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 The SASR: a new battle begins that nobody wins!

22.11.20.  For those unsure or ill equipped to make sense of war, specifically that in Afghanistan, might gain by David Kilcullen’s knowledgeable account of the SASR’s work on the ground and how it is governed in a complex setting. As David says, there are solid reasons for the current mess, not excuses. However, a future court’s decision may not be so understanding of those reasons, as morals, politics and emotion intertwine in that final judgement.
Announcing the findings of the Afghanistan inquiry on Thursday, Chief of Defence Force Angus Campbell described them as shocking. He is absolutely right: the allegations of unlawful killing of 39 Afghan civilians by 25 members of Australian Special Forces and two incidents of cruel treatment are utterly appalling if true.

Source: David Kilcullen for News Corp

There are reasons, not excuses, for the army’s Afghanistan nightmare

The ADF response has been reassuring so far, with individuals to be referred for criminal prosecution, commanders held accountable, a squadron of the Special Air Service Regiment struck off the Order of Battle, redress for the alleged victims’ families, and a broader process of reform and reckoning for the Defence Force. But that reckoning needs to go beyond Defence, to the governments of both parties who set the strategy and shaped the environment in which alleged abuses occurred, and arguably to all Australians.
I should note that, though I served in Afghanistan as a civilian adviser with the American military, and worked for other US government agencies there, I never operated directly alongside Australian forces. But I did frequently encounter them — in the field, at headquarters, at the counterinsurgency school on the outskirts of Kabul, or at the enormous coalition air bases at Kandahar and Bagram. Their behaviour, bearing and reputation were exemplary: Afghan colleagues and coalition partners saw the Australians as examples to be respected and emulated, frequently offering unsolicited praise for them.
Perhaps the most heartbreaking aspect of these alleged abuses — apart from their horrific impact on innocent Afghans — is that they dishonour the overwhelming majority of Australians who served in Afghanistan with bravery, compassion and professionalism.
Certain things in the Brereton report seem, on the surface, to make little sense. How, for example, could commanders be completely unaware of incidents allegedly occurring in broad daylight, one or two valleys away, when they were supposedly in continuous contact with troops on the ground, with surveillance drones overhead and debriefings after every mission? How could people participating in the same patrol or assaulting the same terrorist compound not see what was unfolding a few metres away? How could junior officers be oblivious to the fact that patrol commanders were allegedly “blooding” new team members by forcing them to kill prisoners, or planting radios and weapons on dead civilians so as to literally get away with murder? The answers may lie in the context: the specific environment for special operations in Afghanistan.
Unlike the infantry, engineers and artillery soldiers of the mentoring, advisory and reconstruction taskforces, who spent months living with their Afghan colleagues, interacting with civilians and engaging with community leaders, most Special Operations Task Group (SOTG) members deployed for short but intense four-month tours of duty. They performed a variety of tasks in Afghanistan, from special reconnaissance to high-risk search, protecting VIPs and securing sensitive sites. But their day job — actually, often a night job — soon became dominated by counter-network and counter-leadership operations, servicing something called the Joint Prioritised Effects List, the JPEL (pronounced “jay-pell”).
The JPEL was a comprehensive, theatre-wide target list, developed at coalition headquarters in Kabul. It covered all identified terrorist and insurgent networks, and included leaders, locations and support assets such as bombmakers, financiers and intelligence cells. While conventional troops protected the Afghan population, supported civil government and enabled reconciliation and reconstruction, the core task for SOTG soldiers was to execute the JPEL — essentially, becoming part of an industrial-grade network-destruction machine, chomping its way through Taliban and associated terror networks. In 2011 alone, that machine reduced the average age of Taliban commanders in southern Afghanistan from 29 to 20, wiping out a generation of terrorist leaders in a single year.
