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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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”.




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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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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.

Evidence of war crimes found against 25 Australian soldiers in Afghanistan



AAP/Defence handout/Cpl Raymond Vance

Michelle Grattan, University of Canberra

The inquiry into Australian Special Forces’ misconduct in Afghanistan has found evidence of war crimes involving 25 current or former Australian Defence Force personnel.

The inquiry found “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, in circumstances which, if accepted by a jury, would be the war crime of murder”.

In a further two incidents, a non-combatant or prisoner was mistreated in a way that would be “the war crime of cruel treatment”.

Some incidents involved one victim, and in some there were multiple victims.

The inquiry found a total of 39 individuals were killed, and a further two cruelly treated.

The 25 current or former ADF personnel were perpetrators “either as principals or accessories” some of them on a single occasion and a few on multiple occasions.

None of the alleged crimes involved decisions made “under pressure, in the heat of battle”.

The inquiry has recommended the Chief of the Defence Force refer 36 matters to the Australian Federal Police for criminal investigation, relating to 23 incidents, and involving 19 individuals.

The inquiry, which examined conduct by the Special Forces between 2005 and 2016 was conducted by Justice Paul Brereton. Prime Minister Scott Morrison last week announced the establishment of a special investigator’s office to prepare material for the Commonwealth Director of Public Prosecutions.

While the report is damning specifically for the special forces operation in the prolonged Afghanistan war, it will cast a pall over the Australian military more generally.

It recommends Australia immediately compensate families of Afghan nationals unlawfully killed, without waiting for criminal liability to be established.

“This will be an important step in rehabilitating Australia’s national reputation, in particular with Afghanistan, and it is simply the right thing to do,” the report says.

It says although many members of the Special Operations Task Group showed great courage and commitment, and the group 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 Forces’ professional standards and expectations.”

The inquiry has recommended revoking the award of the Meritorious Unit Citation, “as an effective demonstration of the collective responsibility and accountability” of the group as a whole.

The investigation found that while commanders on the ground were involved, those higher up the chain did not know of the war crimes being perpetrated.

Among the evidence, the inquiry found credible information that “junior soldiers were required by their patrol commanders to shoot a prisoner, in order to achieve the sliders first kill, in a practice that was known as ‘blooding’”.

It also found “throwdowns” (weapons and radios) would be placed with the body as a “cover story” for operational reporting and to deflect scrutiny.

“This was reinforced with a cone of silence.”

The report laid blame on culture, condemning the “warrior culture” of some SAS commanders in Australia.

The Chief of the ADF, Angus Campbell said at a news conference he “sincerely and unreservedly apologised” to the people of Afghanistan for any wrongdoing by Australian soldiers.

Campbell said he had accepted all 143 Brereton recommendations, dealing with culture, governance, and accountability.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.

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


AAP Image/Australian Department of Defence

Damian Powell, University of Melbourne

Australians will be disheartened by the inspector-general of the Australian Defence Force’s report on war crimes committed by our special forces soldiers in Afghanistan. But they should not be surprised.

The demands placed upon the Special Air Service Regiment (SASR) and Commando Regiment have stretched our soldiers to the point where some have failed themselves, each other and the Anzac tradition. They may not deserve our sympathy, but we do need to understand what brought them to this point.




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Specifically, we need to consider if these crimes are an aberration or part of a systemic cultural problem in how the Australian Army trains, debriefs, deploys and then redeploys special forces soldiers in war zones.  

Importantly, the SASR badly needs to examine how it relates to the Australian Army, of which it is a part.

Selected for relentless ‘kill and capture’ missions

In Afghanistan, special forces soldiers were fighting a war within a war. Selected through recruitment courses to stand out and stand alone, the SASR distinguished itself – even from the commandos who shared the burden of Australia’s war-fighting missions.

Drawing on a few hundred soldiers and two units from an army of tens of thousands, only a small body of troops was selected for relentless “kill and capture” missions of Taliban militants.

They fought with the constant reality of potential death or maiming through close-quarter combat, IEDs and “green on blue” attacks by Afghan allies. Special forces saw the very worst of their enemy, and eventually of each other.




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Other Australian service personnel were constrained by strict rules of engagement in projects ranging from school construction to counter-intelligence operations to building trust with local warlords. Meanwhile, SASR and 2 Commando returned again and again to combat. This likely desensitised, then dehumanised, some of the soldiers.

The army command offered too little by way of integration of SASR and 2 Commando with other units. SASR even demarcated its own compound within the confines of the larger Tarin Kowt base.

There was also inadequate rotation away from the battlefield, and no significant or complementary support from other units (such as regular infantry battalions). There was no mandatory rest and renewal for soldiers who might thrive on operational adrenalin, but at a long-term cost to their physical and mental health.

‘Throwdowns’ and ‘blooding’ in a ‘warrior culture’

The redacted findings in Justice Paul Brereton’s report are painful in their detail and damning in their conclusions. It finds special forces personnel unlawfully killed 39 non-combatants – prisoners, farmers, civilians – between 2009 and 2013. The report also recommends 36 matters to the AFP for criminal investigation.

The report found “credible information” about two practices that make for particularly distressing reading. The first is a “throwdown”, which involved soldiers planting equipment on bodies. The report says:

This practice probably originated for the less egregious though still dishonest purpose of avoiding scrutiny where a person who was legitimately engaged turned out not to be armed. But it evolved to be used for the purpose of concealing deliberate unlawful killings.

Second, is the practice of “blooding”, where unit commanders encouraged junior soldiers to execute unarmed prisoners as their first “kill”.

Typically, the patrol commander would take a person under control and the junior member would then be directed to kill the person under control. “Throwdowns” would be placed with the body, and a “cover story” was created for the purposes of operational reporting and to deflect scrutiny. This was reinforced with a code of silence.

Chief of Defence Force General Angus Campbell accepted all 143 recommendations from the inspector-general’s report. He acknowledged the findings were a “bitter blow” to the morale and prestige of the ADF.

What to make of it all?

Beyond reputational damage, defence needs to undergo a rehabilitation of culture. This includes organisational deficiencies, which Campbell acknowledged extended beyond special forces and into the wider organisation.

