All war is terrible. Nothing, however, can excuse what Australian troops are alleged to have done in Afghanistan. Killing a civilian is never forgivable but, in this case, what made them (if possible) worse was these executions fed the Taliban narrative. They worked, immediately and directly, against the very mission the forces were deployed to achieve by proving the international forces were terrorists, just like the insurgents.
Is it any wonder that today Uruzgan is under Taliban control and the deployment (with all those lives; all that money) was completely in vain?
It all began to go wrong so very quickly: there's plenty of blame to go round. What the Brereton report reveals, however, is that the government's strategy in Afghanistan was bankrupt. It relied, critically, on special forces teams taking out enemy commanders. They weren't. Instead a corrosive, separate and deadly culture was allowed to develop in the white compound that was wired off and forbidden to journalists in the base at Tarin Kot. We knew something was happening there but no idea what.
The SAS was, we were told, different. It was a strategic weapon, providing unique intelligence and hitting, critically, where others couldn't. Carefully planned precision strikes that were supposedly eliminating key enemy commanders, ones who couldn't be replaced. The idea was that by killing such people the Taliban would become disrupted and ineffective. The special forces were meant to be the instrument that would win the war.
It's now clearly obvious that, no matter how many Afghans were being removed from the battlefield by the SAS, the strategy wasn't working. Yet, year after year, instead of attempting something new, commanders simply doubled down on failure. We sent the same kill teams out again and again, and again, in the hope that somehow this failure would suddenly, amazingly, transform, tip the scales and deliver strategic success. We convinced ourselves our intelligence was right, simply targeting more people might, somehow, be the route to victory. The special forces disintegrated into a tactical asset and, among some, a terrible culture took root from the failed and bankrupt strategy.
These were unique individuals, trained to dominate the night, take control, and kill. So that's what they did.
Such tactics were never going to hold the most vital ground of all, the minds of the Afghan people. Instead of engaging with the locals, our "teams", delivering their own night letters, had effectively become terrorists themselves.
It's important, vital, to realise not all the special forces fell into such practices. I believe some higher-ups knew, vaguely, that something was wrong. They attempted to stop what was happening long before any sociologist began investigating but that's not the way huge organisations work. It didn't want to look into the dark places. Journalists repeatedly reported on the broader failure of the campaign but the politicians didn't want to hear evidence the war was going badly: what appetite do you think there was, anywhere in the system, for not just bad but this horrifically terrible news? None.
Our eyes became blind as, in the unit, coercion, the development of routine, terror was accepted and the slow accretion of disastrous norms by many eventually resulted in random killings.
However - and this is key - not everyone's moral fibre collapsed. Commander Special Forces Jeff Sengelman discovered what had happened. He initiated this cleansing. The critical decisions to support the purging of the cancerous cell came from within: successive Defence Force chiefs Mark Binskin and Angus Campbell could have easily headed this investigation off. You can see this quite clearly in legal advice tendered to commanders, warning them of "very high reputational risk".
You don't need to be a senior public servant to read between the lines there. Yet, despite the red flags, the military has moved forward and is purging itself. Individuals from this very same special forces community that's being dredged through the mud, some still in the military and some who've left, have displayed remarkable courage and strength of character. This has come at considerable personal and institutional cost. Driven by their moral strength they accepted the challenge. These are the people you want on your side.
- After the Brereton report, a divided service searches its soul (Subscriber only)
- Jack Waterford: SAS officers failed their men, and Australia, in Afghanistan (Subscriber only)
- Michelle Grattan: Australia's war crimes in Afghanistan: how could those up the chain not know?
- David Letts: Allegations of murder and 'blooding' face many obstacles to prosecution
The story, however, isn't over yet.
Don't assume, just because Scott Morrison has laid down a procedure things will now run smoothly to its conclusion. He wants to progress these as civil cases focused on a simple question: "Who pulled the trigger?", but the law isn't that simple.
Doesn't context matter? We believe no matter how heinous the crime, defendants have a right to a fair trial and a jury of their peers. How can these soldiers ever receive that in a civilian court?
Any decision to remove prosecutions from the military justice system is highly problematic. What will be on the stand is not simply the actions of these soldiers but broader issues.
The real question is not just who pulled the trigger, but who ordered soldiers to deploy time and time again; shielded their actions from view; insisted on pinning medals to their chests for "good work"; and should have foreseen something terrible would happen?
Who created and enabled an environment where murder became the norm? Who had "command responsibility"?
Could any jury really be assured, beyond reasonable doubt, that these killings were not to some extent both foreseeable and tacitly condoned by superiors wanting results?
Will prime ministers John Howard, Kevin Rudd, Julia Gillard and Tony Abbott be cross-examined and questioned? How it was that our forces were committed to an impossible war? Who accepted that executions would be embedded into policy?
Look in the mirror.
Can you really absolve yourself from any blame for what happened?
- Nicholas Stuart is a Canberra writer and a regular columnist.