Reports of alleged misconduct involving ADF special forces come as the elite troops are increasingly preferred for deployment. By Karen Middleton.

ADF special forces over-used as default first option

Twelve years ago, when Australia’s military attention was returning from Iraq to Afghanistan, the then defence minister, Robert Hill, took a submission to cabinet’s national security committee recommending against redeploying the special forces.

The argument that came from the top of the Australian Defence Force – without consulting the Special Operations Command – was the elite troops should not be the automatic deployment choice because they had been working flat out in Iraq and needed a break.

Instead, Hill recommended the renewed military commitment to Afghanistan focus on development – a provincial reconstruction team – reflecting his belief that building the country’s infrastructure and capabilities would help it resist the resurgent Taliban and al-Qaeda.

That was how it was when he went in to the NSC meeting in June 2005. When he came out, he was indeed sending a reconstruction team – and the special forces.

“It was an interesting day at the office,” Hill said recently, reflecting on those events. He won’t say who drove the redirected decision around the cabinet table but it is understood to have been the then prime minister, John Howard, backed by his foreign minister, Alexander Downer.

The prevailing view was that if it was possible to send the highly skilled special forces – and the then chief of the defence force and now governor-general Sir Peter Cosgrove agreed that it was – then they should be the preferred force because a small contingent could achieve more than regular infantry at lower cost and, most significantly, with less risk of being killed.

Acknowledging it had not been his first option, Hill told the recent War in the Sand Pit conference in Brisbane: “I nevertheless supported the return of special forces as there clearly was a continuing need for that capability. It was more a question of what we could reasonably do with the resources available and I was always concerned about overreach.”

Since then, the special forces have largely become the first option for deployment.

As reports surfaced this week of alleged past misconduct involving special forces in Afghanistan, which is being investigated through an already-established inquiry, some in the defence community said too much has been asked of the elite Special Air Service and Commando regiments during the past 15 years. They argue this has put them under extreme pressure, sometimes clouded individual judgements and contributed to what some describe as an insular – even toxic – internal culture.

Others say that’s just an excuse for what, on the face of it at least, are examples of allegedly appalling behaviour that should be investigated.

Early last year, the chief of army, Lieutenant-General Angus Campbell, commissioned the office of the inspector general of the ADF to conduct a “scoping” inquiry into the special forces’ culture and rumours of misconduct.

This week, the ABC aired unconfirmed reports of personnel planting weapons on unarmed suspected insurgents who had been killed and photographing them, apparently to make the process of justifying a kill more straightforward.

The ABC reported details of two alleged incidents now also believed to form part of that inquiry – the 2012 shooting death of an unarmed 14-year-old boy in Kandahar province and the 2013 shooting of a suspected insurgent and his six-year-old son in Uruzgan. The soldiers involved in the 2013 shootings were cleared of wrongdoing but the IGADF inquiry is believed to be re-examining them.

The ABC broadcast an image of what it said was the teenager’s body, verified through local sources, and alleged that while Australian soldiers had photographed him and recorded his location, the death had not been reported up the chain of command as required.

The explanation reportedly given was that the soldiers were reluctant to report because several commandos involved in a 2009 incident in which six civilians died, including five children, during a grenade attack on a suspected insurgent compound had been pursued legally and one had faced charges that were eventually dropped.

The Australian Federal Police has now confirmed it is evaluating an alleged unlawful killing in Afghanistan in 2012, which Campbell referred to them in September last year. While the AFP won’t confirm details, it is understood to be the Kandahar case.

This week, the ADF confirmed the IGADF inquiry, established in May last year and headed by New South Wales Supreme Court justice Paul Brereton, continues to investigate a range of unspecified “rumours and allegations”.

“The Australian Defence Force conducts its operations under strict rules of engagement and promotes a culture of ethical and lawful behaviour,” defence said in a statement. “These rules and cultural norms are designed to ensure the actions of Australian forces are ethical and consistent with defence’s obligations under Australian and international law. Defence does not condone its people operating outside of these rules and norms, and it takes allegations of misconduct seriously.”

It urged anyone with relevant information to come forward.

Within the special forces, some are welcoming the scrutiny to resolve the allegations and address the reputational damage to the elite forces, most of whom they argue act both legally and honourably. Others dismiss them as scuttlebutt and “bullshit” peddled by a disgruntled soldier.

In the most senior ranks of the defence community, the allegations are considered extremely grave.

“These are serious allegations,” former chief of army Peter Leahy told The Saturday Paper. “They need to be investigated. They go to the integrity and reputation of the individuals, the unit and the Australian Army and they need to be pursued very vigorously.”

There have been others as well. A 2013 case, already made public, involved an SAS soldier having allegedly cut off the hands of insurgents, killed during an operation in Afghanistan, in order to identify them through biometric testing.

Documents the ABC published this week indicate that during an operation in Zabul province involving 120 special forces, an SAS corporal had cut off the right hands of three dead insurgents to take for testing.

Wherever possible, Australian forces are required to record fingerprints and eye scans for their database and the soldiers are issued with electronic equipment. Mutilation or mistreatment of corpses is prohibited under the rules of war.

The corporal had cited time pressure with helicopters waiting to take off in what was still a dangerous environment. But the documents record a sergeant using words to the effect of: “What the fuck are you doing?”

Another colleague, then SAS captain and now Liberal MP Andrew Hastie, raised concerns about the incident and reported it up the chain.

