View from The Hill: Dutton humiliates defence force chief Angus Campbell over citation


Michelle Grattan, University of CanberraPeter Dutton has begun his tenure as defence minister by delivering a very public slap to his most senior military adviser, chief of the Australian Defence Force Angus Campbell.

Dutton’s overriding of Campbell’s initial command decision to revoke a meritorious unit citation that had been awarded to some 3,000 special forces soldiers who served in Afghanistan is a humiliation to the general who is supposedly in command of the military.

The minister’s claim that he has full faith in Campbell does not alter this point.

On an issue that goes to the core of military professionalism, ethics and discipline, the government has not trusted Campbell’s judgment.

The opposition is no better – it has supported Dutton’s decision.

We don’t know how Campbell is taking it, but Dutton says he’s “pragmatic”. In such circumstances, some military leaders would be considering their position.

The salt has been rubbed in by Dutton seeking to highlight the override, with a leaked story in The Australian and media interviews.

Dutton’s argument that “the decision [Campbell] made in the first instance is perfectly reasonable. But my judgment is that we look at the circumstances now,” doesn’t pass (as the government might say) the pub test.

Of course the government overrule effectively came months ago, after the release of the Brereton report on allegations of misconduct by Australian special forces in Afghanistan, which said the citation should be revoked.

The war crimes inquiry said there was “credible information” of 23 incidents in which one or more non-combatants or prisoners of war “were unlawfully killed by or at the direction of members of the Special Operations Task Group”. It recommended the ADF chief refer 36 matters to the Australian Federal Police for criminal investigation, involving 19 individuals.

Faced with pressure from veterans and from some within the special forces, Scott Morrison was quick to indicate he opposed the proposal to revoke the citation, and Campbell began a tactical retreat.

Former defence minister Linda Reynolds smoothed the waters to give time for consideration. But it was always clear what was going to happen.

A less assertive minister, however, might have found a form of announcement to allow Campbell to have saved a little more face (assuming he wished to).

As he grasps the reins of a portfolio he has long coveted, Dutton is sending the message that (unlike his predecessor) he wants be an activist minister who is in the public eye.

In considering how the citation award has been handled, it is important to understand exactly what it is.

The Brereton inquiry made separate recommendations about the Meritorious Unit Citation which went to the Special Operations Task Group, and individual awards, and it explained the reasons for viewing them differently.

“Although many members of the Special Operations Task Group demonstrated great courage and commitment and although it had considerable achievements, what is now known must disentitle the unit as a whole to eligibility for recognition for sustained outstanding service.

“It has to be said that what this Report discloses is disgraceful and a profound betrayal of the Australian Defence Force’s professional standards and expectations. It is not meritorious.

“The inquiry has recommended the revocation of the award of the Meritorious Unit Citation, as an effective demonstration of the collective responsibility and accountability of the Special Operations Group as a whole for those events.

“In contrast, the cancellation of an individual award such as a distinguished service award impacts on the status and reputation of the individual concerned, could not be undertaken on a broad-brush collective basis, and would require procedural fairness.”

Brereton is making a very reasonable distinction between collective and individual responsibility, and the need to send a broad signal about, and from, the collective.

In rejecting Campbell’s judgment, Dutton and the government have rebuffed the official inquiry, led by a distinguished and experienced judge – a bad look of the political taking precedence over the legal.

One has to wonder just how much will finally be delivered as a result of the Brereton investigation. The process to get prosecutions for alleged crimes is underway but by its nature it will be incredibly complex and difficult.

Which, one could argue, made it even more important to carry through the symbolic gesture of removing the citation.

Meanwhile on another front, Morrison on Monday announced a royal commission into past suicides in the defence forces and among veterans.

This wasn’t the government’s preference. Its plan was for an ongoing commissioner on the issue, but that did not satisfy many families and veterans, and the government couldn’t muster the parliamentary numbers.

Now both processes will be undertaken, the government says.

The outcome on these very different issues – the citation and the royal commission – reflect the political power of veterans.The Conversation

Michelle Grattan, Professorial Fellow, University of Canberra

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

Incomplete strategy and niche contributions — Australia leaves Afghanistan after 20 years


Department of Defence/AAP

John Blaxland, Australian National UniversityPrime Minister Scott Morrison has declared Australia will withdraw its remaining 80 troops from Afghanistan by September, marking the end of its longest involvement in a war.

This follows President Joe Biden announcing the United States will leave Afghanistan by September.

The path to this point has appeared inevitable for years. Ten years ago, journalist Karen Middleton highlighted the futility of the counterinsurgency campaign in her aptly-titled book, An Unwinnable War.

High hopes dashed

Back in 2001, it all seemed so different. Only weeks after the September 11 attacks, Australian special forces deployed to southern Afghanistan alongside US, Canadian, British and other NATO troops to defeat al-Qaeda, who was hosted by the then-Afghan government, known as the Taliban.

Prime Minister John Howard talks to troops in Afghanistan in 2007.
Prime Minister John Howard, seen here with troops in 2007, sent Australia to Afghanistan in the wake of the September 11 attacks.
Department of Defence/AAP

After dusting off their boots and leaving in early 2002, Australian forces were drawn back in 2005 with a special forces task group. This was followed by an engineering reconstruction task force that over time morphed into a mentoring task force, intended to help the Afghan national security forces establish law and order.

But without a clear strategy for effective governance and widespread corruption, the Taliban returned with a vengeance. The mentoring created opportunities for so-called “green on blue” attacks, which contributed to the deaths of a number of Australians.

By 2014, 41 Australian soldiers had been killed. Many understandably wondered: was it worth it?

Australia’s niche approach

Australian politicians and policy makers were always risk-averse about the commitment. Eager to avoid casualties on the scale of Australia’s involvement in the Vietnam War (where 500 Australians were killed), successive governments opted to make niche contributions that relied on critical support and leadership from US and other allies.

But never wanting to manage everything itself left Australia vulnerable.

For example, Australia handed detainees to Afghan authorities who, soon enough released them. Some of these, it appears, ended up fighting against Australians again.