Among a toxic competitiveness between SASR and 2 Commando, which he termed a “disgrace”, Campbell acknowledged a “reckless indifference” to the rules of war among junior commanders at unit level, sanitised and misleading reporting, and inadequate oversight from operational command, among a systemic failure of unit and higher command.

In defending the need for special forces capability, he stressed ongoing reform within SASR. This included disbanding an SASR squadron which, he argued, bore “collective responsibility” for unlawful unit culture.

He noted measures to strengthen ethical standards and enhanced levels of oversight and governance across the army.

The winding down of operations in Afghanistan and changes in serving personnel might offer special forces a chance for cultural change.

But long history suggests issues of character and culture are a tough nut to crack.

Perhaps unlike any other institution in contemporary Australian society beyond the priesthood, the military is distinctive in recruiting young, with virtually no external points of entry or cultural comparison until retirement.

Defence assumes, as it must given the reality of constant unit rotation, an equivalence of character and capacity based largely on military rank and duties.

In Afghanistan, the influence of some warrant and non-commissioned officers over more junior ranks, as well as the (often younger and less experienced) officers who were ostensibly their superiors, promoted a dysfunctional and finally criminal culture that unit or higher command never confronted or challenged. Beyond mere negligence, such an obvious ethical failing in an organisation that relies on an explicit chain of “command and control” is unforgivable.

Improving SAS culture is no quick fix

In the closed culture embraced by the special forces and enabled by army leadership, a lack of objectivity was always at risk: the soldier to your left was at once your therapist, emotional crutch, brother-in-arms and (oftentimes damaged) arbiter of right and wrong.

But this type of role demands a clear, fully formed moral compass and a constant measure of external regulation.




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As a series of Department of Defence inquiries over decades make clear, cultural change requires unending toil. The Australian Army is in constant flux; it changes with every intake of young soldiers who will eventually sign on for special forces training.

Good culture requires many things, among them:

  • an unrelenting clarity and consistency of expectation in matters large and small

  • constant internal and external review of practice

  • a willingness to accept that so-called “troublemakers” are often in fact “truth-tellers” who need to be protected, and indeed honoured, as agents of change

  • better training of soldiers in the ethical demands and responsibilities of “lawful violence”

  • counselling and psychological support both during and after operations.

All of this requires more than just recommendations in a report; it requires unbending political and institutional will and close scrutiny of organisational leadership.

Scrutiny of those at the top matters, too

Some army leaders are to be commended for their willingness to drill down into SAS culture with an eye to change. However, it was the courage of Australian journalists and SAS and commando whistle-blowers — not the actions of politicians or army leaders — that pushed these alleged crimes into the national conscience.

If military honours are to be stripped from soldiers, a thorough examination of unit command and delegated authority is vital, extending to the very top. This includes the actions of those highly decorated senior officers who provided command during the Afghanistan campaign.




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Over the past few decades, a strong orthodoxy has evolved, wrapped in the mystique of “Anzac” nationalism, that any criticism of the ADF is taboo. This has served as a convenient cloak to obviate harsh public examination of everything from politically driven procurement deals to massive spending overruns.

But, in choosing to investigate and possibly prosecute alleged war crimes, Australia is stepping out onto ground resisted by our “Five Eyes” allies, who have avoided similar interrogation of their own special forces.

T.S. Elliot long ago observed that humanity could not “bear very much reality”. By definition, fighting wars is a murderous business. Beyond apportioning blame, or any new recommendations on how to change the culture of our special forces, we have the chance to reflect on the painful truths of war.

Now is also the time to reflect carefully on what we ask of, and how we best support, those soldiers who serve in our name.The Conversation

Damian Powell, Historian and Principal, Janet Clarke Hall, University of Melbourne

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

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



Australian Department of Defence

David Letts, Australian National University

The long-awaited report into allegations of war crimes by Australia’s special forces in Afghanistan has finally been made public, after months of speculation about the contents.




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As expected, the report by Justice Paul Brereton is highly confronting and deeply concerning. However, despite widespread condemnation of the behaviour identified in the report — from the highest levels of the military and government — the next steps are far from straightforward.

Unlawful killings

The report, from the Inspector-General of the Australian Defence Force (IGADF), found evidence of 23 incidents of alleged unlawful killing of 39 Afghan civilians by Australian special forces personnel. There are a further two incidents of “cruel treatment”.

ADF chief Angus Campbell
ADF chief Angus Campbell condemned the behaviour of Australian soldiers in Afghanistan.
Mick Tsikas/AAP

This involved a total of 25 current or former Australian Defence Force members who were perpetrators, either as principals or accessories.

Some of these incidents took place in 2009 and 2010, with the majority occurring in 2012 and 2013.

ADF Chief General Angus Campbell said he was shocked by the revelations, which he described as “damaging to our moral authority as a military force”.

I would never have conceived an Australian would be doing this in the modern era.

Blooding, throwdowns and executions

The inquiry has found “credible information” that junior soldiers were required by their patrol commanders to shoot a prisoner, in order to achieve the soldier’s first kill, in a practice known as “blooding”.
“Throwdowns” — other weapons or radios — would be planted with the body, and a “cover story” was created.

This was reinforced with a code of silence.

The report is damning about a “warrior culture” within the Special Air Service Regiment, as well as a “culture of secrecy”.

The inquiry has recommended the chief of the defence force refer 36 matters to the Australian Federal Police for criminal investigation. Those matters relate to the 23 incidents and involve a total of 19 individuals.

Numerous obstacles to prosecutions

However, last week, in preparation for the report’s release, Prime Minister Scott Morrison announced a “special investigator” would be appointed to further examine any allegations of war crimes.

Campbell confirmed those who are alleged to be involved in unlawful criminal conduct will be referred to the special investigator.

After gathering evidence on specific allegations, the Office of the Special Investigator will refer briefs to the Commonwealth Director of Public Prosecutions. Morrison explained such a task would “significantly overwhelm” the AFP, hence his decision to appoint a special investigator.

Prime Minister Scott Morrison
Prime Minister Scott Morrison warned Australians the report would make tough reading.
Lukas Coch/AAP

Despite these mechanisms being put in place, there are still serious questions about how potential criminal prosecutions would work. 