There are two sides to counterinsurgency. What we might call the “soft” side involves efforts to protect the population, build the economy and support the civil government, and is conducted by conventional troops, police and aid agencies. In contrast, the “hard” side is all about killing, capturing and disrupting the enemy. Both are essential: counterinsurgency is not peacekeeping, but rather a form of warfare, and you will get nowhere with governance or reconstruction unless you disrupt the enemy and keep them at bay.
SOTG in Afghanistan was very much on the hard side. Special operators (the Australians, the British SAS and SBS, and a range of American and European special forces) received a continuous series of JPEL “target packages”, each involving a specific guerilla leader, location or terrorist facilitator, and would action those targets. It might take months of patient intelligence work and detailed co-ordination across the coalition to develop a target. Planners would carefully design operations to minimise collateral property damage or loss of innocent life. Legal and political constraints were considered, Afghan partner units were sometimes — though not always — consulted, and various civilian agencies involved.
All this went on behind the scenes, but once the target package was developed and handed over, for operators at the tip of the spear the experience was a high-adrenaline cycle of exhaustion, terror and stress: from planning and preparation, through pre-operation isolation, a sometimes arduous insertion into a target area, then intense combat action, debriefing, a short rest, and at it again. SOTG did multiple tours in Afghanistan, with some operators doing dozens of raids, hitting one target after another after another.
Understandably, units kept score and rivalries developed. Equally understandably, SOTG operators were not particularly focused on the soft side of counterinsurgency. They understood its importance, but it wasn’t their role, and developing empathy with Afghans could, in their particular circumstances, be not just distracting but actively hazardous. One US special forces operator I worked closely with in Iraq told me he had never met a live Iraqi who wasn’t in handcuffs — the same was certainly true for many operators in Afghanistan, who had little opportunity to interact with Afghans outside combat situations.
Those combat situations were chaotic, fragmentary and fleeting — something the military blandly calls “distributed operations”, but which in practice explains why people one valley or earth-walled compound away from an incident might not know what was going on, or why a young officer might not be aware of events in a particular patrol. Some firefights took place at long range and lasted hours, but the majority happened at close range, in complex terrain such as farmland, scrub, or earthen buildings, and engagements were over in seconds or minutes at most. Small groups operated on their own, dispersed, with limited supervision and minimal support, for extended periods. In some of the most demanding mountain terrain on the planet, against a ruthless and talented enemy, it could take hours to move a short distance under fire, so that backup could rarely be relied on.
The intensity of this combat — and the gulf between the SOTG experience and that of almost any other Australians in Afghanistan — is clear from the casualty figures. Excluding accidental deaths such as those from helicopter crashes, and assassinations by treacherous Afghans (known as “green-on-blue” attacks), SOTG members accounted for more than 60 per cent of Australians killed in Afghanistan, even though special operators were always a minority, at times a small one, of the force. And given how many times SOTG members deployed — six tours or more were not uncommon — the chances of being killed or wounded as a special operator were significantly higher than in conventional units, which tended to do one or two tours at most.
To explain is not to excuse. But this context clearly makes a difference: under such circumstances, each patrol becomes its own private, self-contained universe, with its own dominant personalities, epic events, shared history, unexamined norms and unquestioned ways of doing business. This, of course, is what we mean by “culture”, and ADF leaders are right to focus on that issue as they respond to Justice Brereton’s findings.
But there is no single “Special Operations Command” culture, nor even a Special Air Service Regiment or Commando culture common to all members of those units. Every small team has its own norms — and though no detailed explanation has been given, the army’s decision to disband 2 Squadron SASR likely reflects a judgment on that point.
At its best, shared culture is a crucial defence mechanism, allowing troops to survive and function under massive stress. At its worst, it can foster a toxic outlook that devalues all life outside the team and dismisses any external norms, including — perhaps especially — rules and expectations from higher headquarters. At the risk of repeating myself, these are reasons, not excuses, for what allegedly happened. The overwhelming majority of SOTG members — and of Australian servicemen and women in Afghanistan — served with honour under the same circumstances without resorting to any such alleged atrocities.