With special forces, in particular, undertaking rotation after rotation, operating without a compelling strategy and running into such characters repeatedly would have tested their resolve to operate ethically. In this context, it is not surprising their actions have generated enormous controversy addressed in the Brereton Report.




Read more:
Allegations of murder and ‘blooding’ in Brereton report now face many obstacles to prosecution


Building ADF skills and experience

Defenders of Australia’s engagement in Afghanistan reflect on how the operational experience has honed the force. It enabled the components of the Australian Defence Force to sharpen their skills, refine their procedures and improve their capabilities. This includes the acquisition of advanced American military technology seen as crucial for an (at least partly) self-reliant defence posture for Australia.

Having a capable and sharp-edged defence force is a worthy goal. The question still remains whether the price was justified.




Read more:
As the US plans its Afghan troop withdrawal, what was it all for?


The lack of involvement in international strategy formulation left Australia vulnerable to incoherent policy-making and planning by US political and military leaders. This may not affect Australia directly. But America’s US$2 trillion dollar expenditure on the campaign points to a spectacular failure of political and military leadership.

Back in 2001, the so-called “unipolar moment” — with the US as an unchallenged superpower — seemed enduring. Two decades later, a three-pronged series of challenges relating to great power contestation, looming environmental catastrophe and a spectrum of governance challenges (including terrorism, people and drug smuggling, and corruption) suggests the Afghan project distracted many countries — including Australia — from addressing other more pressing global issues.

There were other options

This does not mean the complete withdrawal was the only possibility. There could have been a compromise arrangement to protect the rights of women and institutions of Afghan civil society. This would have required buy-in from neighbouring states including the “stans”, India, Russia, China and Iran, let alone the invested European powers.

But Biden’s declaration of withdrawal has emboldened the Taliban and makes any such outcome now virtually impossible to secure. Indeed, with al-Qaeda and the so-called Islamic State resurgent, we may come to deeply regret not persisting with maintaining a modest foothold there, akin to the level of support provided by NATO that has endured in the Balkans for decades since the war broke out there in the 1990s.

Most of our work now lost

As we look back, Australia did work to improve the lives and livelihoods of the people of Afghanistan, particularly in Uruzgan province, where Australian forces were stationed from 2005—2013.

However, most of that work has now been lost and many of Australia’s interlocutors there killed, intimidated into submission or chased away. Some, thankfully, have made it to Australia as refugees.

We owe it, particularly to those who worked with Australia, to offer them a better future, including by inviting them here and welcoming them, much as we, belatedly, took in refugees fleeing from Vietnam after that war ended.

Meanwhile, in Australia, the price is still being paid for an incomplete strategy, with ongoing trauma for our veterans and their families and lives being lost.The Conversation

John Blaxland, Professor, Strategic and Defence Studies Centre, Australian National University

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

As the US plans its Afghan troop withdrawal, what was it all for?


David Goldman/AP

Jared Mondschein, University of SydneyUnlike most US presidents, Joe Biden did not come to the White House with many fixed ideological positions. He did, however, come with fixed values. Chief among them is understanding how US policies impact working American families.

In his nearly half century of experience in and around Washington, Biden was known to ask any staffers using academic or elitist language to

pick up your phone, call your mother, read her what you just told me […] If she understands, we can keep talking.

The debate about the nearly 20-year US presence in Afghanistan has challenged three prior US presidents — George W. Bush, Barack Obama and Donald Trump. Yet Biden, as the first US president in 40 years to have had a child who served in combat, sees things differently.

There undoubtedly remains a strategic argument — albeit shared by increasingly fewer Americans — for maintaining a US presence in Afghanistan. Namely, that it would continue to prevent terrorists from once again making safe haven there.

But Biden’s announcement that he would withdraw the remaining US troops by September essentially meant he saw no way of making the parent of another soldier killed in Afghanistan understand such an argument. As he said,

Our reasons for remaining in Afghanistan have become increasingly unclear.

Biden said it is ‘time for America’s troops to come home’.
Andrew Harnik / POOL/EPA

Shifting US support for the war

Today, most Americans agree with him.

When the longest war in American history began, 83% of Americans were in favour of it. But by 2019, 41% of Americans simply had no opinion on whether the US had accomplished its goals in Afghanistan.

Perhaps clearer than the US rationale for maintaining troops in Afghanistan is the fact Americans are dramatically less concerned about terrorism than they were 20 years ago.

A woman embracing her husband after his return from a deployment to Afghanistan in 2014.
David Goldman/AP

One month after the September 11, 2001, attacks, 71% of Americans said they were worried about a terror attack.

But by July 2020, terrorism ranked last in a list of ten issues that Americans deemed to be a “very big problem in the country today.” Climate change, violent crime, unemployment, government ethics, and racial injustice were all deemed more important.

And in February of this year, Americans were asked what of 20 options should be given “top priority” as a long-range foreign policy goal. The top-ranked priority, with 75% in support, was “protecting the jobs of American workers”.

The very last one? “Promoting democracy in other nations”, at just 20%.




Read more:
US postpones Afghanistan troop withdrawal in hopes of sustaining peace process: 5 essential reads


What was it all for?

The rationale for maintaining US troops in Afghanistan was not only unclear to most Americans, it also became unclear to a growing number of US veterans. In late 2019, 44% of veterans said they supported US troop reductions from Afghanistan — compared to just 33% of the general public.

As Biden reminded the world in his announcement, the US invaded Afghanistan to root out al-Qaeda and prevent future terror attacks on the US. He posited the death of Osama bin Laden and the degradation of al-Qaeda were evidence of success on that front.

But both of those were accomplished a decade ago — leading Biden to wonder what had been accomplished since then, and what could be accomplished in the future.

More than 2,400 American service members were killed in Afghanistan and more than 20,000 were wounded.
Massoud Hossaini/AP

More than a decade ago, the Obama administration fiercely debated the merits of decreasing the US troop presence in Afghanistan. Around that time, a US Marine colonel who did multiple deployments to the region reflected to me about the many Marines he lost there and the parents he consoled. He asked a simple question:

What exactly am I supposed to tell these mothers that their sons died for?

