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THE HAND THAT SIGNED THE PAPER

It was ridiculously naive of me I know, but for a while there I allowed myself to hope that the incredibly drawn out Inspector General Australian Defence Force (IGADF) Inquiry into rumours of possible breaches of the Laws of Armed Conflict by members of the Australian Defence Force in Afghanistan between 2005 and 2016 was being deliberately fucked up.

     I delusionally hoped, against my better judgement, that the serial delays, compromises of evidence, military legal officer meltdowns, outright mismanagement and torrent of leaked documents all pointed towards an inquiry that was going nowhere fast and hopefully dying under the burden of its own extreme incompetence.

     But, I was sadly wrong.

     Any dim hope that Australia’s senior military and civilian leadership would recognise the absolute perversion of justice in taking legal action against the heroic Australian Anzacs we ordered to fight and die in the globally recognised insanity of Afghanistan and the gangrenous valleys of Uruzgan, northern Helmand, northern Kandahar, Daykundi and Zabol in particular, has been extinguished.

     Our leaders have pulled the trigger, our Anzacs in the crosshairs.

     If any respect and honour remained amongst the Australian Defence Force’s senior leadership for the men we forced to fight the war in Afghanistan, it was hysterically abandoned after the ABC’s Four Corners went loud with a few minutes of helmet cam recorded by an SOTG XVII Combat Assault Dog handler. The video showing the harsh realities of ‘hoovering up’ during a leadership abrasion operation by Force Element Alpha SASR operators in the Dorufshan West Bank at the mouth of the Baluchi Valley in May 2012.

    Coincidentally I was watching from the hesco barriers of Patrol Base Samad during an operational war correspondent embed with MTF4 (8/9RAR) a klick or two away on the very same day as the SOTG XVII helmet cam was filmed. I saw the Black Hawks extract the Specials from the Dorufshan Green Zone from a distance. The dark grey UH-60s lifting off from the impossibly green GZ set against the biblical poverty of north Uruzgan.

     In another world, the helmet cam video would have shown Australians just what a hard task we had set our soldiers. Just what a painful price we demanded they pay. But that was not to be in our sensationalist age and from a national broadcaster steeped in anti soldier and anti democracy sentiment.

    With little or no context and the prominent use of the word “cunt”, the Four Corners video exposed the brutality of war, at the same time actuating the miserable gutlessness of the ADF’s politically appointed ‘generals’ none of whom has ever faced the terrors of Close Quarter Battle like the men they were about to crucify.

     Instead of a staunch defence of the soldiers they knew had been thrown into a battlefield where there where no black or white references, just a million shades of grimy grey; our ‘generals’ dodged and swerved, fearful that their privileged positions might be compromised before deflecting the blame onto the men who carried out their orders.

     Sadly it is now almost a certainty, that Australian veterans will be thrown to the wolves by those paid to protect their interests, with the first of what the corrupted soldier haters in the media and our bureaucracy hope will be many criminal charges leveled against them.

If we are seeking accountability in war, why not start with Julia Gillard and Stephen Smith - the Prime Minister and Minister for Defence in May 2012 rather than persecuting junior soldiers and NCOs.

     The Commonwealth Director of Public Prosecutions has appointed Sydney based barrister David McLure SC, a former Australian Army Reserve Legal Officer who served as Legal Officer for a rotation of the Special Operations Task Group in Afghanistan, to lead the energetic prosecution of our warfighters.

    I can’t pretend that I am shocked. Well placed hints of a command led ‘lawfare’ offensive against our veterans had been trickling down through my informant network and escalated rapidly late last year, abrading what little faith I had historically held for the ADF’s chain of command.

    Any residual belief evaporated in an instant in September last year when attending the official welcome ceremony for the Army’s first next generation Boxer Combat Reconnaissance Vehicle held at Gallipoli Barracks. Defence industry press (not war correspondents who know the smell of their own fear and what our soldiers endured in Afghanistan I must point out) were openly relaying the latest gossip from their ‘contacts’ at Russell (Canberra), smugly joking that from what they were hearing from the brass over tea and biscuits, ‘the SOTG boys should quickly jump on a plane to any nation with no extradition treaty with Australia.’