On Thursday, the AFP confirmed it was investigating. “On 17 August, 2015, the Australian Defence Force referred a matter to the AFP relating to an allegation a member of the Special Air Service regiment removed a hand from deceased insurgents in Afghanistan,” a spokesperson told The Saturday Paper. “As the investigation is ongoing, it would not be appropriate to comment further.”

This week’s new reports have reopened debate over the role of the special forces and the tempo of their deployments over the past 15 years.

Australia Defence Association executive director Neil James argues that the priority successive governments placed on avoiding casualties and their fear of public reaction and electoral consequences have driven them to call on the elite soldiers first. “As a result, we have tended to use our special forces for some, perhaps many, tasks previously done by conventional troops,” James told The Saturday Paper.

“This is chiefly because of the belief they are likely to suffer less casualties, but also in fulfilment of the largely finance-driven convenient belief that Australia need only make niche contributions to multinational operations, rather than a larger or more sustained effort more in keeping with that of our principal allies.”

He says the special forces are only a small component of Australia’s overall ground-force capability – “otherwise they would not be special” – but have undertaken a very large number of three-month rotations into both Iraq and Afghanistan.

“We have sent them to the well too often,” he says.

James argues that much debate about special forces’ activities is “looking at the symptoms, not the wider causes of the problem”, which he says is a lack of understanding in the wider community and among political leaders of the real conditions under which military personnel must make snap decisions.

“You’ve got to be really careful sitting in an armchair in suburban Australia passing moral judgements afterwards on split-second combat decisions – particularly as so few Australians now really grasp that context.”

The head of the Australian National University’s Strategic and Defence Studies Centre, military historian and former army officer John Blaxland, also believes they were deployed too often.

“I think it would be fair to say too much has been expected of the special forces,” he said. “The operational tempo that they experienced was so great that we shouldn’t be surprised if around the edges, things frayed a bit. The demands around them were for perfection. Well, none of us are perfect and if you’re doing it season after season after season you’ve got to expect there will be mistakes made.”

He says multiple tours leave personnel feeling that the members of their own unit are “the only people you really trust”.

Some members of the SAS and commandos have done as many as 10 tours of Afghanistan.

The Saturday Paper has been told that chaplains to the special forces have also expressed concern that the frequency of deployment increased the risk of what they called “moral wounding” – psychological distress or damage from struggling later with having had to see or do things they had little opportunity to process or contemplate properly at the time.

But some serving and former personnel dismiss suggestions they were sent too frequently or that their work could have been done by regular infantry.

“We were way better trained,” one says. “We went out for high-value targets every time.”

Where the special forces are involved, there is a distinct pecking order.

Members of the SAS and commandos are considered superior to regular infantry because of the demanding selection process and specialised training. But even within their own elite ranks, there is a hierarchy: SAS first; then the full-time commandos, who are mostly in Second Commando regiment; and then the part-timers in First Commando who, like army reservists generally, are sometimes derided as “chocos” – chocolate soldiers, not the real thing.

In a 2012 memoir titled Keep Your Head Down, about his deployments in Afghanistan, reservist commando Nathan Mullins records how he wrestled with some of what was done. He recalled one mission when insurgents did not attack as expected and the whole Australian company was ordered to fire “masses of machine gun rounds and plenty of 40-mm grenades” at the mountainside.

Mullins insists he didn’t do it. “Frankly, I thought it was embarrassing, like spoiled kids on a hunting trip just shooting street signs because they didn’t see any rabbits. It was weird and quite out of keeping with the rest of our actions.”

Mullins also recalled the time a local truck passed their column of Bushmaster vehicles travelling in the other direction and then hit a hidden improvised explosive device. The Australians had chosen their wheel tracks carefully and missed the bomb but the locals had driven right over it.

Despite civilians being injured, the Australians kept going, on the orders of the officer commanding.

Mullins thought they could have – should have – stopped to treat them, maybe even medevaced them out. But they didn’t. “I shook my head, not for the first or last time.”

Australian soldiers on operations work under strict and largely secret rules of engagement, with more detailed “orders for opening fire” specifying when force may be used. The orders during Operation Slipper in Afghanistan expressly prohibited attacks on civilians who were “not taking an active or direct part in hostilities”.

They detailed what constituted permissible self-defence in the face of either a hostile act or a person of hostile intent and the circumstances in which personnel were allowed the use of force “up to and including lethal force”.

They also specified that warnings should be given “if possible” and outlined the restrictions on firing only “aimed shots” and doing so minimally.

One former senior officer says he used to tell soldiers their hardest decision would be not to fire.

All front-line personnel on operations are acutely aware of the implications of their actions. But in conflicts featuring enemy insurgents who dress like civilians and wield weapons one day and farm tools the next, navigating these rules becomes extremely complex. Decisions are made in the heat of battle under extreme pressure. Sometimes there are mitigating circumstances.

When incidents occur which suggest a breach, investigators must establish what happened when the only available witnesses are often the colleagues of those whose actions are being questioned. The code of not ratting out mates is strong.

The public airing of these new allegations comes just as the command of the special forces changes over.

Newly promoted Major-General Adam Findlay took up the post of special operations commander this month, following the completion of predecessor Jeff Sengelman’s term.

Although Findlay’s identity is not secret, his appointment has not been formally announced. It’s not clear why.

While there is no definitive time line for the completion of Paul Brereton’s inquiry, Findlay is likely to be the man in charge when he reports. It will then fall to him, along with the chief of army, to take whatever decisions might be required.

They will need to restore the collective reputation of Australia’s most prestigious fighting force and ensure justice is seen to be done.

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on July 15, 2017 as "Special forces under fire".

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Karen Middleton is The Saturday Paper’s chief political correspondent.

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