Ultimately, the withdrawal of US troops has led veterans and non-veterans alike to ask another question that others have asked in the past: What was it all for?




Read more:
For the Afghan peace talks to succeed, a ceasefire is the next — and perhaps toughest — step forward


It remains unclear if the more than 2,400 US troop and personnel deaths, US$2 trillion and 20 years achieved anything truly lasting on the ground in Afghanistan.

Yet, perhaps the greatest legacy from the US war in Afghanistan should not be something the US gained, but instead what it lost — unbridled confidence in and dependence on US hard power.

Such humility and restraint may be exactly what is needed for the challenge the Biden administration wants to focus on most, and is perhaps most relevant to the American working family: rebuilding at home.The Conversation

Jared Mondschein, Senior Advisor, US Studies Centre, University of Sydney

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

Australian troops to leave Afghanistan by September


Michelle Grattan, University of CanberraAustralia will pull its remaining 80 troops from Afghanistan by September, marking the end of its longest involvement in a war.

This is in line with the announcement by United States President Joe Biden of America’s withdrawal.

An emotional Prime Minister Scott Morrison read out the names of the 41 Australians who died since the conflict began after the September 11 2001 terrorist attacks in the US.

Biden said this week it was time to end the “forever war”. The US currently has about 2,500 troops in Afghanistan while about 2,200 Americans have been killed in a conflict that ended inconclusively.

Over the past two years, Australia has reduced its military personnel from about 1,500.

Asked at a news conference in Perth whether going into Afghanistan was worth it, Morrison said, “freedom is always worth it”.

In a statement he, Defence Minister Peter Dutton and Foreign Minister Marise Payne said, “this decision represents a significant milestone in Australia’s military history”.

They said more than 39,000 Australian Defence Force personnel had been deployed on Operations SLIPPER and HIGHROAD.

“But safeguarding Afghanistan’s security has come at a cost,” they said, referring to the 41 deaths and the larger number who were wounded, “some physically and others mentally.”

They said a “complex task of making peace” lay ahead.

“Australia continues to support the peace negotiations between the Afghan government and the Taliban. We encourage both parties to commit to the peace process and call on the Taliban to cease the violence.”

While Australia’s military contribution would reduce, “we will continue to support the stability and development of Afghanistan through our bilateral partnership, and in concert with other nations.

“This includes our diplomatic presence, development cooperation program, and continued people-to-people links, including through our training and scholarship programs.

“Australia remains committed to helping Afghanistan preserve the gains of the last 20 years, particularly for women and girls.”

The announcement of the withdrawal comes as fresh controversy engulfs Ben Roberts-Smith, who won a VC in Afghanistan but has been accused of war crimes.

Nine this week alleged he buried material in his backyard, including pictures of soldiers behaving badly in a makeshift bar at the Australian Tarin Kowt base and classified information.

Roberts-Smith has denied the allegations against him.

At his news conference, Morrison dismissed a question about the allegations of Australians committing war crimes, saying, “There will be time to talk about those things. Today is not that time”.The Conversation

Michelle Grattan, Professorial Fellow, University of Canberra

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

How a troop drawdown in Afghanistan signals American weakness and could send Afghan allies into the Taliban’s arms



Afghan security forces gather near the site of an attack in Jalalabad in August 2020.
AP Photo/Rahmat Gul

Brian Glyn Williams, University of Massachusetts Dartmouth

President Donald Trump’s recent call to withdraw just over half of the 4,500 U.S. troops in Afghanistan has been condemned as an act that “would hurt our allies and delight, delight, the people who wish us harm” by members of his own party and key military leaders. The Nov. 17 announcement of troop reduction is part of a ceasefire agreement with the Taliban, but may not help deliver a lasting peace to the Afghan people.

The Taliban are a fanatical minority who seek to replace Afghanistan’s fledgling democracy with harsh Islamic law. They also have close ties to al-Qaida, offering refuge to other terrorist groups and supporting terrorist campaigns against neighboring Uzbekistan and Pakistan.

The country’s long-suffering people will be most affected by the pullout. Many of them rely on the U.S. military to keep the Taliban from moving out of the countryside – much of which they control, especially in the southeast – to take provincial capitals and the rest of the country.

According to a major Washington think tank, the withdrawal of U.S. troops could “potentially cripple” the Afghan National Army, which has seen 45,000 troops killed from 2015 to 2019. But based on my work among the Afghan tribes – whose leaders are powerful figures who provide crucial supports for the current government – an American drawdown is also likely to proclaim U.S. weakness to Afghanistan’s tribal leaders. Those important allies may switch sides to the Taliban en masse if they feel the U.S. is abandoning their country.

Afghan National Army soldiers march
New Afghan National Army soldiers march at their graduation ceremony in Kabul on Nov. 29, 2020.
AP Photo/Rahmat Gul

An embattled ally

I worked with Afghan National Army troops while working on a forward operating base for the U.S. Army’s Information Operations team in eastern Afghanistan. From that experience, I know they are brave and willing to make tremendous sacrifices – including of their lives – to defend their country. But they lack the essential training, equipment and other support that American troops provide.

When Afghan forces deploy on missions to repel insurgent offensives or retake villages, valleys or towns from the constantly probing and advancing enemy, they are transported by U.S. air crews in Black Hawk or Chinook helicopters. When they engage the Taliban in combat, U.S. Special Forces troops embedded with them fly hand-launched Raven drones that provide aerial views of the battlefield. Those U.S. troops also call in American artillery and air strikes, which are key to the Afghan National Army’s ability to succeed in battle against a determined foe.

These American “force multiplier” troops also provide their Afghan National Army allies with vital logistics support and, in a psychological sense, let their hard-fighting partners know that the American superpower has their back.

But the Army is not the only Afghan key factor the U.S. would weaken by pulling out.