Investigating and prosecuting alleged crimes of this nature is incredibly difficult due to the passage of time, fading memories and inconsistency of witnesses. There are also practical challenges obtaining evidence in a country with a fragile security situation.




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It is also important to note any statement or disclosure made by a witness to the IGADF inquiry cannot be used as evidence against that person in any subsequent civil or criminal trial or court martial.

This means some of the evidence contained in the IGADF inquiry — however compelling it might be — may not be available for a criminal prosecution, as the right to remain silent would be available to a person being interviewed by the Special Investigator.

Also, the standard of proof required to convict an individual “beyond a reasonable doubt” in a criminal trial is quite high, meaning any successful prosecution might require stronger evidence than what has been included in the IGADF inquiry.

Therefore, for any prosecution to proceed, any evidence obtained by the special investigator will need to be evaluated against this higher criminal standard to determine if it is sufficient for a person to stand trial.

It is important to note the same higher standard of proof (beyond reasonable doubt) will need to be met for a successful prosecution, regardless of whether any trial takes place by court martial or in a civilian court.

Public perceptions of war crimes allegations

The reaction of the Australian public to the report will be interesting to observe. As journalists have revealed the shocking details of many of the allegations against SAS soldiers in recent years, some have defended their actions as having taken place in the “fog of war”.

In his comments on Thursday, Campbell spoke plainly about the report’s findings.

None of the alleged unlawful killings were described as being in the heat of battle […] The unlawful killing of citizens and prisoners is never acceptable.

Of course, it is important to recognise Australian soldiers faced significant difficulties in Afghanistan. Most notably, they were dealing with an enemy that was not easily identifiable and did not abide by the laws of war.

For instance, some Afghan civilians directly participated in conflict against Coalition soldiers. The so-called “farmer by day, fighter by night” has been a constant feature of operations in Afghanistan ever since Australians were first deployed there.

If civilians directly participated in hostilities against foreign forces, regardless of whether they were armed or not, they would lose their protected status under the laws of war. The death of any civilian taking direct part in hostilities, therefore, would not necessarily be unlawful under the laws of war and Australian domestic law.




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Understanding and applying this aspect of the laws of war is a potential complicating factor for the special investigator.

That said, as Campbell pointed out, the challenging circumstances faced by coalition forces in Afghanistan do not allow soldiers to commit war crimes. The laws of armed conflict are very clear in this regard.

A transparent and open investigation process

There was a clear need for these allegations to be properly investigated in an impartial manner. This has happened with the Brereton inquiry.

In appointing a special investigator, the government has shown it is taking these findings seriously and wants those soldiers who are proven guilty of crimes to be held accountable.




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The ADF must also be open and transparent about the actions it is taking following the completion of the IGADF inquiry.

By doing this, Australia’s military can show that it has learned from this sorry tale and made whatever changes are necessary to ensure compliance with the laws of armed conflict is understood and practised by every member of the ADF — regardless of the difficulty of the operating environment.The Conversation

David Letts, Director, Centre for Military and Security Law; Associate Professor, Australian National University

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

Exchanging killers for peace in Afghanistan is wrong — and could have lasting consequences



Taliban prisoners preparing to leave a government prison in Kabul last month.
AFGHANISTAN NATIONAL SECURITY COUNCIL HANDOUT/EPA

Ben Saul, University of Sydney

An Afghan soldier convicted of murdering three Australian soldiers is among six high-value prisoners who have been flown to Qatar ahead of peace talks between the Taliban and Afghan government this weekend.

Hekmatullah has spent seven years in jail after killing the three soldiers he worked with in 2012 — Lance Corporal Stjepan Milosevic, Sapper James Martin and Private Robert Poate. He is one of the last remaining Taliban prisoners.

Both the Taliban and the United States have pressured the Afghan government to release all 5,000 Taliban prisoners it holds as part of their peace deal. In return, the Taliban pledged to release 1,000 members of the Afghan security forces.

Hekmatullah has been flown to Qatar ahead of the peace talks.
Twitter/AAP

The Afghan government was excluded from the original peace deal struck between the US and Taliban in February where the prisoner release was negotiated, but has since agreed to release the prisoners.

For a long time, the Afghan government vowed not to free 600 prisoners it considered too dangerous, including murderers and foreign fighters. Afghan President Ashraf Ghani called them a “danger” to the world.

But last month, an assembly of Afghan elders, community leaders and politicians called a “loya jirga” approved the release of the last 400 Taliban captives and hundreds have been set free.

Delegates at the loya jirga in Kabul last month.
Rahmat Gul/AP

Foreign governments’ objections to prisoner release

The release of prisoners who killed Westerners has been among the most contentious parts of the deal.

The Australian government, and the families of the three murdered Australian soldiers, have strenuously objected to the release of Hekmatullah.

Prime Minister Scott Morrison has raised the issue with US President Donald Trump in recent weeks, and Foreign Minister Marise Payne and Defence Minister Linda Reynolds reiterated this position in a statement today:

The Australian government’s long-standing position is that Hekmatullah should serve a full custodial sentence for the crimes for which he was convicted by an Afghan court, and that he should not be released as part of a prisoner amnesty.

France has similarly objected to the release of those prisoners who murdered its aid workers and soldiers.

The US has not publicly objected to the release of three prisoners who murdered Americans in so-called insider attacks, although it is reportedly exploring the possibility of release under house arrest.

US envoy Zalmay Khalilzad, left, and Mullah Abdul Ghani Baradar, the Taliban’s top political leader, signing the peace deal in February.
Hussein Sayed/AP

The importance of the rules of war

So far, the issue of freeing prisoners in Afghanistan has been largely treated as a political and security issue. There has been less attention given to the equally important question of law, justice and human rights.

It follows a regrettably common view that peace is necessary at any price, even if it means letting suspected or convicted war criminals go free, denying justice to their victims and violating international law by enabling killing with impunity.

It is no surprise that such a deal has been spruiked by Trump, who has pardoned US soldiers accused or convicted of war crimes, despite protests by US military commanders. Trump also this week imposed sanctions on senior officials of the International Criminal Court for investigating alleged US war crimes in Afghanistan.




