Hedging our bets in Uruzgan

SOTG in Gizab

Uruzgan police chief Matiullah Khan had nothing to lose when he joined President Karzai in criticising an ADF raid in the province.

Contradicting the official narrative, Khan and Amir Mohammad Akhundzada, governor of Uruzgan, allege they were not consulted ahead of the ANSF–ADF raid during which two Afghan men, a 70-year old iman and his 30-year old son, were killed. Furthermore, Khan says his troops were not involved as required by memoranda of understanding.

But Defence Minister Smith insists the raid targeted confirmed insurgents, and that it was partnered (80 Afghan troops to 60 ADF) and authorised. An ISAF media release states that the operation was planned and coordinated with Afghan officials, including the provincial governor.

While there are uncertainties in both stories (including whether the men were confirmed as insurgents before or after they were killed), there’s also the matter of trying to work out which side is more or less telling the truth.

We can’t assess the facts ourselves to determine who is right so we’ll have to hedge our bets one way or another. But the options are grim.

If the Minister and ISAF are telling the truth, they’ll still be backing a police chief that’s willing to lie to save his skin. To defend their facts, they’ll either have to say Khan is being dishonest or admit he lacks information about his own province. If Khan’s telling the truth, he’ll score points amongst Afghans being seen to admonish the west but, more importantly, we’ll be forced to question the credibility of our own government.

Neither option is desirable. It’s a stunning example of the double bind Australia finds itself in regarding the truth in Uruzgan. But either way, Matiullah Khan wins and we lose.

Image courtesy of Flickr user ISAFmedia.

Photo of the Day


This amazing mid-air shot of Australian Explosive Detection Dog, Matilda, was too good to pass up. Matilda is deployed to Tarin Kowt, Uruzgan, with her handler Sapper Adam Thomlinson as part of Mentoring Task Force 4 (MTF-4).

In 2010, then Minister for Defence, Senator Faulker, announced additional counter-IED initiatives, including $4.9 million to begin training additional dogs. The cost to maintain an EDD annually is $90,000.

Photo by Corporal Mark Doran, Department of Defence.

Wounded warriors: disability and the military

As our overseas expeditions wind down, Australian soldiers, particularly those who have served in Afghanistan, will return home. Of those who served in Afghanistan, 226 have been wounded—that is, they have been serving in war-like conditions and hurt during contact with the enemy. Of these, many have permanent disabilities.


I came across commando Private Damian Thomlinson’s story on CNN in relation to the US’ “Wounded Warriors” and Canada’s “Soldier On” programs. Injured by an IED in 2009, Private Thomlinson has both legs amputated. In an interview with 60 Minutes, he indicated he was willing to go back to work. However, when his former commanding officer, Colonel Paul Kenny, was asked about this possibility, he was non-committal.

One area that remains difficult is where soldiers with disabilities or injuries wish to return to work and to their mates.

For example, I read the story of Marine Staff Sergeant Dave Marino who, despite traumatic brain injury sustained in Iraq, fought his way to remain with his corps. It was an uphill battle.

While we are doing away with various forms of discrimination—like gender restrictions in the Australian Defence Force and the Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell policy of the US military—it remains the case that employment in the military with a disability is challenging. Continue reading

Update: Australian MultiCam Pattern (AMP)

By N.R. Jenzen-Jones

Over the last few weeks I have been in correspondence with various officials from Defence, discussing the specifics and the impact of the upcoming Australian MultiCam Pattern (AMP). This new pattern is being developed by Crype Precision for the ADF – you can read more about this in an earlier Security Scholar article, here.

The following is a series of official responses from an ADF spokesperson to some of my questions:

Will the new AMP pattern follow the British MTP example and feature Crye’s MultiCam palette with a modified design, or are the colours being adjusted in any way?