Afghan fighters in 1980
Afghan tribal fighters, like these from 1980, have always been key to the country’s balance of power.
AP Photo

The tribes are key

The strategic southeast of Afghanistan that is home to the Taliban is dominated largely by ethnic Pashtun tribes, which is very different from the postmodern melting-pot societies familiar to those in the U.S. and Europe. These 60 tribes, or clans, have for centuries maintained – and shifted – the country’s balance of military and political power. They are always calculating which of the rival factions or warring parties is in the strongest position and seeking to join that side.

When the Soviets withdrew their forces from Afghanistan in 1989 after 10 years of war supporting the country’s communist government, tribes who had remained neutral joined the advancing mujahedeen Islamist rebels and eventually defeated the remaining government forces.

I was working in Afghanistan in 2007, the year that the George W. Bush administration kept U.S. forces in Afghanistan roughly constant around 20,000 – but sent a far larger force to Iraq. The shift in U.S. priority pulled vital resources like drones, Special Forces troops, artillery, vehicles with additional armor protection, and combat planes and helicopters out of Afghanistan.

As the Pentagon’s focus shifted to Iraq, the tribes saw the U.S. as only weakly committed to winning the Afghan conflict. Those that had allied with the previously powerful Americans and Afghan government defected to a resurgent Taliban in order to be on the winning side.

The resulting Taliban advance on the Pashtun tribal area saw the insurgents take much of the country’s second-largest city, destroy U.S.-built girls’ schools and take the lives of Afghans who had worked with Americans. The Talibans’ offensive was averted only by President Obama’s 2009-2012 troop surge, which vastly increased the number of U.S. troops in the country, to a peak of 100,000.

That commitment conveyed a message of strength to the tribes, who came back to the government’s side in key strategic areas and prevented the Taliban conquest of the southeast. As U.S. and NATO troops bolstered the Afghan National Army, vast swaths of territory in the Pashtun belt and its second largest city of Kandahar were wrested from the Taliban, who lost tens of thousands of fighters.

Afghan troops continue to battle a Taliban-led insurgency
Afghan troops continue to battle a Taliban-led insurgency.
AP Photo/Rahmat Gul

The effects of Pentagon disengagement

For the past several years, a tentative stalemate has prevailed. Many tribes are clearly watching for signs of weakness from either the Taliban or the Americans. They will interpret any retreat or sign of weak commitment from one side as a signal to join the other side.

The U.S. has gradually over the years reduced its troop numbers, which has hurt the country’s reputation among the tribes. But so far, American forces are still numerous enough to deploy alongside Afghan troops to call in supporting artillery and air strikes – demonstrating enough power to keep the tribes tentatively on the U.S. side.

[Get our most insightful politics and election stories. Sign up for The Conversation’s Politics Weekly.]

The upcoming troop drawdown would end most, if not all, of that capacity, leaving the Afghan National Army without crucial reinforcements. The Taliban will likely claim a huge tactical victory on the battlefield, and an equally important victory in the battle of perceptions. The tribes will see U.S. weakness, and may shift their support to the Taliban out of a sense of self-preservation.

The remaining number of just 2,000 U.S. troops in Texas-sized Afghanistan would no longer be able to support the Afghan National Army – and will most likely be hard-pressed just to protect themselves.The Conversation

Brian Glyn Williams, Professor of Islamic History, University of Massachusetts Dartmouth

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

The Anzac legend has blinded Australia to its war atrocities. It’s time for a reckoning



Australian soldiers in the trenches at Anzac Cove on the Gallipoli peninsula in Turkey in 1915.
State Library of Victoria/Wikimedia Commons

Martin Crotty, The University of Queensland and Carolyn Holbrook, Deakin University

For years, Australians have faced a steady stream of investigative media reports about atrocities allegedly committed by the country’s most elite soldiers in Afghanistan.

Yet, nothing could have prepared the nation for the breathtaking contents of the landmark report by Major General Paul Brereton into the actions of special forces, released last month after a four-year investigation. The reaction across Australia was one of horror and disbelief.

The inquiry found credible evidence to support allegations that 39 Afghan civilians were illegally killed by Australian soldiers, some having weapons planted on them to make them appear to have been combatants.




Read more:
Allegations of murder and ‘blooding’ in Brereton report now face many obstacles to prosecution


Prisoners were shot for reasons as obtuse as saving the need for a second helicopter trip. Others were allegedly killed in a practice known as “blooding”, in which new soldiers were encouraged to achieve their first “kill”. In one particularly appalling incident, special forces allegedly slit the throats of two 14-year-old boys and dumped their bodies in a river.

For most Australians, this is more than just rogue soldiers being found out for despicable behaviour. The depth of revulsion felt by many reflects the special place the country reserves for its armed forces, who have come to personify all that is best about Australia.

Chief of Defence Force Angus Campbell has been under pressure from some politicians to resign.
Mick Tsikas/AAP

Where the Anzac legend originated

Military history sits at the heart of the Australian national identity — most visibly through the Anzac legend.

The word “Anzac” is an acronym for “Australian and New Zealand Army Corps”. It was coined during the early phases of the first world war, when Australians and New Zealanders were part of an allied force that landed at Gallipoli in modern-day Turkey in April 1915.

The invasion, devised by Britain’s first lord of the admiralty, Winston Churchill, was unsuccessful in its goal of reaching Constantinople and knocking the Ottoman Empire out of the war.

British, Australian and New Zealander soldiers constructing bombs at Gallipoli in 1915.
Archives New Zealand/Wikimedia Commons

But the young Australian nation, federated in 1901, took from the failed campaign a mythology of national birth.

Australia had been created during an age of elevated propaganda about empire, monarchy and the glory of battle. War was held to be the truest test of the character of men and nations.

In this era of “new imperialism”, the peaceful union of Australia’s six British colonies carried a taint of illegitimacy because no blood had been spilled (the frontier wars with Aboriginal peoples did not count). The British journalist Alfred Buchanan wrote in 1907 that he

pitied the little Australian […] looking to nourish the flame of patriotic sentiment, [for …] the altar has not been stained with crimson as every rallying centre of a nation should be.

So, by the first world war, it was believed that a good showing in battle would expunge the convict stain and prove Australians worthy members of the British empire.