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The rules of war, or international humanitarian law (as it is otherwise known), take a much more balanced and reasonable approach. These rules are also binding on Afghanistan, the US and Taliban alike.

Hekmatullah’s killing of three Australian soldiers was not a fair fight in the heat of combat between opposing forces under the law of war. It was treacherous and illegal because Hekmatullah was wearing an Afghan army uniform when he killed the Australian soldiers while they were resting at a patrol base in August 2012.

The families of the slain Australian soldiers firmly oppose Hekmatullah’s release.
DAVE HUNT/AAP

Hekmatullah says he was inspired to kill the soldiers after watching a Taliban video purporting to show US soldiers burning a Quran. He was later aided by the Taliban in his escape.

Through these actions, Hekmatullah violated the basic rules set forth by the Statute of the International Criminal Court, specifically

making improper use … of the military insignia and uniform of the enemy … resulting in death or serious personal injury

The law of war also acknowledges the granting of amnesty to ordinary fighters is an appropriate means to promote peace and reconciliation to end a civil war. But it does not permit amnesty for those who violate its basic rules, including those suspected or convicted of war crimes.

All countries have a legal duty to “respect and ensure respect” for international humanitarian law. Releasing prisoners, thus, is not purely a political question for the Afghan government to decide. It is also bound by international law and must respect it.

Australia has a right to “ensure respect” for the law by both Afghanistan and the US. Releasing Hekmatullah would arguably be a violation of international law by Afghanistan, aided by the US.




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Peace without justice can cause long-term problems

The US, Taliban and Afghan government all know this, but are choosing to sacrifice justice for the dream of peace. All sides are exhausted by the two-decade military stalemate and are understandably desperate for a way out.

But numerous conflicts in recent decades — from Latin American to Africa to the Balkans — show that peace without justice is almost always a delusion.

Any immediate gains are usually undermined by the mid- to long-term insecurity that results from giving impunity to killers. It contaminates the integrity and stability of political systems. It undermines the legal system and subordinates the rule of law and human rights to raw politics.




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It also allows victims’ grievances to fester, which is especially dangerous in places like Afghanistan where “blood feuds” stoke the desire for vengeance.

In the case of Afghanistan, most seasoned observers also know that peace with the Taliban may well be a naïve fantasy. Violence has increased, not decreased, since the peace deal.

While it has made some tactical concessions for peace, the Taliban’s ideological commitment to extreme religious rule, and its disdain for democracy and human rights, is unswerving.

The Taliban has played the Americans brilliantly, knowing the US no longer has the appetite for war. Releasing murderers could be all for nothing.The Conversation

Ben Saul, Professor of International Law, Sydney Centre for International Law, University of Sydney

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

Lasting peace in Afghanistan now relies on the Taliban standing by its word. This has many Afghans concerned



Stringer/EPA

Niamatullah Ibrahimi, Deakin University

The US has signed an historic agreement with the Taliban that sets Washington and its NATO allies on a path to withdraw their military forces from Afghanistan after more than 18 years of unceasing conflict.

It is now hoped the deal will lead to a more complicated process of negotiations between the Taliban and Afghan government – starting as early as next week – to work toward a complete ceasefire and new political roadmap for the country.

This is critically important because until now, the government has been absent from the peace process at the insistence of the Taliban.

The opening of this window to end one of the world’s most debilitating and protracted conflicts has been welcomed by many US allies, including Australia.




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However, many seasoned observers, including prominent American politicians and former diplomats and military leaders, are concerned the agreement concedes too much to the Taliban without requiring it to make any substantive commitments to ensure a genuine peace process.

The deal has completely sidelined the Afghan government and civil society and does not provide any explicit references, much less guarantees, for the protection of human rights in Afghanistan, especially for women and minority groups who were suppressed and persecuted by the Taliban.

Indeed, cracks have already begun to emerge in the deal. On Monday, the Taliban refused to take part in the intra-Afghan talks until the government released 5,000 Taliban prisoners, which President Ashraf Ghani has refused to do.

As a result, many Afghans are worried that rather than being the start of a comprehensive peace process for the country, the deal is merely a cheap withdrawal troop agreement intended to serve US President Donald Trump’s political interests during an election year.

Will the Taliban sever ties with terror groups?

The agreement is to be implemented in two separate processes. The first commits the Taliban to take measures to prevent al-Qaeda and other terror groups from using Afghanistan as a safe haven from which to threaten the US and its allies.

In return, the US and NATO have agreed to a complete withdrawal of all forces from the country within 14 months. It is scheduled to begin with the departure of over 5,000 troops and the closure of five military bases within 135 days of the signing of the agreement.

The Taliban has said it will resume attacks against Afghan forces shortly after signing the deal.
JALIL REZAYEE/EPA

In the short term, the Taliban will likely tactically reduce its relations with certain elements of the local al-Qaeda network to demonstrate its commitments under the deal. But its relationship with these international terror groups is far more complicated and nuanced than the agreement recognises.

Research has shown the Taliban sees foreign militant groups as valuable allies due to their shared ideologies and longstanding material support for one another. This is provided these groups don’t directly challenge their power in the country.

This explains why the Taliban’s ties with al-Qaeda are so enduring, despite the US-led military campaign in Afghanistan aimed at dismantling the terror group. In particular, the Haqqani Network, a semi-autonomous component of the Taliban movement, has a long history of working closely with al-Qaeda and other groups.




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Afghanistan’s suffering has reached unprecedented levels. Can a presidential election make things better?


On the other hand, the Taliban has fiercely resisted groups such as the Islamic State when it has threatened to seize Taliban territory.

As a result, the Taliban is likely to intensify its attacks on already weakened Islamic State affiliates in Afghanistan, rather than going after more dispersed elements of al-Qaeda under the agreement with the US.

But verifying the group has followed through on its commitment to completely sever ties with al-Qaeda and other terror groups may prove to be extremely difficult in the long run. Especially after the withdrawal of the US military and intelligence assets from the region.

Many challenges lie ahead in peace talks

For negotiations between the Taliban and Afghan government to succeed, both sides will need to find a compromise on the future of the country’s political system. This would require the Taliban to abandon its goal of restoring its ultra-conservative Islamic Emirate, which it sought to establish from 1996-2001.

