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A review of Australia’s involvement in Afghanistan questions whether soldiers’ deaths helped strategic outcomes and calls for ongoing royal commission-like powers to prevent misconduct. By Karen Middleton.

Exclusive: Defence review questions Afghanistan war deaths

Taliban fighters patrolling Kabul following a school bombing in mid-April this year.
Taliban fighters patrolling Kabul following a school bombing in mid-April this year.
Credit: AP Photo/Ebrahim Noroozi

The Australian Defence Force has acknowledged that its own historical failure to adequately train people in designing and executing military operations may have seen some Australian soldiers die in vain in Afghanistan.

A carefully worded review of the nation’s role in the 20-year conflict has found that until relatively recently a gap in military education meant ADF personnel were not skilled enough at the operational design level – the how-to-do-it stage between politicians and military chiefs giving orders and soldiers carrying them out on the ground.

The commissioned review says this design inexperience put soldiers at risk and may have led to “sacrifices” with no strategic benefit.

In the wake of allegations of war crimes and criticisms of a culture of arrogance and impunity among Australia’s special forces, the review also recommends subjecting them – and all ADF personnel – to scrutiny by a watchdog with the standing investigative powers of a royal commission.

Produced by Major-General Andrew Hocking and published without fanfare in March, the Afghanistan review titled “Preparing for the Future” calls out a longstanding structural gap in military education.

Hocking says the overall strategy in the conflict, driven originally by the United States, was confused and kept changing, especially after Australia began working in Uruzgan province in 2005.

He implies that a naive “Western aspiration” for Afghanistan was a factor, noting that a failure to consider “local history, culture, politics and capacity” can lead to “overly ambitious and unsustainable national and military strategic objectives”.

Hocking says the lack of clarity around Australia’s national objective and that of coalition forces caused “moral injury” to soldiers trying to work out why they were fighting and what they were supposed to achieve.

Hocking’s review is a comprehensive examination of Australia’s involvement in Afghanistan and catalogues the factors he suggests undermined success. He says it is not meant to be conclusive but hopes his findings generate “ongoing reflection and debate”.

Hocking identifies a historical over-emphasis in the ADF on top-level leadership training and grassroots war-fighting. Likewise, he says there has been too little focus on the integrated operational design that binds the two in the interests of success.

His study suggests some of the 41 Australian soldiers who died in Afghanistan may have lost their lives – the ultimate sacrifice in war – for no good strategic reason.

“An unbalanced concentration on the top and bottom of the Defence enterprise can lead to a lack of education and investment at the operational level,” the review says. “Failure to invest at the operational level generates increased risk that sacrifices made at the tactical level will not align with or contribute to desired outcomes at the strategic level.”

The devastating observation is one Defence is generally reluctant to make because of the pain it will cause the families of those who have died in conflict and the risk it poses to morale.

Defence is also generally reluctant to embrace the concept of “moral injury” because of the possibility this could lead to soldiers refusing to follow orders on conscience grounds.

Former chief of army Peter Leahy, now director of the National Security Institute at the University of Canberra, says Defence’s acknowledgement of sacrifice without strategic benefit is important.

“This was the question we asked after we came out of Afghanistan: What was that for?” Professor Leahy tells The Saturday Paper. “Because we achieved next to nothing and the Taliban are back in charge.”

Leahy’s observation comes amid further signs of a deteriorating security situation in the country, where a spate of bombings and other apparently targeted killings over the past fortnight have targeted Shia minorities, especially Hazaras.

Leahy says now Defence has undertaken a review of its role in the conflict, it is time for political leaders to do the same about theirs.

“Let’s transfer the risks from soldiers in the field back to the government, to make sure they’ve given them the right strategy and equipment and training to carry out the mission and minimise the risk,” he says. “And the ultimate risk is death.”

Military historian John Blaxland, who is professor of intelligence and security studies at the Australian National University and a former army officer, calls Hocking’s statement about sacrifices “a significant observation”.