Response: The prototype pattern has retained the Crye Multicam palette as it is these colours that have proven to be effective in Afghanistan. During the testing of the Australian Multicam Pattern Defence will confirm both the pattern and the palette meet the requirements for Afghanistan as well as examining what changes, if any, would improve its performance across the range of environments where Australian troops are operating.

Continue reading

Security Scholar Synopsis: Afghanistan’s National Interdiction Unit (NIU)

By N.R. Jenzen-Jones

NIU raid drug lab in Nimruz, AFG

Introducing our new Security Scholar Synopsis (S3) series! Each brief in the series focuses on a particular military or law enforcement unit, or emerging operation, and provides an overview supported by research and links to primary and other sources for further reading. The first in our series covers the National Interdiction Unit (NIU), the premier narcotics interdiction force for the Counter Narcotics Police – Afghanistan (CNP-A). An extended version of this brief will appear as a blog post in the near future.

You can download the document using the Scribd controls below.

An extended version of this post is now available at the Small Wars Journal.

There is no justification for risking Australian lives in Afghanistan: a review

On a chilly Thursday night, we descended upon Melbourne Town Hall to listen to our friend and colleague, Raoul Heinrichs, partake in the Wheeler Centre debate on Afghanistan. We came to hear whether the war effort would be savaged, whether Australian lives would be needlessly lost, whether there was hope for the Afghan people, or whether we, as a country, were wasting our time. We came to hear a lawyer, a scholar, a prominent feminist, a retired general, a young Afghan woman, and a philosopher. We came to hear their perspectives and experiences. We came to observe the public’s reactions; to hear how everyday people received and digested narratives of Afghanistan. I wanted to see whether people still remembered we were in war.

The topic of Thursday’s debate, “There is no justification for risking Australian lives in Afghanistan”, was always going to be hard to stick to. There was a sense of mission creep; a tendency for speakers to appeal to the broader merits of foreign intervention in Afghanistan, rather than centring on the specific risk to Australians (civilian and military) serving there. The affirmative team took the view that the intractability of the conflict dictated that no further Australian lives were worth risking. While each speaker had their own spin on this theme, they all concentrated on what they saw as the dire security situation on the ground, the lack of proper resourcing, and the lack of strategic interests beyond the ANZUS treaty (which, in Heinrichs’ view, we have already satisfied).

Central to the affirmative’s case was that the war in Afghanistan has been a debacle from the start. It lacked strategic direction and caused more problems than it sought to solve. Sadly, overlapping and slightly wayward directions by the first and third speakers undermined the overall coherence of their message, but in their moments, each speaker shone. In particular, lawyer Kellie Tranter impressed upon the audience that, in an environment of information shortages from the Department of Defence and Australian Government, it is difficult to appraise whether this war is worth our while. Strategist and scholar, Heinrichs, for his part, concentrated on the specific strategic interests to Australia in evaluating whether more lives lost in Afghanistan was worth the gain. Lastly, feminist Eva Cox’s gem was highlighting the disjuncture between our purported concern for the Afghan people and our treatment of Afghan asylum seekers with the recent Malaysia solution. While this was slightly off the mark, it nonetheless reflected the human complexities of the issue that the audience, no doubt, would react to.

On the negative side, MAJGEN (rtd) Jim Molan’s strong and authoritative introduction outlined the parameters of their case. The negative side would prove that there are sufficient strategic and moral imperatives for Australia to pursue in Afghanistan, and this was worth Australian lives. And indeed they did. Molan provided a frank assessment of the reasons why the strategic imperatives of regional stability and alliance management buttressed our cause there, but introduced more moral elements of the case. This latter theme dovetailed well with the impassioned and personal speech by Sonia Zaiee who reflected on her war-tainted childhood in Afghanistan. She contrasted these anguishing images with the hope of education and promise of reconstruction now possible from Australian presence, it seemed. Philosopher Peter Singer further ran with moral arguments for intervention, citing the plight of Afghan women, taking pains to stress that a vote for the motion signalled a ‘no’ for Australian aid workers in Afghanistan. While the negative team started on a strong note, the generalist approaches of the second and third speakers allowed the topic to stray away from the central element of the topic, namely “Why Australia?”