     I nearly vomited on their lace up shoes as they whispered their ‘in the know’ into my ear. I could smell the truth in it. My guess, judging from the Def-Ind press confidence in their info, was that it came from Colonel or above. Russell Offices and red on the cap and collar for sure. Definitely what the media calls, ‘informed sources.’

    I was aware that the ABC’s Four Corners had got its hands on an enormous trove of what should have been secured documents and files (many with high level security clearance classifications) care of the IGADF inquiry, delivered in a very questionable manner. I knew this because one of the ABC’s researchers had spilled his guts to me about their IGADF coup while digging for more dirt on our veterans.

    Knowing this, I was still stunned at the complete and utter pretence put on by our most rewarded senior officers, all proclaiming in unison their complete ignorance and innocence of whatever went down on battlefields they commanded during the War in Afghanistan, after the Four Corners investigation was broadcast.

    Justice be fucked, the top brass jettisoned everyone and everything in their bid to protect their own careers, reputations and considerable pension benefits. Shit was about to pour downwards from the Canberra air conditioning on top of those who actually fought our ugly war in Afghanistan now derisively known only as Operation Slipper.

    The Four Corners helmet cam clip was a sobering and brutal insight into the war on the ground in Afghanistan, but as with all legalities, when it comes to justice these days context is everything.

    At the very head of this parade of ADF/ABC pseudo legalistic perversity is the concept of murdering civilians, a bizarre oxymoron in Afghanistan where the enemy is by very definition civilian.

    While it will never be recognised by the ‘tut tutting’ generals (everyone of whom is currently pretending to be shocked by the operational realities in south central Afghanistan 2001 -2013) or acknowledged by the overpaid Wokefolk at the ABC’s inner sanctum in Sydney as they prosecute their anti soldier agenda, every EKIA (Enemy Killed in Action) or EWIA (Enemy Wounded In Action) in Afghanistan was a civilian.

    The Taliban and the narco and tribal militias of Uruzgan’s dangerous valleys belonged to no formal military and are likely as not to have done time in the Afghan Local Police as ISK (Islamic State) while also being a ‘civilian’. The Taliban fly no flags, wear no ribbons and have no uniform, nor are they a recognised military force by any recognised structure outside the twisted paradigm of their religious Jihad. They are Oxford dictionary definition guns for hire, playing soldier as it suits them after the heroin is harvested from the poppy fields. They make the very word ‘civilian’ a bad joke.

    Which brings us to worst of the ugly justifications behind the ADF’s assault on its Afghanistan Anzacs, the big lie of the ‘unarmed civilian’. The killing of whom is supposedly tantamount to ‘murder’ and justification for the likely future war crimes prosecutions.

    While the top brass feigns ignorance of the operations they actually commanded and the media obscures the truth, in reality the elimination of unarmed individuals who were directly contributing to Taliban or militia armed operations as spotters, human shields, messengers or operational facilitators, was within the Rules of Engagement and had been so for years before Four Corner’s May 2012 video was taken.

    In milspeak DPH (Directly Participating in Hostilities) was a legitimate justification for engaging an enemy. A justification used in the employment of gunship helicopters, fast jets and artillery and mortar indirect fires as well as by dismounted combatants down in the poppy fields since at least 2007. DPH applied even when a target was unarmed. If the individual was assessed as DPH his elimination from the battlefield was within the Rules of Engagement.

    Brutal as it is, DPH allowed Coalition forces to at least complicate the Taliban’s convenient ability to morph between ‘innocent civilian’ and terrorist as the tactical situation suited them.

    DPH is why the soldier in the Four Corner’s video asks if he should, “drop this cunt?” We do not yet have the full picture of what transpired, but the SASR Patrol Commander and the US Army aviators of Task Force Gunfighter in the UH-60 Black Hawks above have a better idea. And, so did the senior officers overseeing the operation back in MNB Tarin Kowt and further west at AMAB with JTF-633.

    What the Four Corner’s Dorufshan video doesn’t illustrate, and the more cynical may claim was at pains to disguise, is that every fighting age male (the FAMs of modern military speak) residing at the mouth of the Baluchi Valley is almost without doubt complicit to the support of the armed Islamist insurgency and the war crimes committed by its militants. Anyone opposed to the Taliban’s violence, murder and repression was either dead or had fled the entire greater Chora Valley outside the Government held cantonments long before May 2012.

