Australia’s Special Forces Deserve Respect - Not Cheap Shots
Following claims by the ABC that their so-called ‘Afghan Files’ (hundreds of pages of leaked ADF documents) reveal ‘poor behaviour’, ‘deep divisions’, and even alleged war crimes among Australia’s special forces soldiers, it seems that pundits are lining up to put the boot in. Blogger turned ABC analyst C. August Elliott ties these allegations to his claim that ‘Australian special forces helped lose the war in Afghanistan’, the University of Sydney’s Megan MacKenzie tells us ‘how a special forces ‘band of brothers’ culture leads to civilian deaths in war’, while Ben Wadham of Flinders University contends that these allegations ‘shine light on [a] culture of impunity’ in Australia’s special forces community.
A closer look at what the ABC has revealed shows that this ‘analysis’ boils down to little more than innuendo and cheap shots against a community that is not in a position to publicly defend itself. The vast majority of the internal ADF investigations reported on by the ABC conclude that the soldiers under investigation acted within the rules of engagement. Yet MacKenzie confidently informs us that the documents claim ‘multiple cases of special forces soldiers deliberately killing innocent civilians.’ In case there is any doubt, let us be clear that no military of a modern liberal democracy would adopt rules of engagement allowing soldiers to deliberately kill innocent civilians. Yes, innocent civilians do get killed in war, and when that happens it is a terrible tragedy. But battlefields are complex and confusing, and life-or-death decisions must often be made in a heartbeat and with limited information. Mistakes happen, and those who make them must live with their actions for the rest of their lives. Unless there is actual evidence that these actions were unjustified, at the very least we owe it to our soldiers to withhold judgment.
The ‘Afghan files’ are purported to reveal ‘the alleged cover up of the killing of an Afghan boy and another alleged incident in which a father and son were shot dead during a raid’. Note that these are allegations, not proven facts. They may be true, but then again they may not be – certainly it is not difficult to imagine what motives there might be for making false allegations of this kind. Yet MacKenzie again doesn’t hesitate to draw a parallel between our special forces and the so-called ‘Kill Team’ of US soldiers who were convicted of murdering three civilians in Afghanistan in 2010. MacKenzie lumps this comparison in with the claims of a quoted ‘anonymous special forces veteran’ to conclude that there is ‘a deeply problematic culture within the ADF’. That’s a pretty strong conclusion to reach based on extrapolation, innuendo and unsubstantiated allegations.
The same ‘anonymous special forces veteran’ is quoted by Wadham, along with every allegation made against Australian Special Forces over the last two decades, plus pretty much anyone else he can think of. Sex scandals within the broader ADF and allegations made against New Zealand special forces are all in the mix, despite their obvious lack of relevance. Somehow, despite Wadham not pointing to anyone who has actually been convicted of any wrongdoing, we are expected to believe that all this ‘anecdata’ supports his claim that there is “a code of secrecy, and practices of cover-up and deceit in the theatre of war.”
If MacKenzie and Wadham’s allegations are disappointing, Elliott’s are, frankly, laughable. He bases his position on the premises that 1) the way to win a counterinsurgency is to win hearts and minds, and 2) Australian special forces didn’t do this and instead focused on raids designed to kill high-value targets (HVT’s), concluding therefore that 3) Australian special forces ‘helped lose’ the war in Afghanistan. To call this an oversimplification is an insult to oversimplifications. The counterinsurgency war in Afghanistan is not Australia’s, it is the Afghan government’s war – we have been seeking to help that effort. While no-one (least of all our special forces soldiers) thinks that killing Taliban HVT’s will – on its own – end the conflict, it simply doesn’t follow that raids designed to degrade the enemy’s operational capability and gather intelligence are somehow pointless or counter-productive. That’s just silly. Of course it’s easy enough to make this all look bad – just throw in (as Elliott does) some unsubstantiated claim about our special forces having a "shoot first, never ask questions at all" ethos, and - Voila! - cheap shot executed.
Portraying military personnel as trigger-happy war criminals is like accusing your neighbours of being pedophiles. They may be innocent, and may be found not guilty in a court of law (if they are ever even charged), but nobody will ever really believe that – the stigma is too strong. Am I saying that no war crimes were committed by Australian Special Forces personnel in Afghanistan? No, I’m not. I simply have no access to whatever evidence there might be one way or the other. And nor do Mackenzie, Wadham, Elliott and all the others who are currently jumping up and down on the reputations of our special forces soldiers. It seems to me that we should have enough respect for those who risk their lives on our behalf to hold off on criticising them until there is actual evidence of wrongdoing.