There's no shortage of smoking guns in Failures of Command, Hugh Poate's detailed, searing, and comprehensive book about the tragic death of his son in Afghanistan in 2012: the biggest question confronting the reader is simply choosing which to pick.
The day of August 29 that year had been hot. The temperature had stretched up to 48 degrees in the middle of the day and so it was with relief, as the dust began settling and the cool breeze rolled up the Baluchi Valley, that Private Robert Poate and 11 of his mates knocked off for the evening. Patrol Base Wahab was really nothing more than a collection of old containers, sandbags and pre-fab huts that marked the tenuous edge of the Kabul government's control. It was, however, where Robert Poate's Mentoring Task Force 4 began relaxing as they prepared to bed down for the night. Six of his mates were playing a card game, poker, while others sat around a board game, Risk. Poate was facing those makeshift play tables, his back towards the closing darkness around him.
Suddenly three bursts of fire slammed into the diggers, killing Poate and Sapper James Martin instantly and lodging a bullet into Lance Corporal Rick Milosevic's heart, from which he would die before a rescue helicopter could evacuate him to the emergency hospital at Tarin Khot. Two other soldiers lay badly wounded while the diggers returned fire - but not at Hekmatullah, the Afghan sergeant who had unleashed the stream of bullets. He was camouflaged by the dark and sudden confusion and terror, standing behind a parked Bushmaster armoured vehicle. The defensive bullets were directed instead at two of the overwatch guard towers, manned by local soldiers.
Although neither askar (Afghan soldier) returned fire with their heavier weaponry, the situation was a mess.
This wasn't the first insider attack on the Aussies. That had occurred more than a year earlier at the next outpost, a couple of kilometres up the valley. That was where a cook, Private Andrew Jones, had been targeted by another Taliban sympathiser. By this time the Australian intervention was more than a decade old and, although a lot had happened and some 33 years had passed since the old Presidential Palace in Kabul had first been turned into a shooting gallery by Soviet Spetsnaz forces, the capacity for death to arrive unexpectedly and suddenly should not have come as a surprise to anyone. Least of all, insists Hugh Poate, the chain of command responsible for the execution of the mission allocated to the diggers.
And that's where he trains his sights.
Hugh Poate, Robert's father, is a careful, determined, now-retired public servant, a former agricultural economist by training, and this book - which has been through multiple careful edits - displays on every page a determined effort to stifle his personal emotions and allow the facts to speak for themselves. The result is not pretty. Poate's thorough and careful exploration draws out the threads of what he believes was, ultimately, a failure of command.
There are two keys to understanding this accusation. The first circles around FRAGO 13 - a fragmentary or abbreviated order issued a couple of weeks before the killings by the US Multinational Force Commander back in Kabul. A FRAGO modifies the basic operational order and signifies that something has changed: in this case, it noted a significant spike in insider attacks. Poate points to this and numerous other similar omissions, such as the biometric enrolment of Afghan soldiers or monitoring of their telephone calls that, he asserts, could have saved his son and the others if they'd been properly implemented.
I suspect it is his second charge, however, that drives the anger that imbues every word in this book with its fury and rage.
On the final day of the coroner's hearing, the grieving families were called to a meeting with, Poate says, an "insensitive, intimidating and bullying" brigadier. This quickly escalated into, he writes, a series of threats including "a moment of pure bastardry" as the officer's eyes plunged into them "like a blowtorch burning holes into our already broken hearts". Read the book to find out how the grieving families say they were treated by a senior officer on the CDF's staff; but if you want to find out how the brigadier's service was subsequently rewarded, look instead at the citations list for the Order of Australia.
Leaving aside whatever actually occurred during this incident, it clearly seems to explain the animus against the "officer class" that so powers the book.
A total of seven diggers were killed in insider attacks by soldiers they were training. That's because the Taliban found it a successful tactic, much easier than taking on professional forces on the battlefield. And this, although so often passed over, is of course the real point about this phase of the engagement.
The Taliban were prepared to die, but they wanted their martyrdom to mean something. The US had long been targeting the insurgents in their homes and across the border in Pakistan; it was inevitable that they would do the same thing and strike at NATO's troops in the barracks. That's what war is like. People die, terribly.
Poate singles out some individuals and attempts to sheet home the blame for his son's death to what he describes as their failures in command. You be the judge. But as you examine the charge sheet, ask what's not on it as well. It only took four more combat-related deaths - two in a helicopter crash, one from an IED, and the last in a firefight, before the remaining forces were pulled out of the country. The "mission" had been growing in pointlessness for a long time, long before the insider attacks began - and you can't blame the generals for that.
It was the politicians who failed to reconcile the deployment with progress in securing the Afghan state. But that, of course, is quite another book entirely.
- Nicholas Stuart is a Canberra writer and a regular columnist.