Overall, the debate represented the myriad views of the Australian public. And yet people have these divergent views about the conflict because of the piecemeal information and public narrative on offer. These opinions, coupled with questions from the audience, also highlighted, importantly, the lack of certainty with which we can say Australia’s presence there is a good or bad thing. There are indeed good things in Afghanistan for which Australian soldiers fight but there are inordinate and acute risks for what is a seemingly unclear overarching strategic interest.

And all while the debate continued, my live tweets of the event were punctuated with reports of an attack on Uruzgan province, the slice of Afghanistan for which Australia fights. The revelation of this attack, with its perfect timing, could have brought down the case of either side: for the affirmative, in support of a deteriorating security situation, and for the negative, in support of the need to maintain presence. For me, each side’s unwitting ignorance of the exact and immediate situation on the ground, with all its complexities, reflected the incomplete way in which we, the Australian public, seek to understand this conflict. And all the while, our theorising and arguing parallels another reality on the ground. Such is the nature of how this conflict plays out in the Australian psyche. Either way, the audience decided that the negative case had been the more compelling, and that there was justification for risking Australian lives in Afghanistan.

Losing the narrative battle: civilian deaths and Defence PR

By Natalie Sambhi and N.R. Jenzen-Jones

Two commandos of the Australian Special Operations Task Group (SOTG) were cleared in late May of manslaughter charges arising from the death of Afghan civilians in a botched raid on a local compound.

The SOTG, comprised of special forces soldiers operating under US command, is deployed as part of Australia’s contribution to the NATO-led International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) in Afghanistan, and is involved in targeting commanders in insurgent networks. This incident reflects the tactical challenges that come with operating in a complex environment. In fact, it is the result of a lack of clear strategic aims in Afghanistan that are yet to be rigorously debated and communicated to the Australian public.

As revealed in an Age article by Bette Dam and Tom Hyland, the commandos acted on false intelligence that an insurgent was living in the compound. After an exchange of gunfire and fragmentation grenades, an Afghan civilian man, Amrullah Khan, and five children were killed, and several others wounded. Amrullah Khan was later found not to match the description of the insurgent. Rather, he was falsely accused of insurgent activity by a family member as part of a blood feud, as Dam and Hyland explain, in which the commandos became unwittingly entangled.

Such entanglements and exploitation of ISAF forces by Afghans in local blood feuds are not unknown. In another article published the same day, Dam explained that such practices are well documented; in fact, two separate reports, one by the United Nations and the other by the Afghan Analysts Network, found that there have been numerous instances of false intelligence having been provided to ISAF members, and, in many cases, these have led directly to the deaths of innocent civilians.

Yet, serious questions must follow. As Amrullah’s wife, Shapiro, asks, why was the intelligence not independently verified by the commandos? With the practice of false intelligence widespread and noted between coalition partners, what procedures were in place to ensure this would not happen to SOTG members? If procedures were in place, how did they fail the commandos in question? What information sharing takes place between coalition partners? While there are ever-present challenges with human intelligence, there is one explanation as to how such an incident could occur.

In a January 2010 report, Major General Michael Flynn, the top ISAF intelligence officer in Afghanistan, argued that there has been a serious disconnect between military intelligence and the overarching strategic aims of the conflict. He condemned poor coalition intelligence practices in Afghanistan that are driven by a lack of understanding of the strategic demands of the war. As a result there is a perceived disengagement of intelligence officers from aid workers and local Afghans best placed to provide human intelligence, and so intelligence product is at times ignorant of local power dynamics and social relations. With such narrow intelligence forming the operating picture, accidents such as the death of Afghan civilians occur and further undermine the strategic imperatives such as protecting the local population. Furthermore, local actors keen to exploit ISAF assets supplement this narrow picture with false leads.

