodity it is, not as an ironclad certainty.

My view is that we fought a hard counterinsurgency and counterterrorism war in Uruzgan Province for a couple of years longer than anyone had the interest and appetite to support. By 2012 Australia’s war in a remote southern Afghan province had become the Defence organisation’s war. More accurately: Defence’s war, and the war of the families from which our soldiers came.

Few government agencies wanted to know about this fight, let alone be involved. No one thought that Uruzgan held the key to stability in Kabul. Few believed that we could do anything lasting for Uruzgan other than keep the local insurgents down only for as long as we were there.

In Australia there was also a growing disconnect between the harsh reality of the fight and the way it was spoken about. In 2011 and 2012, Australia was campaigning for a seat on the United Nations Security Council. The literature produced to support this campaign was full of images of soldiers talking to Afghans in poppy fields, shaking hands with villagers, medics treating children. This was part of the Afghan experience but not the dark heart of the matter.

Like all wars, our campaign in Afghanistan was a bloody, visceral thing that left damaged bodies and minds in its wake. We mostly looked away. Did we win? Well, maybe for a time, and it’s important that Kabul remains free, as it is now under a democratic but beleaguered government. US President Donald Trump’s desire to withdraw around half of America’s few thousand remaining troops will again put Afghanistan at risk of a Taliban resurgence. The world will be uninterested until terrorism comes calling again in Western cities.

Paul Brereton’s report forces us to confront the worst of what happened on our watch in Uruzgan Province. We should not lose the chance to think hard about the wider story: why we were there and what we thought we were doing.

This is not just a story about corporals and sergeants but also generals, officials and ministers. It is a story about our fellow citizens, the war stories they are told and the stories they want to hear.