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Tag Archives: Afghanistan

Skewed Responsibility: Australian War Crimes in Afghanistan

The Inspector-General of the Australian Defence Force Afghanistan Inquiry was always going to make for a gruesome read – and that was only the redacted version. The findings of the four-year investigation, led by New South Wales Court of Appeal Justice and Army Reserve Major-General Paul Brereton, point to “credible evidence” that 39 Afghan non-combatants and prisoners were allegedly killed by Australian special forces personnel. Two others were also treated with cruelty. The Report recommends referring 36 cases for criminal investigation to the Australian Federal Police. These involve 23 incidents and 19 individuals who have been referred to the newly created Office of the Special Prosecutor.

The Report goes into some detail about various practices adopted by Australia’s special forces in Afghanistan. The initiation rites for junior soldiers tasked with “blooding” – the first kill initiated by means of shooting a prisoner – come in for mention. “This would happen after the target compound had been secured, and local nationals had been secured as ‘persons under control’.” “Throwdowns” – equipment such as radios or weapons – would then be placed upon the body. A “cover story” would thereby be scripted “for purposes of operational reporting to deflect scrutiny.”

A “warrior culture” also comes in for some withering treatment, which is slightly odd given the kill and capture tasks these men have been given with mind numbing regularity. “Special Force operators should pride themselves on being model professional soldiers, not on being ‘warrior heroes’.” When one is in the business of killing, be model about it.

As with any revelation of war crimes, the accused parties often express bemusement, bewilderment and even horror. The rule at play here is to always assume the enemy is terrible and capable of the worst, whereas somehow, your own soldiers are capable of something infinitely better. “I would never have conceived an Australian would be doing this in the modern era,” claimed Australian Defence Force Chief General Angus Campbell.

History has precedent for such self-delusions of innocence abroad. The atrocity is either unbelievable, or, if it does take place, aberrant and capable of isolation. The killing of some 500 unarmed women, children and elderly men in the Vietnamese hamlet of My Lai on March 16, 1968 by soldiers of the US Americal Division was not, at least initially, seen as believable. When it came to light it was conceived as a horror both exceptional and cinematic. A veteran of the Twenty-Fifth Infantry Division went so far as to regard My Lai as “bizarre, an unusual aberration. Things like that were strictly for the movies.”

The investigating subcommittee of the House Armed Services Committee responded to My Lai in much the same way, suggesting a lack of sanity on the part of the perpetrators. The massacre “was so wrong and so foreign to the normal character and actions of our military forces as to immediately raise a question as to the legal sanity at the time of those men involved.”

The Brereton Report also has a good deal of hand washing in so far as it confines responsibility to the institution of the army itself. “The events discovered by this Inquiry occurred within the Australian Defence Force, by members of the Australian Defence Force, under the command of the Australian Defence Force.”

Even here, troop and squadron commanders, along with headquartered senior officers, are spared the rod of responsibility. The Report “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 of Joint Task Force 633, Joint Operations Command, or Australian Defence Headquarters.”

Such a finding seems adventurously confident. If accurate, it suggests a degree of profound ignorance within the ADF command structure. For his part, Campbell acknowledged those “many, many people at all sorts of levels across the defence force involved in operations in Afghanistan or in support of those operations who do wonder what didn’t they see, what did they walk past, what did they not appreciate they could have done to prevent this.”

The Report also sports a glaring absence. The political context in terms of decisions made by Australian governments to use such forces drawn from a small pool is totally lacking. Such omissions lend a stilted quality to the findings, which, on that score, prove misleading and patently inaccurate. Armies, unless they constitute the government of a state, are merely the instruments of political wish and folly. Nonetheless, the Report insists that, “It was not a risk [the unlawful killings] to which any government, of any persuasion, was ever alerted. Ministers were briefed that the task was manageable. The responsibility lies in the Australian Defence Force, not with the government of the day.”

Prime ministerial and executive exemption of responsibility is thereby granted, much aided by the persistent fiction, reiterated by General Campbell, that Australian soldiers found themselves in Afghanistan because the Afghans had “asked for our help.”

History may not be the ADF chief’s forte, given that the government at the time was the Taliban, accused of providing sanctuary to al Qaeda’s Osama bin Laden, responsible for the 9/11 attacks on the United States. Needless to say, there was no invitation to special forces troops of any stripes to come to the country. The mission to Afghanistan became a conceit of power, with Australia’s role being justified, in the words of the Defence Department’s website, to “help contain the threat from international terrorism”.

It is also accurate to claim that Australian government officials were unaware of the enthusiastic, and sometimes incompetently murderous activities of the SAS in the country. On May 17, 2002, Australian special troops were responsible for the deaths of at least 11 Afghan civilians. They had been misidentified as al-Qaeda members. The defence minister at the time, Robert Hill, told journalist Brian Toohey via fax that the special forces had “well-defined personnel identification matrices” including “tactical behaviour,” weapons and equipment. These suggested the slain were not “local Afghan people.” This turned out to be nonsense: the dead were from Afghan tribes opposed to the Taliban.