This is why the date of the Gallipoli invasion, April 25, quickly became Australia’s most sacred national day. The young nation was drenched by a tide of khaki nationalism that has ebbed and flowed ever since.

War memorials and monuments were raised in towns and cities around the country, where citizens still gather each Anzac Day to engage in the rituals of what the late historian Ken Inglis called Australia’s “civil religion”.

The first Anzac Day parade in Sydney on April 25, 1916.
Century of Pictures, Penguin Books/Wikimedia Commons

How the Anzacs continue to be revered

Beginning in the 1990s, Australian politicians have also consciously and cleverly linked this nostalgia-tinted history to the work of the modern and highly professionalised Australian Defence Force.

When the honour of Australia’s revered soldiers is questioned, so too is the national self-image.

For example, a 2011 report into the culture and personal conduct of members of the Defence Force, prompted by accusations of sexual harassment and other indiscretions, noted the Anzac legend provided an exemplar for the current military.




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Why Australian commanders need to be held responsible for alleged war crimes in Afghanistan


Similarly, in his 2015 dawn service speech on the centenary of the Gallipoli landings, then-Prime Minister Tony Abbott lauded the Anzacs for their qualities of compassion, perseverance and mateship.

In reverential tones, Abbott called them the “founding heroes of modern Australia”, said they set an example for modern day Australians to follow:

Yes, they are us; and when we strive enough for the right things, we can be more like them.

Poignantly, Ben Roberts-Smith, Australia’s most decorated contemporary soldier and among the men accused of war atrocities in Afghanistan, has also drawn inspiration from the Anzac legend.

Roberts-Smith has said that Gallipoli is “a big part of who we are as Aussies”, and reflected on his boyhood fascination with the Anzacs:

While other boys had posters of sporting heroes, I had posters of soldiers.

A history of misconduct in war

But the idealisation of this Anzac history has always required Australians turn a blind eye to uncomfortable truths.

Australian soldiers in the first world war killed prisoners, deserted in record numbers, caught venereal disease at phenomenal rates and outperformed all other Western Front forces in causing trouble.

In the second world war, Australians were often reluctant to take Japanese prisoners, choosing to illegally bayonet or shoot them instead. And Australian soldiers are known to have committed atrocities alongside their American counterparts in Vietnam, including “bloodings” and “throwdowns” (planting weapons on civilians after they were killed).




Read more:
How Anzac Day came to occupy a sacred place in Australians’ hearts


In recent years, we have become increasingly reluctant to see our Anzacs as killers, even when such killing is legitimate on military grounds.

As represented most famously in Peter Weir’s 1981 film, Gallipoli, the Anzac legend has become less about the combat ability of Australian soldiers and more about their suffering. It is war commemoration stripped down and refitted for the age of post-traumatic stress disorder.

The Anzacs that our nation so often lauds are fictional creations, shorn of the malevolence and downright murderous behaviour they frequently exhibited.

The alleged SAS atrocities do not fit this kinder, gentler version of the legend. They upend the way Australians like to imagine their armed forces, and by implication, themselves.

The final scene in the 1981 film Gallipoli, starring Mel Gibson.

Tethering war to national self-image

We see two possibilities for how the current crisis will play out. The first is the alleged war crimes will slowly be forgotten, just as previous atrocities have been.

There are already signs this is happening. Prime Minister Scott Morrison last week said he remained “incredibly proud” of the ADF and emphasised that the alleged crimes were committed by “a small number in a very big defence force”. He maintained the reputation of the broader defence force would be unaffected.

Soldiers march during the Anzac Day parade in Brisbane in 2019.
Glenn Hunt/AAP

The other possibility is Australia will adopt a more realistic attitude towards its soldiers and the conflicts they fight in.

These conflicts are complex, and rarely conducted without some descent into the moral abyss. Some of our soldiers are not good people, and those that are good are capable of lapses. War is an ugly business, and we pay a price for tethering it so tightly to our national self-image.

As historians of Australia’s war experiences, we hope and wish for a national reckoning about our record of war atrocities. But as historians of Anzac, we anticipate that the great mythological behemoth will barely sway from its course in the face of these allegations.The Conversation

Martin Crotty, Associate Professor in Australian History, The University of Queensland and Carolyn Holbrook, ARC DECRA Fellow at Deakin University, Deakin University

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

Australia can repair its relationship with China, here are 3 ways to start



Lukas Coch/AAP

Melissa Conley Tyler, University of Melbourne

China has certainly got Australia’s attention with a highly inflammatory tweet from a government spokesperson. It has provoked the desired reaction — a storm of outrage.




Read more:
Australia demands apology from China over ‘repugnant’ slur on Twitter


This is the latest in an ever-growing list of problems between Australia and China. In recent days, China imposed new tariffs on wine, while Australia threatened legal action on barley.

None of this is inevitable. Australia and China may not be best friends anytime soon, but they can reset the relationship.

Australia could make one big gesture and two small to improve its relationship with China. As federal parliament meets in Canberra, there is even an opportunity to start this week.

What’s wrong?

It’s the multi-billion dollar question: what could the Australian government do if it wanted to reset the relationship with China?

Sometimes when China has dealt out economic punishment, the desired result has been clear — such as pressuring South Korea to cancel a missile defence system. But in Australia’s case, China’s displeasure is not directed towards one policy. It’s more a sense Australia has been acting in an unfriendly, hostile manner and this has consequences.

We know this because China recently leaked a 14-point list of grievances via the Australian media. It contained no surprises, but is useful to show where there may be room to manoeuvre.

Beijing’s 14 points

Out of the 14, there were only a few relating to what I see as non-negotiable interests. These relate to Australia’s criticism of human rights abuses in China, cyber-attacks and the South China Sea dispute.

Quite a few should also be interpreted as venting — such as China’s criticism of Australia’s foreign interference powers and Australia’s decision to exclude Huawei and ZTE from the 5G network over national security concerns. Realistically, Australia is not going to reverse these decisions.




Read more:
Chinese reveal their journalists in Australia were questioned in foreign interference investigation


Similarly, Australia’s call for an inquiry into COVID-19, questions over the origins of the virus, alleged raids on Chinese journalists and revoking visas for Chinese scholars are now in the past.

