In recent weeks Scott Morrison and various government spokesmen have been laying the groundwork for a “khaki election”, one in which national security issues will be front and centre. We’ve heard conflict with China should not be “discounted”, the “drums of war beat”, and a terrorist attack on home soil in the next 12 months is “probable”.
These are comments one would not be surprised to hear in a meeting of the National Security Committee of the Cabinet. But what is the value of making them in public? I think none.
Do the comments calm or inflame regional tensions? Do they help our trading interest and our economic fortunes? Do they improve our capacity to defend ourselves if strategic competition becomes military conflict? I believe the answer to each of these questions to be “no”.
All that aside, we live in a changing region in which the ability to defend our people and their interests must be the highest priority of government. Developing and maintaining that capacity requires plenty of money and world’s best military platforms, including submarines, surface combatants, fighter jets, artillery, and all the high-tech capability so crucial to modern warfare success.
But there are some critical assets money can’t buy, including the skills, courage, and commitment of our Special Forces soldiers. We can invest in them as we do, but we won’t recruit the right people and maintain the necessary levels of morale and commitment if they have doubts about the support of their Government. Right now, they are unconvinced they have that support.
The Afghanistan Inquiry Report (Brereton Report) was disappointing and confronting. Any soldier who acted unlawfully while on deployment will need to have their behaviour tested. But not by the media or the court of public opinion – instead, by our legal system and all its protections including the burden of proof and the thresholds required for a finding of guilt.
But we must not allow the actions of a few to tarnish the reputation of the many. The overwhelming majority of our troops who deployed to Afghanistan did no more than put their lives on the line for our nation. In the coming months the Brereton Report is likely to resurface, and those who have served in our Special Forces will need our support.
For anything that went wrong in Afghanistan, politicians (including me) and senior Defence leaders must share collective responsibility. We sent them to one of the most dangerous places on earth with vague mission objectives and without a clear plan to win. They fought an enemy which wore no uniform, and unlike our troops, were not constrained by laws or rules of engagement.
We sent them on multiple and punishingly long rotations. Too often they lacked sufficient medivac, close-air support, and other vital resources.
NATO’s “capture and release” policy was both frustrating and psychologically challenging for soldiers who had risked their lives to capture bad guys only to see them walking free days later. It’s no wonder some may have begun to take the law into their own hands.
Defence Force Chief General Angus Campbell should not have been left alone to face the glare of the media when the Brereton Report was released. The Prime Minister and his Defence Minister should have faced the cameras too, pledging support for our Diggers and providing assurances that their sacrifices will continue to be appreciated and honoured. They could have also taken some responsibility for the reported events and helped the community better understand the settings in which they occurred. In failing to do these things, they failed our men in uniform.
We turn our SAS and Commandos into warriors. We train them in the use of lethal force and authorise them to use it lawfully. They become battle-hardened and invested in their mission. In executing their orders, they need to know they have the support of their country and it’s for us to provide it. All of us.
Now we’ve officially withdrawn from Afghanistan, there will be a long debate about the merits or otherwise of our involvement. Certainly, 41 lives are an expensive price to pay. And while Afghanistan still looks messy, we must ask ourselves what it might now look like without the intervention of the many countries which participated in what is now our longest war.
Would there have been more acts of terrorism in western countries? Would the persecution of ethnic minorities in Afghanistan have grown worse? Would the Taliban now govern without any care for international community opinion or scrutiny? Would the country be more dependent on the illicit drug trade? Would Afghan women still be without the opportunities of education? Would Afghanistan be without Australian-built schools and hospital facilities? Would the Afghan National Army and the Afghan National Police be less capable of enforcing the rule of law? Would our alliance with the United States be as strong? I’ve no doubt the world is a better place for our actions.
Whatever your view, our troops performed magnificently in every task our politicians asked of them. If the drums of war beat louder and closer, we’ll need our elite fighters, and they’ll need our support, appreciation, and respect. We all have a part to play in providing it.
This opinion piece was first published in the Daily Telegraph on Friday, 7 May 2021