The Taliban will also need to make robust guarantees for basic civil and political rights and to shut down its safe havens for militants across the border in Pakistan.

The Taliban has so far steadfastly refused to directly negotiate with officials of the Afghan government, which it describes as an illegitimate imposition of western powers.




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The divisions that have intensified within the government since September’s presidential election will only serve to strengthen the Taliban’s position. And the implementation of the first stage of the US military withdrawal is likely to further weaken the government and embolden the Taliban.

Consequently, it is highly doubtful a complete and durable political settlement will be achieved within the 14 months of the complete foreign troop withdrawals.

Yet, despite the failings of the government, the public has not shifted its support to the Taliban. Last year, a national survey by the Asia Foundation found 85% of Afghans had no sympathy for the Taliban.

A protest against the Taliban delegation negotiating a peace deal with the US last year.
WATAN YAR/EPA

Taliban negotiators have said they are not seeking to monopolise power and are willing to recognise the rights of women and freedom of expression according to Islam. But given the group’s draconian interpretation of Islam, it is far from certain it is ready to recognise the vibrant role Afghan women now play in the public sector and civil society.

The rights of ethnic and religious minorities also remain a concern. The Hazaras, for one, have been relentlessly persecuted by the Taliban since the 1990s.

Finally, the Taliban’s sanctuaries and power bases in Pakistan will undoubtedly remain a sticking point in any peace talks on the future of Afghanistan. A durable peace is unlikely to materialise when an insurgent group can wage wars from across the border with impunity and backed by elements of a powerful neighbouring state.

Despite these challenges, the fact a peaceful resolution to the war is on the agenda of regional and global powers is a positive development. A genuine peace is likely to be the outcome of trials and errors, a long process that requires patience and sustained international commitment.The Conversation

Niamatullah Ibrahimi, Associate Research Fellow, Deakin University

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

Afghanistan’s suffering has reached unprecedented levels. Can a presidential election make things better?



A supporter of Ashraf Ghani takes part in an election rally in Kabul last month.
Jawad Jalali/EPA

Safiullah Taye, Deakin University and Dr. Niamatullah Ibrahimi, Deakin University

After months of delays and uncertainty, Afghanistan is set to hold its presidential election on Saturday. This election, the fourth since the overthrow of the Taliban regime in 2001, has critical implications for the political stability and security of the country.

Most importantly, it will test the resilience of the country’s fragile democratic process and shape the conditions under which the now-defunct negotiations between the United States and the Taliban can be resumed with more meaningful participation from Kabul.

And if the vote produces a broadly acceptable and functioning government – which is not a guarantee after the last presidential election in 2014 and parliamentary elections in 2018 – it will have profound repercussions for the Afghan people.




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How to end Afghanistan war as longest conflict moves towards fragile peace


Nearly two decades after the US-led coalition invaded the country and ousted the Taliban, Afghanistan is still in a downward spiral. In June, the country replaced Syria as the world’s least peaceful country in the Institute for Economics and Peace’s Global Peace Index report. The BBC tracked the violence in the country in August and found that on average, 74 Afghan men, women and children died each day across the country.

Further, the number of Afghans below the poverty line increased from 33.5% in 2011 to nearly 55% in 2017.

And in another bleak assessment of where things are at the moment, Afghan respondents in a recent Gallup survey rated their lives worse than anyone else on the planet. A record-high 85% of respondents categorised their lives as “suffering”, while the number of people who said they were “thriving” was zero.



Tests of democracy in Afghanistan

Despite the major challenges posed by insecurity and risks of electoral fraud, Afghanistan’s recent elections have been serious contests between the country’s various political elites.

Ordinary voters take extraordinary risks to participate in the polls. Thanks to a dynamic media sector, these contests involve spirited debates about policy-making and the visions of the candidates. This is particularly true when it comes to presidential elections, as the country’s 2004 Constitution concentrated much of the political and executive power in the office of the president.

There have been serious tests of Afghanistan’s nascent democracy before, however.
The 2014 election was tainted by allegations of widespread fraud, pushing the country to the brink of a civil war.

The political crisis was averted by the formation of the national unity government, in which Ashraf Ghani became president and his main challenger in the election, Abdullah Abdullah, took the position of chief executive officer, with powers similar to a prime minister.

Abdullah Abdullah is again the main challenger for President Ashraf Ghani, similar to the 2014 vote.
Jalil Rezayee/EPA

Negotiations with the Taliban

Since the withdrawal of most of the US and NATO forces from Afghanistan in 2014, the Taliban has considerably expanded the areas under its influence. Nonetheless, the insurgent group has been unable to score any strategic military victories by gaining control of provincial or population centres.

In 2016, President Donald Trump came to the White House with the promise of ending the war in Afghanistan. However, after a meticulous assessment of the risks associated with a complete troop withdrawal, he backed away from that pledge.

Trump instead called the 2014 departure of most US troops a “hasty withdrawal” and declared a new strategy that included an increase in the number of US forces in Afghanistan.

Afghan President Ashraf Ghani (centre) has adopted a populist style in his re-election campaign to connect better with voters.
Ghulamullah Habibi/EPA

The deployment of additional troops significantly escalated the military campaign against the Taliban but failed to decisively change the security dynamics in the country.

Then, in 2018, the Trump administration formally began engaging the Taliban in a series of direct negotiations in Qatar. The process was called off by Trump earlier this month when it was reportedly at the threshold of an agreement.




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A peace agreement in Afghanistan won’t last if there are no women at the table


Critics noted, however, the many flaws of this approach and the haste with which the negotiations were conducted by Zalmay Khalilzad, the US special representative for Afghan reconciliation.

Ironically, at the insistence of the Taliban, the process excluded the government of Afghanistan, which the Taliban refuses to recognise as the legitimate authority in the country. This led to phased negotiations, whereby a deal between the US and the Taliban was expected to be followed by an intra-Afghan dialogue and eventually a ceasefire.

A successful presidential election that produces a broadly acceptable outcome can significantly strengthen the position of the new government in negotiating and implementing a peace process with the Taliban. This is one reason why Ghani does not want to be sidelined from the negotiations.

