The Afghanistan war may be largely forgotten, were it not for the Australian Federal Police raid on the ABC’s Sydney offices on June 5 to collect evidence for the trial of army lawyer and whistleblower David McBride.
Afghanistan is the longest war Australia has ever been involved in. Yet it has largely been conducted in secret, with few media reports and even fewer politicians wanting to talk about it.
Afghanistan is now increasingly being seen to be another “bad” war. Following the 9/11 terror attacks, Iraq was touted as the only “bad” war, as politicians scrambled to justify their support for the “good” war in Afghanistan as part of the “war on terror”.
Reports have emerged of another “tragic mishap” in Afghanistan, as United States forces mistook Afghan soldiers for the Taliban in early June. This speaks volumes about the intractable war on that country.
While no US soldiers were harmed, the number of Afghan troops killed in the second friendly fire incident in less than a month remains a mystery — much like the number of Afghan causalities from this 17-year-long war.
Reports of what Australian troops are doing there still are few and far between. We do know that about 300 army personnel are in the country, mainly advisors working with the US and training Afghan army recruits.
A small contingent of Australian special forces personnel provides support to NATO’s Special Operations Component Command - Afghanistan and to the Afghan General Command of Police Special Units Special Forces.
McBride’s whistleblowing implicated these forces in alleged illegal killings of Afghans. He said he was compelled to do what he did after the ADF and Department of Defence failed to act on his complaints.
McBride said that the department “was being misused to carry out operations that were counter-productive and costing lives”.
He told The New Daily’s Samantha Maiden on June 5 that he first became worried about the way the war was going in 2011, his first tour of Afghanistan.
“I went to work for the Special Forces and again it became apparent that the rules of engagement had changed to make it more dangerous. I made a complaint about it. I said this is a bad way to run the military.”
The Defence Department did look into his complaint, he said, but after that his life was made a misery. He said he continued to dig around “because I suspected there was something very wrong in the Defence Department”.
McBride, who has also served in the British Armed Forces pleaded not guilty to charges under the draconian National Security Legislation Amendment (Espionage and Foreign Interference) Act which criminalises whistleblowers.
McBride is not an anti-government or an anti-war activist: he is taking a stand against hypocrisy. Speaking outside the ACT Supreme Court on June 13, McBride said his case is not so much about national security secrets as it is about lies.
“I saw something illegally being done by the government and I did something about it … I’m seeking to have the case looking purely at whether the government broke the law and whether it was my duty as a lawyer to report that fact.”
At least $10 billion has been spent on what even war enthusiasts describe as a military failure, because the objective to eliminate Al-Qaeda has helped strengthen the local fundamentalists — the Taliban. They now control or have influence over 65% of the country’s 398 districts, including five where the Australian Army was based.
As military academic Clive Williams put it: “The security situation in Afghanistan has not improved in the 17 years we have been there; in fact, it has become worse.”
While Williams is scathing of Australia’s military deployment, arguing that “we are largely wasting our time supporting successive corrupt Afghan governments and their ineffectual Afghan security forces”, he wants the military to stay on because “Afghanistan will continue to provide a useful coalition operational training environment … at relatively low risk”.
He also supports bringing the Taliban back into government, so it can crack down on the new Islamic State-type elements now targeting the occupation forces.
This shamefaced war talk, promoting a post-war settlement with one of the country’s fundamentalist enemies, is now Western leaders’ “solution” after nearly two decades of intractable war.
Democratic rights campaigners, including Malalai Joya, are adamant the Taliban cannot be a part of any post-war government. They say justice and democracy will only be achieved when the occupation forces are forced out, and when the extremists and warlords are prosecuted for their war crimes.
However, the war criminals in the West must also be brought to justice. McBride’s whistleblowing could help that objective along. While this largely hidden war means it has been hard to galvanise public protests, the polls show most want out.
Meanwhile, Australia awaits a separate report by the Inspector-General of the Australian Defence Force into possible war crimes by elite Australian soldiers in Afghanistan. The investigation of possible breaches of the Laws of Armed Conflict began in 2016 and was due to report at the end of 2018. The ABC has been told that at least five cases of alleged unlawful killings have been uncovered.