Others on the list are gripes China knows the Australian government can’t do much about, such as “antagonistic” media reports or members of parliament making “outrageous” comments.

But the language used in the 14-points suggests many of the problems are less about the policy and more about how it’s been communicated, such as former Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull announcing foreign interference legislation as “standing up to China”.




Read more:
An all-out trade war with China would cost Australia 6% of GDP


Australia may come to regret being stridently tough on China without thinking through the real-world consequences. It costs China very little to punish Australia economically in sectors where it has other suppliers or wants to encourage domestic production.

If the core problem is a perception that Australia is unfriendly, this suggests the best way to show a desire for better relations is through a big gesture — ideally one that is showy but low cost. China has said it wants actions, not words, so a speech alone won’t cut it.

The grand gesture

If Australia did want to signal a desire to be more friendly without changing any of its policies, what might it do?

Prime Minister Scott Morrison at a virtual press conference, responding to China's tweet.
Prime Minister Scott Morrison has demanded China apologise for an offensive tweet about Australian soldiers.
Lukas Coch/ AAP

The best candidate would be to sign up for the Belt and Road Initiative. There is zero chance this will happen — despite earlier neutral comments, the federal government has made this clear. But it meets all the criteria for a gesture to reset the relationship.

First, it’s entirely symbolic and doesn’t bind Australia to do anything. Australia can participate in individual projects or not as it chooses. Second, there’s no material cost to Australia, or any need to alter substantive policies. Yet it would be read as a significant gesture by China.




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Why is there so much furore over China’s Belt and Road Initiative?


The fact that it’s not on the table shows how the range of options to pursue the national interest has been narrowed by priming the public to see China as an enemy, rather than as a challenge to be managed.

Two other options

There are two smaller options that are achievable and in Australia’s interests. And they are both before parliament.

First, the Senate is currently debating a bill to give the Foreign Affairs Minister the power to cancel international agreements entered into by state governments, local councils and universities. China has specifically named this in its grievances as “targeting” China.




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I’ve argued in detail why it’s a terrible piece of legislation that would impose a large compliance burden and negatively affect Australia’s international engagement. It would be in Australia’s own interests to drop it and come up with a better, more targeted response.

Second, parliament is also looking at amendments to foreign investment rules, which China singled out at the top of its list as “opaque”. Foreign investment puts money into the Australian economy so this is an area of potential mutual interest.

China’s complaint is the lack of transparency about which investments get approved — it sees the process as ideological. The Australian government could, for example, postpone proposed amendments and consult with investor countries about how the process could be improved in Australia’s self-interest.

A diplomatic mindset

Some will say Australia shouldn’t do any of these things precisely because China might want them. And China is hardly helping its case by exercising subtle or effective diplomacy.

But deciding to always oppose lets China control your behaviour. We need a negotiation mentality. We need to find things we don’t mind giving that China values in order to get what we want. That’s not “capitulation” or “obeisance” — it’s acting in our own self-interest.

Scott Morrison walks past Xi Jinping at the G20 in June 2019.
Australia cannot change China, but it can change how it responds.
Lukas Coch/AAP

Australia has no ability to remake China into a completely different country. We need to live with it. This means both standing up to China and getting along — hardening our defences, while ensuring our economic prosperity. Without an economy, a country can’t pay to keep itself safe.

Australia is not under military attack, offensive as China’s “wolf warrior diplomats” can be.

Australia and China have disputes that can and should be managed diplomatically. It is not inevitable we must have a bad relationship – and it’s certainly not a sign of success if we do.The Conversation

Melissa Conley Tyler, Research Fellow, Asia Institute, University of Melbourne

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

Why Australian commanders need to be held responsible for alleged war crimes in Afghanistan



Mick Tsikas/AAP

Paul Taucher, Murdoch University and Dean Aszkielowicz, Murdoch University

Last week, Prime Minister Scott Morrison made clear he expects senior Australian officers to face some degree of accountability for any crimes allegedly committed by special forces in Afghanistan.

So far, however, others have been more circumspect. While Justice Paul Brereton’s shocking report last month called for 19 Australian soldiers to be referred to the federal police to be prosecuted for possible crimes, it stopped short of recommending commanding officers be held responsible.

Lieutenant-General Rick Burr, the head of the Army, cut short a news conference when asked whether he should resign in the wake of the scandal last week, and General Angus Campbell, the Defence Force chief, said commanding officers would be dealt with on a “case-by-case basis”.

Burr says military leaders are ‘holding ourselves to account’ over the allegations raised in the Brereton report.
Lukas Coch/AAP

The Defence Force has foreshadowed there will likely be administrative punishment for some officers, including possible demotions, stripping of medals or removal from service.

This is a start. However, Campbell and the rest of the Defence Force leadership need to begin a serious discussion about the accountability and responsibility of commanding officers in the military as they move forward from the Brereton report.




Read more:
Allegations of murder and ‘blooding’ in Brereton report now face many obstacles to prosecution


How commanding officers were dealt with in the past

This not the first time the Australian military has dealt with this complex moral and legal question.

After the second world war, Australia, the US, UK and other allies tried suspected Japanese war criminals under international law. These trials saw the first use of command responsibility.

This doctrine holds commanding officers responsible for crimes that are committed by their subordinates during wartime, when the commanding officers knew, or should have known, that they occurred. These crimes can include massacres, mistreatment of prisoners of war and murder.

Many Japanese officers were sentenced to death during the trials because they failed to prevent, halt or punish the crimes committed by their soldiers, even when they did not explicitly know the crimes were occurring. Other Japanese officers were more fortunate and received prison terms.

The court martial convened in Darwin in 1946 to try Japanese prisoners of war charged with war crimes.
Australian War Memorial

Why accountability matters

The claim in the Brereton report that Australian officers were not in a position to know — and therefore to act — on alleged war crimes committed in Afghanistan has, in some eyes, absolved them of responsibility.