“That’s the one [thing] that separates a member of the ADF from civil society – you can be ordered to put your life on the line,” Blaxland tells The Saturday Paper. He says despite the obtuse wording, Major-General Hocking deserves credit for including the statement in his assessment.

“It does speak to a chasm – the lack of prowess in that space.”

Hocking’s review acknowledges that the ADF’s focus has shifted in recent years to better incorporate operational training and “further increase its expertise and capacity to orchestrate continuous and concurrent operations to shape, deter and, if need be, respond in both foreign and domestic settings”.

Nevertheless, his review sounds an alarm about the ADF’s structures and some deeply ingrained principles. He queries aspects of command and control and says there should have been greater effort at integrating the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade, the Australian Federal Police and other agencies into a whole-of-government strategy much earlier. He also interrogates the complex relationship between the military and political leaders.

Hocking suggests introducing an external review of force sustainability to provide an objective assessment of what’s possible for each operation, implying this may help the ADF push back against unrealistic or unwieldy political demands. He says its “can-do” culture, while admirable, has a downside.

Hocking explains that when politicians capped the number of personnel who could be deployed to Afghanistan and insisted on always using special forces, the ADF opted to make it work rather than outline in detail the risks those requirements created.

He says the willingness to do what government asks “can lead to inadequate consideration of inherent risks”. It can “blind personnel to the downstream consequences of actions beyond the immediate mission and stifle the ability to learn from failure or intervene in impending failure”.

The risks include overworking the elite soldiers, creating division and resentment in the wider force, limiting the combat experience of other elements of the ADF and having to cut back on crucial support elements in order to meet the sometimes contradictory cap and composition demands.

“The ADF’s can-do culture has vulnerabilities,” Hocking writes. “In this case it manifested in a general reluctance for special force leaders and others in the community to pre-emptively flag force sustainability risks or reduce their commitment.”

Restricting soldiers’ movements to the boundaries of Uruzgan province also damaged morale and was impractical.

Hocking says while having strong chains of command, unit pride, tactical capability and a can-do attitude can be significant strengths, they can also “manifest in suboptimal outcomes”. The implication is that these can include losing personnel and the war.

While Hocking’s recommendations and observations are couched in careful language, his study contains a far-reaching and direct critique of the way Australia fought its longest war. He implies that unless existing structures and processes are overhauled, they could undermine the country’s capacity to fight the next one.

Hocking says creating ad hoc units that amalgamated bits of permanent units had a direct impact on war-fighting capabilities in Afghanistan and exacerbated a sense of dislocation and isolation when soldiers got home.

The review attributes some organisational problems throughout the war to Australia’s Anzac heritage – a legacy of which is soldiers’ training being focused on tactics, tenacity and survival by their wits.

It suggests that having Australian forces mostly subordinate to bigger coalition partners in modern conflicts also contributed to a failure to boost their own capacity to design and execute operations and set national goals.

The Hocking review also blames complacency. The Howard government sent Australian forces into Afghanistan in late 2001, following the al-Qaeda terrorist attacks on the US on September 11 that year. In late 2002, the forces were withdrawn after the Taliban government had been forced from office and the US and its allies had shifted their focus to Iraq.

But in 2005, when the situation in Afghanistan deteriorated, John Howard sent troops back in a provincial reconstruction role, partnering with the Dutch and with a separate contingent of special forces.

“It is possible that early operational success in Afghanistan in 2001 and 2002 may also have contributed to overly optimistic campaign aspirations,” Hocking writes. He says the special forces’ activities were not integrated with the provincial task group whose work they were supposed to be supporting. Chains of command were separate and communications between the two inadequate. He says the constant use of the Special Air Service (SAS) and Commando regiments for war-fighting – as opposed to their traditional roles of strategic reconnaissance and training – did not always help the other part of the contingent achieve its objective to stabilise the province.

