‘Land, kill and leave’: On CIVCAS and HVT

The photographs, the documents, the whistleblower testimony are all there — the brutal details of our diggers’ conduct brought forward into the harsh light of day.

A blow has been dealt to the prestige of Australia’s special forces with in-kind damages likely to follow for the reputation of the Australian Army as a whole.

At first, it might seem tempting to think of these kinds of events as isolated incidents that do not speak to a more widespread problem within the Army’s special operations community. But misconduct on the battlefield also speaks to a wayward shift in a military force’s broader operating culture.

Along with the Maywand District murders and the Panjywai massacre, what these new allegations levelled against Australian soldiers in Uruzgan will come to symbolise is the ultimate failure of Western militaries to adapt to a fight where the decisive battle was the human terrain.

According to our military leaders, the reason for Australia’s presence in Uruzgan province between 2001 and 2014 was to “clear, hold and build” a Taliban-free Afghanistan. Per counterinsurgency doctrine, by providing an enduring sense of physical security to local Afghans, the “hearts and minds” as well as the rifles and trigger-fingers of fighting-aged males in Uruzgan would eventually be won over.

At some point it seems that this strategic guidance either failed or was wholly ignored.

While Special Operations soldiers had earlier played a kind of “guardian angel” role in support of their regular counterparts in the Mentoring and Reconstruction Task Force, as the Afghan war dragged on, that role became increasingly aggressive.

An upsurge in “direct action” operations began to distract from efforts to secure the population. By 2010, much of the task group was solely focused on so-called “high-value targeting” — the coalition’s effort to kill or capture an ever-growing list of local Taliban “commanders”.

As a former Special Operations Task Group member drily put it to me, the new penchant for fly-in fly-out missions conducted out the side of a Black Hawk saw the entire concept of operations switch from “clear, hold and build” to “land, kill and leave”.

Of course, operating in this manner was never going to defeat the Taliban. Insurgencies are complex adaptive systems capable of surviving the deaths of leaders. As David Kilcullen writes in Counterinsurgency: “decapitation has rarely succeeded [and] with good reason — efforts to kill or capture insurgent leaders inject energy into the system by generating grievances and causing disparate groups to coalesce”.

All this considered then, by channelling an apparent “shoot first, never ask questions at all” ethos, there’s a good argument to be made that much of SOTG’s work in the final years of the Afghan War was counter-productive.

In many ways, the sunset years of operations in Afghanistan marked a transitional moment in the Australian way of war — one which saw our special forces transformed into the hyper-conventional juggernaut it has become today.

In other Western forces, the over-emphasis on “conventionalised” operations — that is heavy-hitting operations which deviate from the subtle and indirect approach of yesteryear — has had similar results on the ground.

The Australian flag sowed onto the arm of a military uniform worn by a man

The New Zealand SAS is currently reeling from allegations that its members carried out “revenge raids” against civilians. US Navy SEAL Teams have now been linked to extra-judicial killings and corpse desecration on the battlefield. In Britain too, the story is much the same. Reports of “rogue” SAS troopers and battlefield executions. Civilian casualties. A Ministry of Defence probe into war crimes allegations.

Incident by incident, this is how the war in Afghanistan was lost.

Despite more than a decade and a half of sustained military effort, today Taliban and other extremist groups cover as much as 40 per cent of the country.

Certainly, where our own efforts are concerned, the data is clear. Australia’s war in Afghanistan was a failure. According to the Institute for the Study of War, districts like Shah Wali Kot (where Corporal Ben Roberts-Smith’s VC-winning charge took place) are now categorised as “high confidence Taliban support zones”.

Elsewhere, the observable metrics on the ground speak for themselves. In 2002, US intelligence estimated the Taliban’s strength at 7,000 fighters. As of 2016, that number has increased to 25,000. As this year’s spring fighting season begins, the Taliban still control roughly a quarter of Afghanistan.

More than anything, what these new revelations demonstrate is that somewhere along the way our military, and our special forces in particular, simply lost the ability to effectively counter an insurgency.

Once upon a time, “the best of the best” were trained to operate like “phantoms” — treading lightly and prudently alongside their local partners.

Today, however, the legacy they will leave behind in the minds of Afghans will be a brutal one. The civilian cost of the Special Operations Task Group’s operations in Afghanistan is now apparent for all to see.

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