However, there seems to be an acknowledgement within defence circles that further actions could have, and perhaps should have, been taken by Australian commanders to address cultural issues within the SAS, and to impose greater scrutiny on units that were on high-intensity combat rotations.




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Changing the culture of our SAS forces is no easy fix. Instead, we need to face the true costs of war


Command responsibility is a difficult legal doctrine to grapple with. At the core, this is because officers could be held legally responsible for criminal acts they did not encourage, order or directly take part in under both Commonwealth military law and international laws.

Holding an individual criminally responsible for the actions of others goes against the personal responsibility that our criminal justice system is largely based on.

Nonetheless, it is important for several reasons that the Australian military holds its officers responsible for their units and subordinates.

For one, disciplining senior officers is critical for any attempt to reorganise and reform the Australian special forces following the explosive allegations put forth in the Brereton report.

The report revealed that some officers enabled a culture of heavy drinking, poor discipline and the pursuit of personal glory within the special forces. It is therefore critical these officers are removed from their positions to rebuild an effective, well-disciplined and respected special forces group.

Pursuing commanding officers is also important for the soldiers that served on the ground. The report has raised serious questions about how elite forces were pushed to their breaking point. Australia needs to know what role commanders had in that.

Of course, turning the focus on the moral responsibility of senior officers is not intended to absolve the alleged crimes committed by individuals. The point is simply that the military needs to demonstrate to the public, as well as to past and current members of the armed services, that senior officers cannot completely avoid responsibility for what happened.

Australia’s international reputation is at stake

Investigating senior officers, and where appropriate, taking action against them, is also an important part of restoring the reputation and credibility of the Australian military abroad.

The Australian Army has long been a respected member of international coalitions. It has built a reputation for working effectively with allies and partners, and for taking international law seriously.

It now faces an international scandal, and its reputation is at stake.

This is particularly the case in nations like Afghanistan, where the Australian military was instrumental in combating often brutal forces that held little regard for human rights. Counter-insurgency operations need to win the hearts and minds of the local population. For the Australian military to rebuild its reputation in countries where it operates, it needs to be able to hold itself accountable for its mistakes.

If we can’t do this, our position in the international rules-based system can be questioned, as it already has been. A failure to hold officers responsible also de-legitimises Australia’s questioning of foreign governments on human rights abuses, as well as the government’s calls for justice in other international crimes.




Read more:
It’s time for Australia’s SAS to stop its culture of cover-up and take accountability for possible war crimes


The Conversation


Paul Taucher, PhD Candidate in History, Murdoch University and Dean Aszkielowicz, Lecturer, Murdoch University

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

Australia demands apology from China over ‘repugnant’ slur on Twitter


Michelle Grattan, University of Canberra

Prime Minister Scott Morrison has demanded China apologise for – and Twitter remove – a highly offensive tweet depicting an Australian soldier with a knife to the throat of a child.

Morrison described the tweet as disgusting and utterly outrageous. Australia has protested to the Chinese embassy in Canberra, and a protest is also being made by Australia’s embassy in Beijing.

“The Chinese government should be totally ashamed of this post. It diminishes them in the world’s eyes,” Morrison told a virtual news conference from The Lodge, where he is still in isolation after his trip to Japan.

“Australia is seeking an apology from the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, from the Chinese Government, for this outrageous post. We are also seeking its removal immediately and have also contacted Twitter to take it down immediately.”

Following the recent release of the Brereton inquiry into alleged atrocities by some members of Australian special forces in Afghanistan, the tweet was posted by Lijian Zhao, spokesman and deputy director general of the information department in the Chinese Foreign Ministry.

It said: “Shocked by murder of Afghan civilians & prisoners by Australian soldiers. We strongly condemn such acts, &call for holding them accountable”.

A line in the illustration said: “Don’t be afraid, we are coming to bring you peace!”

Morrison said the repugnant post of a falsified image of an Australian soldier threatening a young child had come from an official Chinese government Twitter account.

It was “truly repugnant” and “deeply offensive” to every Australian.

“[To] every Australian who has served in that uniform. Every Australian who serves in that uniform today. Everyone who has pulled on that uniform and served with Australians overseas from whatever nation,” he said.

“It is a false image and a terrible slur on our great defence forces and the men and women who’ve served in that uniform for over 100 years.”




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Morrison said while there were undoubtedly tensions between China and Australia, “this is not how you deal with them”.

Rather, the way was to engage directly in dialogue between ministers and leaders.

“And despite this terribly offensive post today, I would ask again and call on China to re-engage in that dialogue.

“This is how countries must deal with each other to ensure that we can deal with any issues in our relationship, consistent with our national interests and respect for each other’s sovereignty. Not engaging in this sort of deplorable behaviour.”

Morrison said he hoped “this rather awful event” might lead to a “reset” in the relationship, allowing a dialogue to be restarted where there could be sensible talk about issues — “because this type of behaviour is not on”.

Morrison sought to put the situation in a wider international context.

“It’s not just about Australia. Countries around the world are watching this. They see how Australia is seeking to resolve these issues and they’re seeing these responses.

“This impacts not just on the relationship here, but with so many other sovereign nations, not only in our own region, but like-minded countries around the world who have expressed similar sentiments to Australia about many issues. And so it is important that these things end and the dialogue starts.”




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When he was asked why he didn’t write to Chinese President Xi Jinping directly, Morrison said, “You assume that there hasn’t been such interactions. We’ve constantly sought that engagement. This is not new.”

Asked about the controversial issue of revoking the Meritorious Unit Citation for Special Operations Task Groups who served in Afghanistan between 2007 and 2013, which was recommended by the Brereton report, Morrison said no decision had been made.

This is despite the chief of the Defence Force, Angus Campbell, saying when releasing the Brereton report that he would write to the governor-general asking for the revocation.

“No decisions have been made on that and were decisions to be made on that, that would only be following a further process. And that is where that matter rests right now,” Morrison told his news conference.

Opposition leader Anthony Albanese said he stood with Morrison in his condemnation of the China tweet. He said the opposition would not be asking about it in question time — the matter was above politics.

There was an immediate pushback from China – via Twitter – to Morrison’s attack.

