David Kilcullen writes about Brereton Inquiry


There are reasons, not excuses, for the Army’s nightmare

David Kilcullen, The Australian, 21st November 2020



Announcing the findings of the Afghanistan inquiry this week, Chief of Defence Force Angus Campbell described them as shocking. He is absolutely right: the allegations of unlawful killing and cruel treatment of 39 Afghan civilians by 25 members of Australian Special Forces are utterly appalling if true. The ADF response has been reassuring so far, with individuals to be referred for criminal prosecution, commanders held accountable, a squadron of the Special Air Service Regiment struck off the Order of Battle, redress for the alleged victims’ families, and a broader process of reform and reckoning for the defence force. But that reckoning needs to go beyond Defence, to the governments of both parties who set the strategy and shaped the environment in which alleged abuses occurred, and arguably to all Australians.

I should note that, though I served in Afghanistan as a civilian advisor with the American military, and worked for other U.S. government agencies there, I never operated directly alongside Australian forces. But I did frequently encounter them—in the field, at headquarters, at the counterinsurgency school on the outskirts of Kabul, or at the enormous coalition airbases at Kandahar and Bagram. Their behaviour, bearing and reputation were exemplary: Afghan colleagues and coalition partners saw the Australians as examples to be respected and emulated, frequently offering unsolicited praise for them. 

Perhaps the most heartbreaking aspect of these alleged abuses—apart from their horrific impact on innocent Afghans—is that they dishonour the overwhelming majority of Australians who served in Afghanistan with bravery, compassion and professionalism. 

Certain things in the Brereton Report seem, on the surface, to make little sense. How, for example, could commanders be completely unaware of incidents allegedly occurring in broad daylight, one or two valleys away, when they were supposedly in continuous contact with troops on the ground, with surveillance drones overhead and debriefings after every mission? How could people participating in the same patrol or assaulting the same terrorist compound not see what was unfolding a few metres away? How could junior officers be oblivious to the fact that patrol commanders were allegedly “blooding” new team members by forcing them to kill prisoners, or planting radios and weapons on dead civilians so as to literally get away with murder? The answers may lie in the context: the specific environment for special operations in Afghanistan. 

Unlike the infantry, engineers and artillery soldiers of the mentoring, advisory and reconstruction task forces, who spent months living with their Afghan colleagues, interacting with civilians and engaging with community leaders, most Special Operations Task Group (SOTG) members deployed for short but intense four-month tours of duty. They performed a variety of tasks in Afghanistan: from special reconnaissance to high-risk search, protecting VIPs and securing sensitive sites. But their day job—actually, often a night job—soon became dominated by counter-network and counter-leadership operations, servicing something called the Joint Prioritised Effects List, the JPEL (pronounced “jay-pell”). 

The JPEL was a comprehensive, theatre-wide target list, developed at coalition headquarters in Kabul. It covered all identified terrorist and insurgent networks, and included leaders, locations and support assets such as bomb-makers, financiers and intelligence cells. While conventional troops protected the Afghan population, supported civil government and enabled reconciliation and reconstruction, the core task for SOTG soldiers was to execute the JPEL—essentially, becoming part of an industrial-grade network-destruction machine, chomping its way through Taliban and associated terror networks. In 2011 alone, that machine reduced the average age of Taliban commanders in southern Afghanistan from 29 to 20, wiping out a generation of terrorist leaders in a single year.

There are two sides to counterinsurgency. What we might call the “soft” side involves efforts to protect the population, build the economy and support the civil government, and is conducted by conventional troops, police and aid agencies. In contrast, the “hard” side is all about killing, capturing and disrupting the enemy. Both are essential: counterinsurgency is not peacekeeping, but rather a form of warfare, and you will get nowhere with governance or reconstruction unless you disrupt the enemy and keep them at bay. 

SOTG in Afghanistan was very much on the hard side. Special operators (the Australians, the British SAS and SBS, and a range of American and European special forces) received a continuous series of JPEL “target packages”, each involving a specific guerrilla leader, location, or terrorist facilitator, and would action those targets. It might take months of patient intelligence work and detailed coordination across the coalition to develop a target. Planners would carefully design operations to minimise collateral property damage or loss of innocent life. Legal and political constraints were considered, Afghan partner units were sometimes—though not always—consulted, and various civilian agencies involved.

All this went on behind the scenes, but once the target package was developed and handed over, for operators at the tip of the spear the experience was a high-adrenaline cycle of exhaustion, terror and stress: from planning and preparation, through pre-operation isolation, a sometimes-arduous insertion into a target area, then intense combat action, debriefing, a short rest, and at it again. SOTG did multiple tours in Afghanistan, with some operators doing dozens of raids, hitting one target after another after another. 

Understandably, units kept score and rivalries developed. Equally understandably, SOTG operators were not particularly focused on the soft side of counterinsurgency. They understood its importance, but it wasn’t their role, and developing empathy with Afghans could, in their particular circumstances, be not just distracting but actively hazardous. One U.S. special forces operator I worked closely with in Iraq told me he had never met a live Iraqi who wasn’t in handcuffs—the same was certainly true for many operators in Afghanistan, who had little opportunity to interact with Afghans outside of combat situations.

Those combat situations were chaotic, fragmentary and fleeting—something the military blandly calls “distributed operations”, but which in practice explains why people one valley or earth-walled compound away from an incident might not know what was going on, or why a young officer might not be aware of events in a particular patrol. Some firefights took place at long range and lasted hours, but the majority happened at close range, in complex terrain such as farmland, scrub, or earthen buildings, and engagements were over in seconds or minutes at most. Small groups operated on their own, dispersed, with limited supervision and minimal support, for extended periods. In some of the most demanding mountain terrain on the planet, against a ruthless and talented enemy, it could take hours to move a short distance under fire, so that backup could rarely be relied on. 

