Opinion

The decision to use the SAS on high-tempo deployments was political: it made Australia a useful ally to the US. It may have also contributed to a culture of abuse. By Karen Middleton.

Karen Middleton
The politics of deploying the SAS

The Brereton report’s revelations demand that Australia’s military leaders take responsibility for what has happened on their watch. Their structures need a radical overhaul.

But accountability doesn’t end at Defence headquarters. Military chiefs followed orders as much as gave them. Ultimately, sending people to war is a political decision.

For at least 12 years, politicians chose to dispatch the Special Air Service, commandos and other special forces on repeated high-tempo deployments to the Middle East.

If our leaders considered the human toll, they did little to mitigate it. The report says they were never advised it posed a risk. Although the report places the onus on the military, it doesn’t discount repeated deployments as a contributor.

Among tens of thousands of Australians who deployed to Afghanistan, most did not engage in the appalling behaviour detailed in the Brereton report. But a small cohort did, and nothing stopped them.

Instead, an atmosphere of impunity prevailed. Of course, the alleged perpetrators are responsible for their own actions. Politicians’ attitudes are not any kind of excuse for what happened, but they may have contributed to the culture in which these actions occurred.

As the war in Afghanistan approached its 10th anniversary in 2011, I interviewed the key Howard government ministers who sent our troops there. I was writing a book on the political backstory to Australia’s role in the conflict, An Unwinnable War: Australia in Afghanistan.

It became clear the ministers favoured the SAS for one key reason – the regiment represented bang for the buck.

Highly skilled, the SAS are considered “tier one” among their kind internationally. Within the elite Australian regiments that include commandos, engineers, aviators and clearance divers, the SAS view themselves as top of the tree.

John Howard said their agility, efficiency and resourcefulness made them the best fit for a short-term insertion.

“I was conscious, given the potential for difficulties in our own part of the world, that the right combination was to provide sharp-edged forces for a limited period of time during the hot part but not get bogged down in long, drawn-out peacekeeping operations,” Howard told me, saying advice from Defence chiefs reflected that view.

In other words, they could get in and out fast, hopefully with not many dead.

That wasn’t entirely how things transpired.

 

When the United States prepared to send forces to Afghanistan after the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001, Australia had to talk its way in. Howard was in Washington, DC, when the attacks occurred. Deeply affected, he committed Australia to war on the spot. He had to follow through.

George W. Bush’s administration was inclined to go it alone, believing some allies were more trouble than they were worth.

Many friendly forces were less well trained than the Americans, spoke different languages and had incompatible equipment. None of this was true of Australia though, and, eventually, Bush was persuaded.

Having fought to be part of the operation, Australia’s contribution had to be good.

“The hardest stuff actually is the front end of the war,” was how former Foreign minister Alexander Downer described Australia’s offer. “We’re happy to help with that. We’ll bomb them, we’ll fight them in the streets. We’ll do all of that until you throw out the enemy and then … we have a lot of commitments in South-East Asia and the South Pacific and we will retreat back there.”

But the enemy wasn’t thrown out. Withdrawn in 2002 on the mistaken belief the job was done, the special forces were sent back in 2005 – and then again and again, along with that bigger contingent the government had wanted to avoid.

Of the 41 ADF members who died in Afghanistan – one more is often added in memory of those who died in training or took their own lives – 22 were special forces.

Gradually, special forces became part of the government’s domestic public relations war as well. Hearts-and-minds campaigns are intrinsic to every modern military commitment, but this went further than that.

The SAS became so valuable that their superior status within the Australian Defence Force grew godlike outside it, as Victoria Crosses and medals for gallantry were awarded for conspicuous acts of courage under fire.

In 2013, Special Operations Command received the first battle honour awarded to Australian forces since the Vietnam War. The entire Special Operations Task Group received meritorious citations. While some were singled out for more, their reputations were bound together. Those citations are now being revoked.

Prominent SAS personnel were turned into pin-ups for patriotism as governments cloaked themselves in khaki. The special forces were a handy political tool.

The favour and protection they were afforded fostered resentment in the wider ADF because it seemed the SAS could do no wrong.

But back in Afghanistan, what some had been doing was very wrong. Terrible things occurred, in breach of the laws of war and of every moral and ethical code these men had been taught. Media reports had appeared since 2006 that should have raised deep concern.

Until four years ago, nothing effective was done.

There will be questions about who knew, and when, up the chain of command. The report says most up that chain did not, which means neither did politicians.

But didn’t they recognise that so many repeat deployments in a bloody insurgency could put even superhumans under incredible pressure?

While that alone doesn’t explain why some soldiers abandoned their moral compasses, political and military leaders should have considered whether placing them beyond reproach might create a dangerous culture of unassailability and silence.

Surely, some among the chiefs must have. Yet no material steps were taken to lessen the risk.

An awful truth now sullies our nation’s reputation: that some Australians whose mission was to help the Afghan people murdered them instead.

A friend who served in Afghanistan reflects on how these alleged crimes will damage the legacy of the many others who deployed there.

He fears such national shame will affect his children’s view of him when, inevitably, they ask: “What did you do in the war, Daddy?”

Our political leaders may not wield rifles on a battlefield, but they do give orders. They should examine their motives, acknowledge their moral responsibility and consider the consequences of their actions.

And those who come after should also beware the small voices asking: What did you do? 

For support, veterans can contact Open Arms, 24 hours a day, on 1800 011 046.

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Nov 21, 2020 as "The politics of deploying the SAS".

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