Hú Xījìn, editor of the state-owned Global Times, tweeted:

“It is a popular cartoon that condemns the Australian Special Forces’s brutal murder of 39 Afghan civilians. On what ground does Morrison feel angry over the use of this cartoon by the spokesperson of Chinese FM? It’s ridiculous and shameless that he demanded China to apologize.”

The latest deepening of tensions in the bilateral relationship comes days after the Chinese imposed punitive tariffs on Australian wine.




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The Conversation


Michelle Grattan, Professorial Fellow, University of Canberra

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

Grattan on Friday: Australia’s war crimes in Afghanistan – how could those up the chain not know?


Michelle Grattan, University of Canberra

When he speaks at functions, Scott Morrison routinely pays tribute to present and past members of the Australian Defence Force.

It seems a very American thing to do.

But he is also putting the military on an extremely high pedestal. When some of those on that pedestal are found to have done appalling things, the shock is doubly great.

For many Australians, looking back on a history of war heroism, it will be hard to take in what the investigation by Justice Paul Brereton has found: 25 current or former soldiers, from the special forces, allegedly perpetrated, as principals or accessories, war crimes in Afghanistan.

A total of 39 people – Afghan non-combatants or prisoners of war – were killed, and another two cruelly treated. Some 19 Australians will be referred on for criminal investigation and likely or possible prosecution.

For the government and the military brass, the Brereton findings are not, or should not be, as surprising as is being claimed.

For a long time, there have been suggestions of bad behaviour by some Australians in Afghanistan.




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Changing the culture of our SAS forces is no easy fix. Instead, we need to face the true costs of war


Indeed, even when I was there way back in 2002, and Australia had 150 special forces in place, there was chatter among the international media that the Australians were fast and loose.

Before then, there were allegations of brutality by Australian special forces in East Timor in the late 1990s.

The military itself in recent years commissioned inquiries into the culture and operations of the special forces.

In a 2016 report on culture, Samantha Crompvoets wrote, on the basis of the interviews she conducted, of “unverifiable accounts of extremely serious breaches of accountability and trust”.

Most concerning were “allusions to behaviour and practices involving abuse of drugs and alcohol, domestic violence, unsanctioned and illegal application of violence on operations, disregard for human life and dignity, and the perception of a complete lack of accountability at times”.

David McBride, who served in Afghanistan as a military lawyer, blew the whistle on misconduct, and has been prosecuted for his public service.

In some excellent journalism, The Age/Sydney Morning Herald and the ABC extensively documented alleged criminal behaviour.

Even so, Angus Campbell, Chief of the Australian Defence Force, said of the Brereton report: “I was anticipating it wouldn’t be good – but I didn’t realise how bad it would be”.

Brereton documents how a culture of compliance, intimidation and silence in the field hushed up crimes, and he highlights the “warrior culture” of Special Air Service Regiment commanders in Australia.

Patrol commanders on the ground were culpable. “The criminal behaviour in this Report was conceived, committed, continued and concealed at patrol commander level, and it is overwhelmingly at that level that responsibility resides,” Brereton writes. To a junior SASR trooper, “fresh from selection and reinforcement cycle, the patrol commander is a demigod, and one who can make or break a trooper’s career”.

But those up the chain did not know what was going on, Brereton found, although they bore a “moral command responsibility”.




Read more:
Evidence of war crimes found against 25 Australian soldiers in Afghanistan


The key question is, how could this be so? We are talking about multiple crimes of murder and brutality, practices such as “blooding” (patrol commanders requiring a junior soldier to shoot a prisoner to make his first kill), and planting false evidence on victims.

If senior officers did not pick up gossip and whispers, surely they should have been enough aware of the broad special forces culture to know that extensive checks should be in place to guard against the ever-present threat of misconduct.

In 2011, Campbell was appointed Commander Joint Task Force 633, responsible for Australian forces in the Middle East including Afghanistan.

Asked on Thursday for his response to those who might say the report had let people like him “off the hook”, Campbell admitted “I wonder was there something I walked past, was there some indicator I didn’t see?”

Having not done enough many years ago to ensure Australia’s special forces were best prepared to meet proper standards of legal and ethical conduct, the ADF more recently began reform and is now in overdrive to make amends for the atrocities that have been committed.

The government is trying to keep as much at arms length as it can (and remember this inquiry stretches back through Coalition and Labor years, with the worst behaviour concentrated in 2012-13). But it has quickly and properly set up a special investigator’s office that will undertake further work to gather and prepare material for criminal actions.

Campbell has accepted all Brereton’s recommendations. He has made a public apology to the Afghan people. He’s been in contact with the head of the Afghan military. Australia will pay compensation to victims’ families.

In Canada, after a major scandal, the unit concerned was disbanded. That is not happening here, but a SASR sub-unit has got the chop.




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Politics with Michelle Grattan: Defence expert Allan Behm on the background to the Brereton report


While Thursday’s release of the report was a huge moment, it actually marks the middle of a process.

The military is some way down the track in dealing with its consequences, and the preparations for the prosecution process are advancing. The government is particularly anxious to be seen to be pursuing wrongdoers vigorously: it wants them to be brought to justice under Australian law, not to go to international justice.

The Meritorious Unit Citation that was awarded to the Special Operations Task Group will be revoked – which is appropriate though it will be hard on soldiers who performed commendably and bravely and without fault – and meritorious awards won by individuals will be reviewed.

The redacted report does not name those it says should be referred for criminal investigation; hopefully they’ll be successfully bought to justice but it will be a difficult, long road, given the report is not a brief of evidence and much work will have to be redone.

With so much redaction, there is still a good deal we don’t know about these events. When the official history of the time is written some years on, it will include the unredacted material.

The affair has torn at the heart of Australia’s military reputation. It has not destroyed that reputation, but the repair effort must be comprehensive and, above all, transparent.

And it should always be remembered that the military can be as fallible as any other group in society, and a small minority of individuals as reprehensible as other criminals, and to assume otherwise is to be blind in the name of false patriotism.The Conversation

Michelle Grattan, Professorial Fellow, University of Canberra

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.