Almost every country with troops in Afghanistan has experienced allegations of war crimes, some of which Brereton’s report describes. It is no consolation, but is worth noting nonetheless, that Australia’s response so far has been a model of transparency and accountability. The army’s unflinching commitment to uncover the ugly truth of what really happened, and the broader ADF efforts at reform and reckoning, are undoubtedly genuine, and all Australians of goodwill are likely to support those efforts. But there is one area where, on a quick reading, the report seems to pull a punch or two: its quick dismissal of responsibility by elected governments, Labor and Coalition, for what happened.
Australia deployed forces to Afghanistan soon after the 9/11 attacks of 2001. Eventually, more than 40 other nations did so too, committing to what became Australia’s longest war, an essentially open-ended conflict that has dragged on for almost two decades. The US is still, haplessly, trying to end that war and bring its troops home. Yet the Taliban are stronger today, control more territory, and have more influence than at any time since 2001. To be sure, the Afghan government, society and military are stronger too, and our contribution to that outcome is real and appreciated by Afghans.
But the cold strategic fact remains that win, lose or draw, Australia achieved its war aim — to be, and be seen to be, a loyal and capable American ally — shortly after our first deployment in 2001. Like all the other allies, we found ourselves caught in a conflict we could neither win nor end on our own, tied to a major ally unwilling or unable to break the strategic stalemate. Leaders in Canberra, and in the other coalition capitals, were like an audience applauding one of Josef Stalin’s speeches — exhausted, anxious to be elsewhere, but unwilling to be the first to stop clapping. And like all our allies, Australia’s elected political leaders responded to the dilemma by carefully calibrating our level of effort, and especially the level of combat risk we were willing to accept.
In Australia’s case, Special Operations became the flagship contribution, thrown into intense combat again and again to preserve our reputation with Washington and other allies, even as we withdrew from Iraq, avoided large-scale combat, resisted responsibility for any single area of operations and drew down our commitment in Afghanistan after 2012. The overwhelming pressure on Special Operations Command was not some unfortunate, unexpected accident that no political leader or member of parliament could possibly have foreseen. It was a necessary and obvious outcome of our national strategy from the outset. This is not a dig at politicians — in a democracy, the ultimate responsibility is our own.
For that reason, even as the Defence Force, the army, and Special Operations Command continue a profound, painful reckoning, dealing with the individuals allegedly responsible for these appalling incidents and implementing reforms to ensure they can never be repeated, it is critical that we absorb these lessons too. The world is, and will remain, a dangerous place, and institutions like the army are critical to our national survival. The Australian Army is our army; the special forces are our special forces; real wars are fought by human beings, by people like us, neither monsters nor mythical bronzed Anzacs. And, while the nation holds its armed forces to account, Australians owe it to ourselves to undertake a similar reckoning.
That reckoning must surely include asking ourselves whether Afghanistan was worth it. If President Donald Trump has his way, almost all US troops in Afghanistan will be gone by the end of January. President Joe Biden, if his election is confirmed, may stay a bit longer, but in political terms the days of a reliable American commitment to Kabul are over. As vice-president a decade ago, Biden called for withdrawal, leaving a small residual presence only. Trump has basically delivered exactly that outcome, though Biden is unlikely to give him credit for it.
A US departure would pull the rug out from under NATO and other allies (including Australia) with people still in Afghanistan. It would also leave the Afghan government high and dry, and empower a Taliban leadership that — whatever fine words might be written on any peace deal — shows little appetite for reconciliation. Australia and the other coalition partners who followed America into Afghanistan after 9/11 can be proud of our achievements, which brought real benefit to many Afghans. But as the Brereton inquiry makes painfully clear, those achievements came at a high cost — to our soldiers, to Afghan civilians and, in the end perhaps, to Australians’ sense of who we are.