Challenges for the upcoming vote

The election involves a significant number of political players and coalitions, but is essentially a replay of the 2014 poll between Ghani and Abdullah. While none of the other 13 candidates have a realistic chance of winning, they can split the votes to prevent one of the leaders from claiming victory in the first round. A run-off was required in the last two presidential elections in 2009 and 2014.

Another factor is the threat of violence from the Taliban. The group has already vowed to violently disrupt the election. In recent weeks, it has claimed responsibility for deadly attacks on election rallies, including a devastating attack on the campaign office of Amrullah Saleh, the first vice-president on Ghani’s ticket.

Supporters of incumbent President Ashraf Ghani at a rally in Jalalabad this month.
Ghulamullah Habibi/EPA

Insecurity will also likely prevent significant numbers of people from participating in the process. The number of polling stations has significantly dropped to less than 5,000 this year compared to 7,000 in 2014, highlighting the deteriorating security conditions.

There are also fears that more polling stations will be closed on election day, both for security reasons and political reasons (the latter in areas that are likely to vote for opposition candidates).




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This election is unlikely to be a game changer in the face of the magnitude and complexity of the challenges facing Afghanistan and its people.

Nonetheless, the election presents a rare opportunity for the country’s people to exercise their rights to choose who governs the country.

And if the supporters of the leading candidates stay committed to a transparent process, even a reasonably credible outcome can go a long way in restoring confidence in the country’s shaky institutions and strengthening the position of the government in any future peace negotiations with the Taliban.


This article was corrected on September 27, 2019. The forthcoming election is the fourth since the Taliban was overthrown in 2001, not the third as originally stated.The Conversation

Safiullah Taye, Phd. Candidate and Research Assistan, Deakin University and Dr. Niamatullah Ibrahimi, Associate Research Fellow, Deakin University

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

A peace agreement in Afghanistan won’t last if there are no women at the table


Susan Hutchinson, Australian National University

Over the past weeks, the US government has been in peace negotiations with the Taliban. It has been 17 years since US and allied troops first deployed to Afghanistan to overthrow the Taliban and support a democratically elected government.

The current peace negotiations have progressed further than any other attempted during the conflict. But they have two serious problems. Firstly, they have have not included the democratically elected government of Afghanistan, led by President Ashraf Ghani. Secondly, they have failed to include a single woman.

The situation so far

Peace negotiations can take many forms. At their most basic, they cover ceasefires and division of territory. But they often go further to address underlying causes of conflict and pave the way for durable solutions. They include extensive informal discussions before any formal agreement is signed.

In 1996, the Taliban took control of Afghanistan. It banned women from attending school and denied them their most basic rights. The Taliban provided safe haven for those responsible for the attacks against the US on September 11, 2001.

The US is keen to withdraw its remaining troops. But they want to secure a commitment from the Taliban that Afghanistan will not be home to terrorist groups planning attacks against the United States.

The most recent reports show the Afghan government controls 56% of Afghan districts, or 65% of the population. The Taliban controls 15% of the districts, with 29% remaining contested.

Peace negotiations are often fraught with tension about who is allowed at the table. So far, the Taliban has refused to allow the government of Afghanistan to participate in the current negotiations. The chief US negotiator, Zalmay Khalilzad, has been briefing the Afghan government on the progress of negotiations taking place in various Gulf States.




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Khalilzad is under pressure from US President Donald Trump to move the negotiations forward. But excluding the government is problematic. It could indicate the likely failure of negotiations, end up making the government look even weaker than it is and/or pave the way for a return to deeply conservative religious rule for Afghanistan.

It is often tempting for power brokers to prioritise the participation of armed groups in peace negotiations. But it’s important to ensure broader participation of civil society.

Research examining every peace agreement since the Cold War shows the participation of civil society makes a peace agreement 64% less likely to fail. The key reason is the peace process is perceived as more legitimate if civil society is included. But including civil society also ensures the concerns of the broader community are accounted for and that those who carried arms do not receive positive reinforcement by monopolising the benefits negotiated in the agreement.

What about the women?

Afghan women are angry about being excluded from the peace negotiations. The country’s leading women’s rights group, the Afghan Women’s Network, released a statement calling for “the full, equal and meaningful participation of women” in the negotiations.

Life for women in Afghanistan remains hard. The latest Reuters Poll said Afghanistan was the second most dangerous country to be a woman, down from the most dangerous five years earlier. The country still makes the top of the list for violence against women, discrimination, and lack of access to health care.

But significant progress has been made in the past 17 years.
Data from the UN Development Program show gender inequality dropped by ten percentage points between 2005 and 2017.

Women have strengthened their political, economic and social presence through efforts to advance their status and respect for their rights. Girls have been able to go to school. Women have become members of parliament, governors and police.




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Afghanistan’s 2004 constitution includes a hard won provision that enshrines the equality of men and women. But the Taliban is calling for a new constitution and it is highly unlikely if this was agreed, such a provision would survive.

Research drawing on extensive quantitative and qualitative data has shown that the way a country treats its women is the best indicator of its peacefulness. This is a better indicator than wealth, ethnic and religious identity or democracy.

We also know that women’s participation in peace processes makes for a more effective outcome. A peace processes is 35% more likley to last at least 15 years if women are at the negotiating table, have observer status, or participate in consultations, inclusive commissions or problem-solving workshops.

Women can negotiate with the Taliban

Even so, men and people from the international community often believe the struggles faced by Afghan women mean they are not in a position to negotiate with the patriarchal Taliban.

But Afghan women like Palwasha Hassan have been working for years to pursue peace with the Taliban. Hassan sits on the country’s High Peace Council and has seen how women across the country have already negotiated with local Taliban leaders. She says “the international community is failing to value what we have achieved together and the progress we have made so far.”

She conducted a workshop in 2010 with women across local communities. Stories included one woman who had negotiated to keep a local girls’ school open by arguing that educated girls could do better in Islamic studies, including learning to read the Quran. She also guaranteed to her Taliban interlocutors that a prayer space in the school would be reserved strictly for women and girls only.

Another woman explained how she and others negotiated the release of hostages being held by the local Taliban commander. She appealed to Islamic values of life and justice, and persuaded the captors that the hostage was being held unjustly.

