I wrote the opinion piece below a month before the release of the Brereton Report. The language is harsh and unforgiving, but offers the best expression of my values I could muster. In the aftermath of last week’s public announcements, have my views changed? No, they have not, and Rex (Mango) and John (Comnenus) in particular have offered sane observations that reflect the best of the Cat family.
CDF’s presentation was a trainwreck. When you sit atop a chronically distracted organisation that more often seems obsessed with the whistles and bells of politically correct virtue signalling than keeping focused on your sole mission of providing operational capability to the government of the day; things fall apart. I rate General Campbell very highly, but can’t see how his position remains tenable.
Either values mean something, or they don’t.
For several years an investigation (or ‘Inquiry’) has been held in secret into the potentially illegal conduct of an unspecified number of Australian Special Forces personnel during our operations in Afghanistan. The investigation was from the beginning based on rumours as reported in the Nine/Fairfax press and on the ABC. This has in part been leveraged by Nine/Fairfax into a series of questionable legal actions against a highly decorated former member of the SAS. All the while our ADF, Defence and Ministerial leadership have (when asked before Committee) voiced confidence in the process, and in the office and person of the Inspector-General of the Australian Defence Force (IGADF) who is leading the investigation.
The only evidence presented in public during this long process that comes close to providing something the Australian public could assess for themselves was the 4Corners footage of the apparent execution at close range of an Afghan national who likely posed no threat at all. The footage is stark. But there is little or no context of any detail provided with the vision. Unfortunately, the political, uniformed, departmental and media classes in this country often forget the ADF belongs to all of us – not just their privileged circle. In their eyes though we do not rate an explanation. This is a significant cultural failure and does not bode well.
Worse will be the likely impact on our special forces. When the highly redacted version of the investigation is handed down it will initiate a feeding frenzy of ethical training and awareness courses, reviews and reorganisations; all at great expense to the taxpayer. This will make the unforgiveable run-around of meaningless reviews and elite hand-jobbery in the aftermath of misbehaviour by three fresh off-the-street ADFA cadets a decade ago; look like an episode of Playschool. Our privileged circle will lead a years-long, look-at-me process of outdoing each other at converting Australian special forces from what they are now (highly capable) to something almost certainly lesser and definitely media allergic. On the IGADF website under the Afghanistan Inquiry’s Frequently Asked Questions there is a reason provided for the secrecy under which the investigation has been conducted.
The Afghanistan Inquiry is being conducted in private because it involves matters of operational security, protected identities and the reputations of individuals which may be unfairly harmed by publication.
‘Operational security’ and ‘protected identities’ are reasonable. As a result of the length, focus and publicity of the Inquiry ‘the reputations of individuals which may be unfairly harmed,’ does not pass the pub test. Not even close. Primarily because our leadership have allowed the ABC, and to a lesser extent Nine/Fairfax, to drive the public narrative around the investigation. This has been partisan, sensationalist and largely free of assessable evidence. The ADF leaderships’ silence in the face of this is concerning. The ADF’s reputation, let alone its people, is being trashed. Or ‘unfairly harmed’ to quote IGADF. Not going in to bat for our chaps while our domestic enemies endlessly put the boot in is a very bad look. Perhaps at the 18 month mark it was reasonable not to comment on the basis of the ongoing investigation – but depending on who does the math – it’s now been running between four and five years. This is now more of an irremovable stain on the ADF’s reputation than a wound which will heal with time.
That the ABC is leading the ‘get the Special Forces’ charge is of no surprise. The ABC is a deeply partisan organisation with editorial instincts towards the far left. The ABC regularly takes a position which is not only at odds with the national interest, but in sharp contrast to the values the ADF is explicit about its adherence to. Evidence, fact, context – these are not principles that interest the ABC. Nor is conducting themselves in line with the law. Despite the decision of the AFP not to prosecute the ABC for being in receipt of classified information (in relation to Afghanistan); what the ABC did in that matter remains illegal. The seeming refusal to publicly question and condemn the ABC is not a sign of restraint or discipline or respect for a process not yet complete. It is a demonstration of moral cowardice; and that does not play well with the Australian public. Certainly not the part of the Australian public who willingly and for many generations have provided their sons, and increasingly their daughters, for service under arms.