The inability to translate strategic objectives to tactical gains is hardly limited to the realm of military intelligence. Rather, it is reflective of the overall difficulty in extracting a clear strategy for continued engagement in Afghanistan. The muddied way in which our strategy in Afghanistan is handled in Australia’s public debate is the result of limited information about our role in the conflict reaching the public.

The tight grip on information held by the Department of Defence is striking. The recent shooting of Australian soldier Lance Corporal Andrew Jones at the hands of an Afghan soldier, for instance, was reported by Reuters and a Kabul-based BBC journalist some 12 hours before an official Defence notification of an “operational incident” was released. While delays are caused by operational security and by the need to notify next of kin, questions must be asked about the efficiency of the Defence public relations machinery in effectively responding to a 21st Century of instantaneous news. For its part, the media has been curtailed in its ability to provide information about operations to the public. In July of last year, journalist Chris Masters imparted to an audience at the Lowy Institute the frustrations involved in trying to report on Australian Defence Force activity.

The self-defeating nature of Defence’s restrictive information policies was demonstrated after the compound raid in question. The Department merely issued a statement in the wake of the incident stating that a “suspected insurgent” alongside five children had been killed and that an investigation would be launched. In contrast, Shapiro claims the Australian commandos immediately compared her husband to a photo of their intended target and realised their mistake, whilst their translator repeatedly shouted “it’s not him”. Perhaps a better course of action for Defence could have included clarifying the matter, issuing an appropriate apology and stating upfront that not only was it mistaken to think that Amrullah was an insurgent, but that such a belief was credibly constructed on false information.

Defence needed to be honest about the nature of complex operations; in modern low-intensity conflict, there are a multitude of challenges, including linguistic, cultural, environmental and technological dimensions. Defence, and the Australian Government, did itself no favours by failing to take charge of the course of public perceptions of not only the commandos, but of Australia’s overall conduct in the war. Instead, an opportunity to help shape the narrative of the Afghan conflict was lost.

Australia’s response to civilian deaths in Afghanistan contrasts sharply with that of other ISAF contributors, particularly the United States. There are numerous instances where ISAF commanders, particularly the current commander General David Petraeus, have apologised for such incidents. While Defence issues similar apologies, they are by no means as public or replete with emotion as are those issued by Petraeus. In response to the killing of nine Afghan children in an air strike, he said, “[ISAF] are deeply sorry for this tragedy and apologise to the members of the Afghan government, the people of Afghanistan and most importantly, the surviving family members of those killed by our actions. These deaths should have never happened and I will personally apologise to President Karzai.”

In contrast, the media release related to the commando incident acknowledged the killing of five children but merely stated, “Defence is obviously concerned about any loss of life.” In both cases, the civilian deaths were accidental but Defence’s approach to handling the information operations side of the Afghanistan conflict leaves much to be desired.

In any case, Defence’s lack of disclosure is the result of weak public demand for greater information. The lack of push from the media and the public, which provides no political incentives, allows current practices to continue. This dearth of information provided by Defence in the public domain in turn allows Australia’s political leaders to continue to maintain a parsimonious narrative regarding Australia’s strategic interests in Afghanistan. The parliamentary debate held in October last year saw broad agreement between the Government and the Opposition on the nature of our commitment there.

This lack of disclosure, maintained under the guise of either operational security or legal restrictions, does not help to shape the Australian public’s perceptions of our engagement. In the case of the commandos, full disclosure about the complex operational environment would have enabled better understanding of their situation in combat. Both sides, the tactical and strategic, are required for a balanced understanding of this conflict. Indeed, when Defence can be seen to be making excuses rather than discussing the facts maturely, it is hardly surprising we have not seen a serious dialogue on the matter.

This article and image first appeared in the Winter issue of AIIA Quarterly Access.