    The harsh reality is that ugly strip of valley floor on the fringe of Dehjawze Hazanzai and north through the Baluchi Valley to Chora proper and the Kamisan Valley beyond caused our Anzac’s serious pain. Pain measured in arms, legs, eyes and minds and more than a few lives - a price that is still being paid long after the last Australian boot left Chora District in late 2013. A price too high and way more than the entire population of Central Asia was worth to Australian lives.

    The men, and they were men, who planted the IEDs, fired the RPGs and bullets that smashed the lives of our blokes, were the same ‘unarmed civilians’ that the media and the ADF brass have sided with so enthusiastically.

    To pretend otherwise is simply to be in denial. The bizarre pantomime being played out by ADF commanders, like Chief of Defence Force General Angus Campbell (who actually commanded all Australian operations across the Middle East Region from January 2011 to January 2012 and knew everything in every detail) of feigning complete ignorance as to what went down in the valleys and under what ‘rules’ the war was fought when they actually authorised every action of every man is simply beyond contempt.

    At the end of the Second World War, the prosecution of war crimes was directed at the leadership that made the decisions that resulted in the barbarity conducted by German National Socialists and Japanese Imperialist, not the lower ranks in the German and Japanese Armies who were simply following orders and would rather have chosen to be at home with their families, warm in their beds, if given a choice.

    The real villains in this (and I’m not convinced there are any true villains other than the barbaric Taliban and their theocratic handlers) are definitely not low ranking SAS troopers or patrol sergeants.

    If someone has to take responsibility why not start with the Defence Ministers who authorised the deployments, like Brendan Nelson MP, Joel Fitzbibbon MP, Senator John Faulkner or the primary candidate Gilliard Defence Minister Stephen Smith MP under whose watch these war crimes supposedly occurred.

    If accountability is so important, then let the accounting start at the top. Maybe we should also be looking at Prime Ministers John Howard, Kevin Rudd and Julia Gillard (the actual Prime Minister in May 2012) and the sitting members of the Australian House of Representatives and Senate who actually authorised the war in Afghanistan before we scratch around for informers to dob in low ranking soldiers to persecute.

    And, let the jury that decides the guilt or innocence of our leaders be composed entirely of those who walked the walk in the IED strewn shithouseness of Uruzgan. Let survivors of Combat Engineer High Risk Search Teams, infantrymen from Mentoring Task Forces, seven tour Commandos, trauma nurses from the Role 3 Hospital at KAF or ASLAV crew or anyone else who ever shit in a plastic bag, copped an earful about cultural awareness while watching their back as armed Afghans gave them evil stares or simply mopped up the blood and entrails left by military and political leaders’ grand visions, be the jury.

    But who am I kidding. None of this has anything to do with justice. No justice will be done. Not for bone dumb Afghan farmers, part time Taliban or Australian military veterans.

    This is purely an exercise in buck passing and domestic political point scoring doused in institutional gutlessness. The little people pay again while the powerful wield the whip and take the cream and the ABC’s anointed few laugh over their own cleverness at dinner parties in inner city Melbourne and Sydney.

    Make no mistake, the aim of this entire exercise is not to destroy one soldier or another. The aim is to delegitimise the war in Afghanistan and the US Alliance that saw our participation, to discredit the Anzac Spirit itself and to destroy the Australian people’s ingrained pride in our foundation legends.

    When I was at Samad back on that day in 2012, I witnessed no war crimes. I did however witness too much ‘context’ and with that in mind I am proud to say that I stand with our veterans.

    I stand with them whether or not they applied every legality in every instance. I stand with the Diggers of 8/9RAR who returned to PB Samad bitter, but not twisted from a long patrol with unreliable ANA jundies through the dusty IED ugliness of Dorufshan on that day in 2012. I stand with Ben Roberts Smith and with the unnamed SASR trooper whom the powers that be want to crucify for the sins of a difficult war in an deplorable place.

    I wish Australia was better than this.

John Hunter Farrell
Managing Editor

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