The review suggests this overuse fostered a culture of arrogance and impunity in the special forces. Results included the regular consumption of alcohol on operations, which was supposed to be banned. Hocking says this created resentment and damaging divisions in the ADF and ultimately undermined its ability to do its job.

While the defence review does not directly refer to the allegations of war crimes levelled at members of the special forces, which the Brereton inquiry found last year to be “credible”, Defence chiefs have acknowledged the need to examine the role of culture in that context.

It has recently emerged that the chief of the ADF, General Angus Campbell, deferred the punishment of seven senior army officers for failing to prevent war crimes, with Defence minister Peter Dutton instructing him to wait until after the Office of the Special Investigator considers possible prosecutions. Based on documents obtained under freedom of information laws, The Australian newspaper reported that Campbell cleared another 21 personnel, urging them to “learn from their experience”.

In his review, Hocking recommends upgrading the powers of the Inspector-General of the Australian Defence Force (IGADF) to those of the Inspector-General of Intelligence and Security (IGIS), the watchdog that oversees Australia’s intelligence agencies.

This would allow it to operate more independently, with a remit laid out in its own legislation. Its scope would broaden beyond investigating deaths, examining complaints, and reviewing the military justice system to more active pre-emptive scrutiny aimed at guarding against potentially dangerous cultural drift.

The IGIS was established in 1987 and given free-ranging and independent statutory powers to scrutinise the operations of Australia’s intelligence agencies and ensure they were working strictly within the law.

A beefed-up IGADF, modelled on the IGIS, might be able to compel information from ADF personnel, visit units unannounced and initiate special inquiries. Currently, inquiries must be initiated by the Defence minister or the chief of Defence.

Hocking suggests these powers are needed to stop personnel – and especially the elite special forces units – thinking they are above both the law and moral standards.

“The mandate should extend beyond discipline and legality to include low-level indicators of impropriety that may be indicators of larger issues,” Hocking writes. “This includes the scanning for ‘shadow values’ that do not align with ‘above-the-line’ organisational values.”

While the proposed IGADF upgrade would apply to the entire defence force, it is the special forces’ drift into a sense of “exceptionalism”, separateness and superiority that has prompted it.

Hocking found contributing factors included geographic isolation, a “closed and bespoke” training regimen, the lack of peers for “reference points and calibration” and limited interaction with the broader ADF.

“When these factors are combined with an excessive flattening of command structures or an over-promotion of the power and influence of tactical field commanders, institutional and unit blind spots can be created that generate excessive risk.”

Curiously, some of Hocking’s bluntest observations – including using the IGIS as a model – are contained in his study’s footnotes.

“The majority of serving personnel have a very limited understanding or visibility of special forces culture and capabilities,” he writes in the footnotes. “This may be appropriate for some compartmented capabilities but not all. While significant effort is being made to address this, it remains that, in general terms, the broader Army do not feel that some special forces elements are part of it.”

A Defence spokesperson told The Saturday Paper that the chief of Defence had commissioned Hocking’s nine-month study to identify “the key organisational lessons” of the 20-year military engagement.

“This type of study is in keeping with the value that Defence places on reflection, debate and ongoing learning,” the spokesperson said. “It is being used to contribute to the important ongoing conversation within Defence with the aim of strengthening training and preparing the ADF for the challenges of future operational demands.”

The 21 key lessons and recommendations would be subject to further consideration and the results incorporated into Defence’s training and education curriculum “where appropriate”.

The spokesperson declined to comment directly on either the observation on “sacrifices” for no strategic benefit or the proposed IGADF powers.

Andrew Hocking acknowledges his findings will be difficult for some.

He says in his review that he hopes they serve as both an example and “an enduring reference point” to accelerate “continuous improvement” in the ADF.

“While this debate may be messy and uncomfortable, it is a willingness to accept this that might differentiate us from future adversaries.”

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on April 30, 2022 as "Exclusive: Defence review questions Afghanistan war deaths".

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

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