No appropriate explanation has been provided as to why the investigation has dragged on for so long. A senior SES officer (from a department other than Defence) has privately observed the length and ‘thoroughness’ of the investigation primarily aims to prevent our personnel being hauled before the International Criminal Court (ICC). This with a tenor of objective righteousness. Meaning the officer involved did not make the claim with any degree of rancour towards the ADF personnel involved. Rather the implication was around their belief in the righteousness of this foreign body to which we have signed up and are therefore subject to holus-bolus. Better to dodge that legal bullet if we can, and behind closed doors if possible. I do not agree with our membership of an organisation whose member states will not intervene to prevent an atrocity, but will then aggressively pursue those responsible long after the act. The ICC is the creation of the European elite and not to be trusted because it is morally duplicitous. (Although of interest the Clinton Administration had the sense to keep the US out of it, and briefed the incoming Bush Administration to do the same.)
During the years-long investigation it has been publicly reported that a (very) small number of uniformed personnel may have acted illegally. With this has come a gentle hint that perhaps we were rotating our people into theatre on too regular a basis, and this may have contributed to the actions potentially under question. This hint has morphed into a talking point, then opinion, and now statement of fact. There’s nothing wrong with discussing a potential issue that could impact negatively on our fighting capability, but where is the evidence or data to provide context in which to objectively consider? Contrary to what is being opined publicly I suspect operational personnel were more than capable of dealing with the tempo of deployment. It is their professional raison d’etre. And likely personnel spent sufficient time out of theatre between deployments, receiving appropriate levels of debriefing and support. But this is not a view you will hear raised in public. The thought our people may retain the robustness required for this service, and on an ongoing basis; sits poorly with those whose own raison d’etre seems to be focused on bending others to their will.
It is likely the Special Forces member featured in the execution footage was selected for higher service on the basis of supreme physical robustness, and a level of unconscious self-belief rare amongst the general population. In other words exactly the kind of individual required for the extreme nature of the work involved. That doesn’t forgive or condone what he did, if it is what it almost certainly appears to be. The issue it does raise is how the Army’s leadership in the vicinity lacked the clarity of mind to remove him. The suggested argument that ‘things slid away from us due constant deployments’ doesn’t bear scrutiny when you’re dealing with a witnessed murder in broad daylight. Nor would it be rational to allow the unravelling of our Special Forces capability due the psychopathic behaviour of one individual, if it is what it appears to be. Unfortunately ‘unravelling’ what may or may not have occurred on our watch in Afghanistan by a tiny percentage of all those who deployed is proving impossible for the public at large. This is despite the fact it is the court of public perception which is the final arbiter in all matters.
If personnel are found guilty of criminal behaviour then they should be dealt with appropriately. But how to deal with the moral intransigence of our leadership who appear unwilling to defend the reputation of our people from two media organisations with clear anti-ADF agendas in play? Due the secretive and interminably long nature of the Inquiry we have learned nothing of what may or may not have happened in Afghanistan, but that there are elements of our own society only too willing to attack us from within. In a practical, risk management sense, the digital recording of operations will need to cease because there is (in Defence terms) an extreme risk that combat footage will be wilfully misrepresented for use against our people. The only variance to that option might be (and I stress might be) the recording of an operation if assessed as critical to operational interests or training and then when examined and analysed would be deleted in the immediate aftermath.
The dubious editorialising of the ABC and Nine/Fairfax in relation to our people who served in Afghanistan means the length and secret nature of the Afghanistan Inquiry has become a liability for the ADF. It may now be appropriate for IGADF to seek the Inquiry’s conclusion and to publish its findings. Concurrently leaders within the ADF and Government must not allow our Special Forces capability to be degraded as a result of whatever response may be made to the Inquiry.