International agreements

The importance of women’s participation in international peace and security was codified by UN Security Council resolution 1325 nearly 20 years ago.




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Seventy-nine countries, including Afghanistan, have National Action Plans to guide the resolution’s implementation and the subsequent seven Security Council resolutions on Women, Peace and Security.

In October 2017, the US became the first country in the world to pass a Women, Peace and Security Act, signed off by President Trump himself. It was passed explicitly to

ensure that the United States promotes the meaningful participation of women in mediation and negotiation processes seeking to prevent, mitigate, or resolve violent conflict” across the world.

Democratic Senators have urged the Trump administration to ensure Afghan women’s involvement in the peace negotiations. But so far no one has invoked the new law.

There are few who wouldn’t hope for peace for Afghanistan, but as Palwasha Hassan says, the negotiations “have to include women, both to protect our rights and also to ensure the durability of the peace that follows.”The Conversation

Susan Hutchinson, PhD Candidate, Australian National University

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

Why Australia should face civil lawsuits over soldier misdeeds in Afghanistan


Tim Matthews, University of Sydney and John Eldridge, University of Sydney

For the past two years, Paul Brereton, a New South Wales Supreme Court judge and Army Reserve major general, has been conducting an investigation into the conduct of members of the SAS in Afghanistan. While the findings are not yet known, leaks from within the Australian Defence Force (ADF) have suggested that as many as five cases involving unlawful killings have been uncovered.

Much of the media commentary surrounding the allegations has centred on the potential criminal prosecution of these alleged offences. But a further legal issue can arise from investigations of this kind – the alleged victims (or their families) might bring civil claims against Australia’s armed forces, seeking compensation for their suffering.




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Cases of this kind have occurred in other countries. In the United States, a number of high-profile habeas corpus petitions have been filed against the government by people who claim they were unlawfully detained by US armed forces on suspicion of being insurgents in Iraq and Afghanistan.

Claims for damages have also been successfully brought by former Iraqi detainees against private military contractors over their alleged torture at Abu Ghraib prison in Iraq.

British courts are also currently considering a number of civil suits arising out of British involvement in the conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan.

One of those claimants, Yunus Rahmatullah, was arrested by British forces in Iraq in 2004 on suspicion of being a member of Lashkar-e-Taiba, a terrorist organisation with links to al-Qaeda. He was “rendered” by British forces to the custody of the US army in Afghanistan, where he was detained for over ten years without charge or trial and, he alleges, tortured.

Rahmatullah denies ever being a member of a terrorist organisation. He has made a well-publicised claim for compensation from the UK government, under the country’s Human Rights Act.

Why are civil claims against soldiers controversial?

We are all exposed to potential civil liability in our day-to-day lives. If we drive negligently and cause an accident, for instance, we may find ourselves liable to pay compensation to those we have harmed. The same is true of public institutions and authorities, such as hospitals and the police. Few would suggest this is unfair or unreasonable.




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However, the extension of civil liability to the armed forces is controversial. Former Army officer Bill O’Chee, for instance, recently argued forcefully against such liability:

Service personnel who commit crimes are already subject to military criminal proceedings, and this is rightly so. However, exposing them to claims for personal injury claims would be perverse and entirely unjust.

The very idea that highly paid lawyers in comfortable courts in Australia can understand, let alone litigate these cases, is fanciful at best.

How absurd it would be for our servicemen and women to be subjected to damages claims in these circumstances, let alone be asked to find the money for legal costs and a possible damages order against them.

Should these civil claims be permitted?

Such civil liability claims have never been brought against individual ADF personnel in Australia before. This would be new legal territory. And nobody is seriously suggesting these soldiers should personally bear the burden of defending civil claims arising from the Afghanistan and Iraq wars. Rather, any potential claims are likely to be defended by the Commonwealth.

This is the way civil claims against police officers in Australia are typically resolved. In such cases, individual officers will often be required to give evidence as to their version of events. Yet the costs of defending the case, and the compensation (if any) paid to the plaintiff, are borne not by the individual officers, but by the relevant public authority.

Despite the controversy surrounding them, there are still good reasons to allow civil claims of this kind to proceed.




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First, criminal and civil claims serve different purposes. A successful criminal prosecution may leave a victim with a feeling of vindication, but it typically does not result in monetary compensation. As a result, it may matter little to victims or their families if the soldiers responsible are professionally disciplined, since they may receive no compensation for their loss.

Secondly, the notion that civilian courts are not competent to adjudicate on military matters is seriously problematic.

Nobody could deny that military personnel are forced to carry out their duties in extremely difficult conditions. It is also true that many lawyers and judges have difficulty appreciating the fraught circumstances in which military decision-making occurs.

But the answer to these difficulties is not the abandonment of such claims altogether. Judges are often faced with the task of making difficult decisions about matters on which they are not experts. Civil justice would simply not work if courts threw up their hands whenever they were faced with such challenges.

Greater accountability for the military

Finally, if the Commonwealth were somehow able to avoid liability for potential civil damages in these types of cases, the ADF may have less incentive to conduct military operations in ways that safeguard the rights of civilians caught in conflict zones.

Given the limited accountability for military decision-making in the public sphere, the possibility of accountability in a civil court would promote stricter adherence to international conventions on war.

Many of the victims who may bring claims of this kind are unlikely to excite public sympathy. For example, one of the claimants in the UK cases, Serdar Mohammed, was arrested while leaving a ten-hour firefight with British troops, discarding a rocket-propelled grenade launcher and ammunition on his way.

The ConversationBut we shouldn’t allow our moral judgement of claimants like Mohammed to erode our commitment to the rule of law. Public authorities, and especially our armed forces, should be held accountable for their actions to the limits imposed by law.

Tim Matthews, Sessional Academic, Law School, University of Sydney and John Eldridge, Lecturer, Sydney Law School, University of Sydney

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

Trump and Turnbull have little cause for satisfaction over progress in Afghanistan



File 20180205 19948 ghodqc.jpg?ixlib=rb 1.1
What to do about Afghanistan will likely be on the agenda when Malcolm Turnbull meets with Donald Trump later this month.
Reuters/Omar Sobhani

Tony Walker, La Trobe University

When Malcolm Turnbull sits down in the White House later this month for the Australian prime minister’s first substantive discussion with Donald Trump on American soil, Afghanistan will almost certainly be part of the conversation.