David Kilcullen is a former lieutenant colonel in the Australian Army and was senior adviser to US General David Petraeus in 2007-08, when he helped design the Iraq war coalition troop surge. He was special adviser for counter-insurgency to former US secretary of state Condoleezza Rice, serving periodically in Afghanistan between 2007 and 2015. He is the author of Blood Year: Islamic State and the Failures of the War on Terror (Black Inc) and The Dragons and the Snakes: How the Rest Learned to Fight the West (Scribe)

{ 10 comments… add one }
  • Penguinite 22/11/2020, 6:56 am

    I totally agree re knowledge of these events not being relayed to officers! I just get the impression there’s a tremendous amount of rrrrrs covering going down! Mostly, Australia is compromised by UN agreements to investigate “war crimes”. If anyone wanted to destroy the SAS this sleight of hand will do the trick! I’m not condoning murder but until we can know what was occurring immediately prior nobody should cast aspersions or condemn these soldiers! They will be completely disadvantaged in civilian trials.

    • Disgruntled 22/11/2020, 7:47 am

      Agree Pen.
      Now re. the knowing what was occurring immediately prior is, I think crucial and not only just prior either! Here is a reasonable analogy

      Think farming; think growing crops; think of pests wanting to gobble up and destroy that crop (hey, that is what happens!)

      Now, do you wait for all the pests to get into the paddock before you take action to chase them? Bloody ell no; you chase them before they get into the paddock!

      Get the point I am trying to make?

      But in our stupid country now you have to stand back and let the pests eat as much crop as they want; It has really got to that. Why?? almost every pest specie is now “protected”. Grrrrrrrrrrrr

  • John 22/11/2020, 8:33 am

    Likewise agreed P and Dis. As somebody put it yesterday if you were`nt there at the time, shut up. The thought of some smug self righteous polly, lawyer or head office only soldier who has never set foot outside of canberra let alone alone getting the filthy dust of afghanistan on his highly polished shoes, criticising someone whose life depends on what he does in the next few fractions of second makes me pewk. And if the UN wants to get involved they can ….. off as well, a plague on all the buggers.

    • Albert 22/11/2020, 8:57 am

      To late, John. The yapping and inference spreading on the part of those you describe above and the removal of the presumption of innocence until proven guilty by a properly convened court of justice has already had an effect. Couple the irrelevant babbling of the talking heads with the ill advised address to the nation by Angus Campbell and you are left with the burning question as to whether or not the accused will receive fair and unbiased justice.

  • Walahwalah Bishbin 22/11/2020, 8:37 am

    The responsibility to ensure that there are enough forces to rotate through a warzone so as not to have troop burn out, rests exclusively with the Chief of Army.
    In 2008 when the strain was beginning to show – what was LTGEN David Morrison doing? Sod all. Show boating around being a hard ass on ADFA frat boys – who unsurprisingly had been acting like frat boys.
    Forget armchair analysing that war is a total shit fight – of course it is.
    The current immensely capable and erudite CDF and CA are NOT to blame for this.
    Look back at the time, look at the context, look at who had the responsibility to provide the conditions to ensure that this would not happen.
    Step forward LTGEN David Morrison you gutless bullying piece of shit!

  • BBob 22/11/2020, 9:30 am

    There is an article that is well worth reading by HESTON Russell who was a Special Forces Commando Officer. He served in Timor Leste, Afghanistan and Iraq. He twice gave evidence to the Brereton Inquiry.

    https://www.dailytelegraph.com.au/news/national/systemic-and-cultural-failings-to-blame-for-war-crimes/news-story/de67823e6391b1b0aba38f1e20cb7064

    BUT, it’s pay-walled and I’ve not posted it without ok of MMEd, so I’ll leave it to him.

  • Austin Ayforti 22/11/2020, 9:42 am

    My respect and admiration for our SAS troops can in no way be diminished by these allegations. They are the best of the very best in every way and I sincerely hope that these men can weather this extraordinary situation that I suspect has been motivated simply because they are the best.
    Defense Minister Reynolds, I hope you’re feeling better. Now resign as you are a disgrace and return your decorations for conspicuous desk driving. You would never have received your over the top promotions if you weren’t in the quota program.

    • Bushkid 22/11/2020, 1:49 pm

      Indeed, AA. These are still the men, and the CDO, I would want watching my own back in time of need. That doesn’t diminish the other corps (Infantry, Arty, Armour etc) at all, just that I do like to have the best of things if I can.

  • Graham Richards 22/11/2020, 1:01 pm

    The sexual assault on young boys by a Cardinal are also abhorrent.
    IF TRUE. WHICH THE HIGH COURT FOUND TO BE UNTRUE,

    Same principle to be applied to the SASR allegations!

    Alleged bribery by discredited Vatican officials is abhorrent but we need the allegations to be investigated by independent authorities & not swept under the carpet to protect so far unnamed officials!!

  • Bwana Neusi 22/11/2020, 3:22 pm

    An excellent article that spells out what our SASR really have to do and the conditions they endure. Pox on those pompous virtue signalling Marxist that purport to govern us.

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