Army leaks should renew push for troops to leave Middle East

June 15, 2018
This leaked photo shows an Australian army vehicle flying the Nazi swastika flag in Afghanistan in 2007. Photo: ABC

How many more leaked internal reports into criminal-sounding behaviour of some army and special forces personnel do we need to see to conclude that the troops in Afghanistan and Iraq are part of the problem, not the solution?

A new report relating to serious misconduct of Australia’s armed forces in Afghanistan, commissioned by the Australian Defence Forces, was made public on June 7. On June 14, pictures of Australian troops flying a Nazi swastika flag from a military vehicle in 2007 were published by the ABC.

While the report’s details are sketchy, it sounds like more of what has already come to light: a culture of impunity pervades the Australian army, particularly special forces operatives. Things are so bad, it says, that Australia’s national security could be at risk.

Chris Masters and Nick McKenzie revealed on June 7 that a secret report by Dr Samantha Crompvoets, commissioned in 2016 by then Special Operations Commander Major General Jeff Sengelman and backed by incoming defence chief Angus Campbell, had been obtained by Fairfax Media under Freedom of Information laws. The report says there is evidence that the army and special forces’ personnel had become a law unto themselves in Afghanistan.

Special forces informants said some soldiers had used “unsanctioned and illegal application of violence” during operations in Afghanistan and shown “disregard for human life and dignity” — a sanguine description of the brutality inflicted on innocent and unarmed civilians and over which Afghans have long been demanding action be taken.

Masters and McKenzie say the confidential report they have seen warns the army top brass that the lack of coordination between two key army units — the Special Air Service Regiment and the Commandos — could jeopardise Australia’s national security.

It corroborates other reports, including the ABC’s The Afghan Files which, in 2017, gave details of special forces officers carrying out horrific atrocities on unarmed civilians, including children.

Dan Oakes and Sam Clark’s chilling reports for the ABC also detail how these same officers absolved themselves of any responsibility for distinguishing between civilians and combatants, underscoring the sort of impunity that prevailed.

In one chilling example from 2011, a man and a boy returning from a local medical clinic in Sah Zafar, Chora Valley met Australian and Afghan troops conducting a “cordon and callout operation” where they hoped to capture “a high-value Taliban target”.

“As [the troops] moved along a road they were shot at from a concealed area. The Australians returned fire and immediately moved up to the location from where the shots originated. There they found a dead man and a fatally injured child. Locals in a ‘distressed state’ arrived at the scene and told the Australians that the dead man was the boy’s uncle, and that he was returning with his nephew from the local medical clinic.

“Australian soldiers tested the dead man’s hands and found traces of nitrate, which they said proved he had handled explosives and was an insurgent. However, this was later disproved, as there was no evidence the man was an insurgent, and nitrates are present within commonly-used fertilisers in Afghanistan.

“The report says the commanding officer and the officer who carried out the initial ‘quick assessment’ had an ‘incomplete’ understanding of the technology. Bags containing medication were also found at the scene of the killing, lending further credence to the locals’ story.”

The internal investigation found that “the Australian troops were acting within the rules of engagement when they killed the man, but was heavily critical of the process by which he was labelled an insurgent after his death”.

The 1949 Geneva Conventions and its later covenants, to which Australia is a signatory, make clear what constitutes “acting within the rules of engagement”: they do not include attacking civilians and killing children.

These conventions also provide for criminal charges to be bought against perpetrators, including heads of government. To date, no Western leader has been charged with war crimes, although former British Prime Minister Tony Blair has come the closest.

The latest revelations of Australian army cruelty highlight the urgent need for the allegations of gross misconduct to be investigated — transparently — and for justice to be done.

But prosecutions of individual soldiers for war crimes must not be allowed to become an exercise in scapegoating, as happened after the Abu Ghraib scandal came to light.

A revamping of the internal cowboy culture of the army must not be the end goal. Rather, it should reopen the discussion about why Australia is in Afghanistan and Iraq in the first place.

Former PM John Howard’s decision to join the US-led intervention into Afghanistan 16 years ago, based on the “war on terror” which was unleashed by warmongers George W Bush and Blair was opposed by a sizable minority back then. Today, Australian troops “mentor” Afghan troops, and are largely out of harm’s way.

It is not clear from the Defence Force website what exactly its mission is: it is hard to justify being part of a US-led war coalition fighting an unwinnable war with no end in sight.

But it is worse than that. Afghanistan, already one of the poorest countries in the world, has been completely devastated, structurally and politically. The US’s murderous “protracted war strategy” has meant that between 2001 and 2017, there have been more than 31,000 civilian deaths due to war-related violence and 29,900 civilians have been wounded. More than 111,000 Afghans, including civilians, soldiers and militants, are estimated to have been killed in the conflict. The United Nations Assistance Mission in Afghanistan estimates that in 2017 alone, more than 3438 people were killed and 7015 were injured.

Democratic activists, such as the courageous one-time Afghan MP Malalai Joya, have argued that Afghanistan can and will defeat extremism, but only if foreign troops leave. The solution is a political one, she says, rejecting the push by the West for Kabul to rehabilitate former warlords and extremists, such as Gulbuddin Hekmatyar who is now rebuilding his political career.

Socialist Alliance opposed Australia joining the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq. It continues to campaign for the troops to leave, for Australia to accept more refugees fleeing the wars it has inflamed and commit to supporting grassroots community organisations trying to rebuild Afghanistan and Iraq.

These leaked reports and those ongoing, including by NSW judge Paul Brereton and former Australian Security Intelligence Organisation chief David Irvine, should fire up our resolve to demand the wars be ended — the first step being to remove Australian troops.

This is not only critical for the people of Iraq and Afghanistan, it is also because the racism and religious extremism unleashed by the Western-led wars in the Middle East represent a threat to all of our rights.

[Pip Hinman is an anti-war activist and a member of Socialist Alliance.]

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