Whatever is said – and agreed – about that conflict, neither the Americans nor the Australians have much cause for satisfaction over progress in efforts to stabilise that country.

As 2017 gave way to a new year, the news from Afghanistan for the NATO-led effort to counter the Taliban, and other militant groups, was mostly bad.

Terrorist attacks in Kabul and other cities, which killed more than 100 people and wounded dozens in the first weeks of 2018, underscored the lack of progress in establishing a stable environment. Afghanis are losing confidence in the ability of US-backed Afghan security forces to hold insurgents at bay.

This lessening certainty in an Afghan administration, propped up by America and its allies, including Australia, has serious implications for the future of the country and the conduct of what is now America’s longest war.




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The Afghan conflict has cost the American taxpayer getting on for a trillion dollars – or a lot more, according to some estimates – with no end in sight. More than 2,000 Americans have been killed.

Australia has spent an estimated A$8 billion on its Afghan engagement, including civil and military assistance. Forty-one service personnel have been killed, and 261 wounded.

All this makes it notable that Trump, in his State of the Union address, devoted just 40 words to the Afghan conflict, in contrast to other foreign and security policy preoccupations, inclduing America’s campaign against Islamic State (IS).

This is what he said about a war that has outstripped by half a decade America’s previous longest war, in Vietnam:

As of a few months ago, our warriors in Afghanistan have their new rules of engagement. Along with their heroic Afghan partners, our military is no longer undermined by artificial timelines, and we no longer tell our enemies our plans.

That was it. It was as if Washington had resolved not to talk about a war that shows no sign of an endpoint, although it could be observed Taliban advances are creating what might prove to be an inflection moment.

Whether this will lead to a more concerted push to engage the Taliban in a regional settlement remains moot. However, it is hard to envisage an end to the Afghan nightmare without some sort of Taliban involvement, unpalatable though that may seem.

Robert Malley, newly appointed head of the International Crisis Group, sharply criticised US Afghanistan strategy in an assessment of 2018 trouble spots. He wrote:

The strategy faces serious obstacles. While hitting the Taliban harder might bring tactical gains, it is unlikely to change the war’s course or the incentives of a locally rooted and potent insurgency … Battlefield losses in the past have not impacted Taliban leaders’ willingness to negotiate.

And then this:

As the battlefield tempo increases, the Trump administration should keep lines of communication to the insurgency open and explore the contours of a settlement with Afghanistan’s neighbors and other regional powers, however slim prospects currently appear. US allies in Afghanistan should push for a greater diplomatic political component to the US strategy. As it stands, that strategy sets the stage for more violence while closing avenues for de-escalation. Afghan civilians will pay the price.

All this has been further complicated by growing IS and al-Qaeda involvement in the conflict, with those entities seeking alternative battlefields to Iraq and Syria.

Suspicions Iran and Russia are providing some level of support to the Taliban are adding to concerns. America’s estrangement from Pakistan – Trump has taken Islamabad to task for not doing more to combat the Taliban – is compounding an already fraught environment.

To say that Afghanistan in 2018 is a witch’s brew would be an understatement.

What seems clear is that the Trump administration and its allies are conducting something of a holding operation in the hope that a protracted war plays itself out. This strategy might be placed in the faint hope category, given Afghanistan’s history of resisting foreign involvement going back to the armies of Alexander the Great.

Trump might have escalated the conflict by freeing up local American commanders to fight more aggressively, but it is not clear this is paying dividends, given the level of violence that is manifesting itself.

Under this administration, America dropped three times the number of bombs – 4,361 – on insurgent targets in 2017 compared with the previous year.

American sensitivity about progress – or lack thereof – in the war was exposed recently when the its own ombudsman, the Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction (SIGAR), reported it had been ordered not to report details of how much territory was under the control of the Afghan government or insurgents.

Information released to CNN by US forces in Afghanistan indicates that 56% of districts were under government control or influence in October. A further 30% is contested, with the balance under the influence of militant groups, including the Taliban.

These figures indicate a significant slippage since 2015, when the government controlled about 72% of the country, and insurgents 7%.

On top of territory yielded to the insurgency, more than 7,000 members of the Afghan security forces were killed last year. This is an attrition rate that would be demoralising in any circumstances.

In an assessment for Foreign Affairs, former commander of US forces in Afghanistan, Stanley McChrystal, observed that Taliban “presence and influence are likely at their highest levels since the group lost power in 2001”.

Last August, Trump announced a revamped strategy in Afghanistan, which included a commitment of additional forces. Numbers were not specified at the time, but are in the order of 4,000, taking the American involvement to 16,000.

This compares with 100,000 at the time of Barack Obama’s “surge” in 2009, which was intended to deal a killer blow to the Taliban. This has not materialised. As noted, the Afghan government has been losing ground since the US wound back its commitment in 2011.




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In his August address, Trump said this about American strategy:

From now on, victory will have a clear definition: attacking our enemies, obliterating ISIS, crushing al-Qaeda, preventing the Taliban from taking over Afghanistan, and stopping mass terror attacks against America before they emerge.

This prompted the following observation from analyst Max Boot of the Council on Foreign Relations:

The Trump administration has concluded that it can live with a situation that even US generals describe as a ‘stalemate’, because the cost of victory – sending hundreds of thousands of additional troops – is too high for the United States to pay and might be impossible to achieve in any case, given that the Taliban continue to enjoy outside support, not only from Pakistan but also from Iran and Russia. In short, a war that started 16 years ago will continue indefinitely with no victory in sight, because from Washington’s perspective there is simply no viable alternative.

In response to the Trump speech, including the president’s unwillingness to set a timeline for an end to America’s involvement, Malcolm Turnbull observed the “coalition commitment to Afghanistan … would be very long-term”.

The ConversationThis might be regarded as an understatement on the eve of Turnbull’s visit to Washington, where the subject of Australian troop levels in a training capacity in Afghanistan will almost certainly arise.

Tony Walker, Adjunct Professor, School of Communications, La Trobe University

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.