John Howard, the prime minister responsible for deploying special operations troops to Afghanistan in 2001, is understandably keen to adopt the line of aberrance in responding to the Report’s findings. The ADF was characterised by “bravery and professionalism,” and the disease of atrocity and poor behaviour could be confined to “a small group of special forces personnel who, it is claimed, amongst other things, were responsible for the unlawful killing of 39 Afghan citizens.”

This is much wilful thinking, though it will prove persuasive to most Australian politicians. In Canberra, there are few voices arguing for a spread of responsibility. One of them is the West Australian Greens Senator Jordon Steele-John. “The politicians who sent [the special forces] to #Afghanistan & kept them there for over a decade,” tweeted the sensible senator, “must be held to account, as must the chain of command who either didn’t know when they should’ve or knew & failed to act.”

 

 

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Staring into the Syrian Abyss

By Allan Patience

The insanity of the proposal that Australia should commence bombing raids inside Syrian territory is beyond belief. Our belligerent prime minister insists that the initiative for this development came from none other than President Obama himself. Other reports suggest that Australia has actually put pressure on America, obliging it to issue an official request to join in the US military’s air strikes against the Islamic State’s (IS) bases across the Iraqi-Syrian border.

Whether it was President Obama or Tony Abbott who is responsible for the Australian government’s sudden interest in staring into the Syrian abyss, the hope is that wiser heads will prevail. Australia has much to lose and nothing of strategic significance to win by expanding its already dubious role in this appalling conflict.

There are four immediately obvious reasons why the Abbott government should resist the American “request.”

First, the current crisis in Iraq and Syria (and it’s spreading to other parts of the Middle East), ghastly as it is in every respect, is overwhelmingly the result of America and its allies’ strategic interventions in Iraq and Afghanistan since the dark days of George W. Bush’s presidency. For all the allied blood and treasure that has been so recklessly thrown into those conflicts, no end to them is in sight and on any measure their objectives have been routinely ending in failure.

Iraq is now in the grip of several murderous civil conflicts, largely between Sunni and Shiite forces. Afghanistan is an ugly confusion of Taliban and tribal conflicts and increasingly corrupt and malevolent politicians intent on feathering their own nests before the inevitable collapse of their puny government. These have provided IS with myriad opportunities to inject its merciless jihadists across the region, to its enormous strategic advantage.

This is a mess entirely of the West’s making and its only solution is for the West to butt out and leave it to the locals to sort themselves out. Of course this will result in horrendous bloodshed and brutality; but this is already happening and no matter what the West does, it is clearly incapable of stopping it.

Second, by placing itself at the side of the Americans in Iraq and Syria, the Australians are inviting and inflaming the absolutely visceral hatred of actual and would-be jihadists, both domestically and in Southeast Asia (especially in Indonesia and Malaysia). Far from minimizing potential “home grown” attacks from extremists, and from terrorist groups outside the country, our involvement with the United States in what is a doomed strategy against IS will only make things worse for us at home and abroad.

Third, the craven Australian desire to always be seen as a “loyal” ally dependent on the United States reached its use-by date long ago. The ANZUS treaty remains an instrument whose efficacy has always been determined, first and foremost, by what is in America’s interests, not Australia’s. As Malcolm Fraser argued so well last year, it is time for Australia to extricate itself from its “dangerous ally.” Just as Canada has been able to quietly avoid US pressure to join it in most of its numerous military adventures since the end of World War II and the Cold War (e.g., the Vietnam War and the Iraq War), so Australia should be now be aware that its security is not guaranteed by the treaty.

Indeed, increasingly, Australia’s national interests are at odds with the alliance with the US. Given that our security is totally bound up with what occurs in our geo-political region (East and Southeast Asia), our misplaced loyalty to the US (as opposed to being a mature and independent friend) results in our being an awkward partner in our region, not a trusted regional player.

Fourth, the actual cost of the deployment of Australian troops and materiel in the Middle East is an utterly perverse squandering of taxpayers’ funds. The monies should in fact be used for large-scale aid projects in places like Indonesia to counter the appeal of jihadist recruiters while improving Australia’s diplomacy with its neighbouring states to advance moves for finding regional solutions to problems like people smugglers and terrorists.

Australia must not expand its military deployment from Iraq into Syria. It is time to pull back from the abyss. Abbott and his defence and foreign ministers must eschew further involvement in a conflict that has no reasonable end in sight. Indeed diplomatic talks should now be under way to advise the Americans that Australia is withdrawing all of its soldiers and materiel from the Middle East completely.

Who knows, this might even lead to the Americans realizing that its strategies have been, and remain, futile, and that it too should withdraw from the conflict.

Allan Patience is a principal fellow in the Asia Institute in the University of Melbourne. He has held chairs in politics and Asian studies in universities in Australia, Papua New Guinea and Japan.

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Fool me once….

Watching the Abbott government is like watching the rerun of a movie with the same script but worse actors.

Consider Howard in 2001 as he approached an election. The government had performed very badly in opinion polls and a series of by-elections throughout 2001, largely due to a slump in the dollar and loss of business confidence.