The intensity of this combat—and the gulf between the SOTG experience and that of almost any other Australians in Afghanistan—is clear from the casualty figures. Excluding accidental deaths such as those from helicopter crashes, and assassinations by treacherous Afghans (known as “green-on-blue” attacks), SOTG members accounted for more than 60% of Australians killed in Afghanistan, even though special operators were always a minority, at times a small one, of the force. And given how many times SOTG members deployed—six tours or more were not uncommon—the chances of being killed or wounded as a special operator were significantly higher than in conventional units, which tended to do one or two tours at most.

To explain is not to excuse. But this context clearly makes a difference: under such circumstances, each patrol becomes its own private, self-contained universe, with its own dominant personalities, epic events, shared history, unexamined norms and unquestioned ways of doing business. This, of course, is what we mean by “culture”, and ADF leaders are right to focus on that issue as they respond to Justice Brereton’s findings. But there is no single “Special Operations Command” culture, nor even a Special Air Service Regiment or Commando culture common to all members of those units. Every small team has its own norms—and though no detailed explanation has been given, the Army’s decision to disband 2 Squadron SASR likely reflects a judgement on that point. 

At its best, shared culture is a crucial defence mechanism, allowing troops to survive and function under massive stress. At its worst, it can foster a toxic outlook that devalues all life outside the team and dismisses any external norms, including—perhaps especially—rules and expectations from higher headquarters. At the risk of repeating myself, these are reasons not excuses for what allegedly happened. The overwhelming majority of SOTG members—and of Australian servicemen and women in Afghanistan—served with honour under the same circumstances without resorting to any such alleged atrocities. 

Almost every country with troops in Afghanistan has experienced allegations of war crimes, some of which Justice Brereton’s report describes. It is no consolation, but is worth noting nonetheless, that Australia’s response so far has been a model of transparency and accountability. The Army’s unflinching commitment to uncover the ugly truth of what really happened, and the broader ADF efforts at reform and reckoning are undoubtedly genuine, and all Australians of goodwill are likely to support those efforts. But there is one area where, on a quick reading, the report seems to pull a punch or two: its quick dismissal of responsibility by elected governments, Labor and Coalition, for what happened.

Australia deployed forces to Afghanistan soon after the 9/11 attacks of 2001. Eventually more than 40 other nations did so too, committing to what became Australia’s longest war, an essentially open-ended conflict that has dragged on for almost two decades. The United States is still, haplessly, trying to end that war and bring its troops home. Yet the Taliban are stronger today, control more territory, and have more influence than at any time since 2001. To be sure, the Afghan government, society and military are stronger too, and our contribution to that outcome is real and appreciated by Afghans. 

But the cold strategic fact remains that win, lose or draw, Australia achieved its war aim—to be, and be seen to be, a loyal and capable American ally—shortly after our first deployment in 2001. Like all the other allies, we found ourselves caught in a conflict we could neither win nor end on our own, tied to a major ally unwilling or unable to break the strategic stalemate. Leaders in Canberra, and in the other coalition capitals, were like an audience applauding one of Josef Stalin’s speeches—exhausted, anxious to be elsewhere, but unwilling to be the first to stop clapping. And like all our allies, Australia’s elected political leaders responded to the dilemma by carefully calibrating our level of effort, and especially the level of combat risk we were willing to accept.

In Australia’s case, Special Operations became the flagship contribution, thrown into intense combat again and again to preserve our reputation with Washington and other allies, even as we withdrew from Iraq, avoided large-scale combat, resisted responsibility for any single area of operations, and drew down our commitment in Afghanistan after 2012. The overwhelming pressure on Special Operations Command was not some unfortunate, unexpected accident that no political leader or member of parliament could possibly have foreseen. It was a necessary and obvious outcome of our national strategy from the outset. This is not a dig at politicians—in a democracy, the ultimate responsibility is our own.

For that reason, even as the Defence Force, the Army, and Special Operations Command continue a profound, painful reckoning, dealing with the individuals allegedly responsible for these appalling incidents and implementing reforms to ensure they can never be repeated, it is critical that we absorb these lessons too. The world is, and will remain, a dangerous place, and institutions like the Army are critical to our national survival. The Australian Army is our army; the special forces are our special forces; real wars are fought by human beings, by people like us, neither monsters nor mythical bronzed Anzacs. And while the nation holds its armed forces to account, Australians owe it to ourselves to undertake a similar reckoning.

That reckoning must surely include asking ourselves whether Afghanistan was worth it. If President Trump has his way, almost all U.S. troops in Afghanistan will be gone by the end of January. President Biden, if his election is confirmed, may stay a bit longer, but in political terms the days of a reliable American commitment to Kabul are over. As Vice President a decade ago, Biden called for withdrawal, leaving a small residual presence only. Trump has basically delivered exactly that outcome, though Biden is unlikely to give him credit for it. A U.S. departure would pull the rug out from under NATO and other allies (including Australia) with people still in Afghanistan. It would also leave the Afghan government high and dry, and empower a Taliban leadership who—whatever fine words might be written on any peace deal—show little appetite for reconciliation. Australia and the other coalition partners who followed America into Afghanistan after 9/11 can be proud of our achievements, which brought real benefit to many Afghans. But as the Brereton Inquiry makes painfully clear, those achievements came at a high cost—to our soldiers, to Afghan civilians and, in the end perhaps, to Australians’ sense of who we are.