In late August, a Norwegian ship, the MV Tampa, picked up 440 stranded asylum-seekers when their boat sank in the Indian Ocean. The Tampa planned to bring the boat people to Australia in accordance with their wishes, but the Howard government refused to allow the ship access to an Australian port. The issue of border protection gained strong prominence, as unauthorised migration had been increasing for some years.

The former second-in-command of the SAS counter-terrorism squad, Labor MP Peter Tinley, said sending SAS troops in to deal with the Tampa was a complete overreaction.

“I can’t help but feel the PM John Howard viewed the SAS as something that would resonate politically to the message of border security,” he said. “You can’t amp it up more in the public’s mind than saying ‘We’re going to send in the SAS, we’ll show you how tough we are on border security’.”

The former head of Military Public Affairs, Brigadier Gary Bornholt, says the asylum seekers on board were never a threat to Australia.

“In Defence it wasn’t a big deal, because these numbers of people were very, very small and that’s why they didn’t represent a security threat,” he said.

This was followed by public allegations by Howard government ministers in October 2001, in the lead-up to a federal election, that seafaring asylum seekers had thrown children overboard in a presumed ploy to secure rescue and passage to Australia.

The Australian Senate Select Committee for an inquiry into a certain maritime incident later found that no children had been at risk of being thrown overboard and that the government had known this prior to the election. The government was criticised for misleading the public and cynically “(exploiting) voters’ fears of a wave of illegal immigrants by demonising asylum-seekers”.

Although reports indicated that the strain of being towed was the proximate cause of the asylum seeker boat eventually sinking, in 2007, John Howard asserted that the asylum seekers “irresponsibly sank the damn boat, which put their children in the water”.

The government’s handling of this and other events involving unauthorised arrivals worked to its advantage. The Tampa affair had led the government to adopt stricter border protection measures to prevent unauthorised arrivals from reaching Australia by boat. Polls indicated the measures had public support. The government was able to portray itself as “strong” on border protection measures and its opponents as “weak”.

When it came to information made public by the Defence Department, former head of publicity Jenny McKenry revealed details were carefully filtered.

“We were told that there was to be nothing in the public forum which would humanise these people. We were quite stunned,” she said.

In addition, on 11 September, the Al-Qaeda attacks on the World Trade Centre and the Pentagon thrust national security to the forefront of the election campaign. Howard, who was in Washington at the time, immediately committed to unqualified support for George W. Bush.

”Certainly, being on the spot had a powerful effect on me. I knew how shocked and bewildered the Americans were, although everybody was very calm. Everybody understood that this was a game-changer.”

The day after the attack Howard flew back to Australia with US Ambassador Tom Schieffer on Air Force Two, the Vice President’s aircraft, which had been made available to him. After a telephone conversation with his Foreign Minister, Alexander Downer, while “high above the Pacific Ocean”, Howard informed Schieffer that, for the first time in 50 years, the ANZUS Treaty would be invoked. In America’s hour of need Australia would not stand idly by. Shortly after, President Bush announced the War on Terror and signalled that a war with Afghanistan was not far off.

The “legally nonsensical” – to use Robert Garran’s phrase – but symbolically rich decision to invoke the ANZUS Treaty resembled more a romantic, feudal oath of fealty than a coolly considered diplomatic act. From that moment until the present day, during the war on Afghanistan, the invasion and occupation of Iraq, and now the fight against IS, Australia would prove itself to be the most impeccably faithful ally of the US in the War on Terror.

According to the US National Security Advisor, Condoleeza Rice, Australia “clamoured”, as it turned out successfully, to be invited to participate in the invasion force. The moment John Howard had been waiting for during his entire political life had finally arrived.

Canberra bombarded us with tales of Iraq’s vast arsenal of weapons of mass destruction; Iraq’s well-developed nuclear plans; Saddam’s links with Osama bin Laden; the Saddam–Hitler analogy; the irrelevance of the UN; the perfidy of the French; the futility of weapons inspections.

The immediate reaction in the polls included a record high approval rating for a Liberal prime minister and overwhelming support for committing Australian troops to Afghanistan – a fact that did not slip by Tony Abbott who was himself in danger of losing his seat of Warringah to a very good independent in the upcoming election.

Fears of terrorism were mixed in with the asylum seeker debate – a ploy criticised by the retired Commander of Australian Theatre with the Navy, Vice Admiral Chris Ritchie.

“It seemed to me to be a funny way to get to Australia if you were a terrorist. There are other easier ways to get into Australia than spend six months in Nauru,” he said.

The polls turned around considerably by election day on November 10, 2001 and the Howard government won a third term convincingly.

Ironically, at the time, the Australian Wheat Board was paying bribes to the Iraqi government. The Howard government either knew what was happening and is covering it up or was guilty of culpable negligence and incompetence.

Abbott’s script is identical even though his backdrops are flashier (or is that flaggier), even down to begging to be the first to go fight and a disturbing willingness to hand over money to corrupt regimes. I can only hope that Abbott’s rerun gets panned by the critics and that voters walk out on his theatre of terror. Fool me once….

To paraphrase our Prime Minister for fear and loathing:

The voters are coming for the government with a simple message: we will not “submit”. You can’t negotiate with a government like this. You can only fight it.

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