Fog of war and controversy in Afghanistan
MELBOURNE, AUSTRALIA – JANUARY 22: 2015 Australia Post Legends Award recipient Ben Roberts-Smith VC MGat the Shrine of Remebrance on January 22, 2015 in Melbourne, Australia. Ben is one of five soldiers will be immortalised on a postage stamp as the recipients of the 2015 Australia Post Legends Award. (Photo by Jesse Marlow/Fairfax Media)
On May 31, 2006, amid the goat tracks and hidden dangers of Afghanistan’s Chora Pass, a covert Australian patrol embarked on a mission that would bolster the Special Air Service Regiment’s glowing global reputation, as well as that of the man who would later become Australia’s most decorated soldier.
Ben Roberts-Smith, a sniper scout, and five fellow soldiers hiked 10 hours up a mountain that day to establish an observation post. His first seminal battle was fought here, and his first major decoration, a Medal for Gallantry, earned.
For days, the group held a position high over a valley swarming with Taliban as it helped direct air support to a coalition offensive taking place below.
The gallantry medal citation describes remarkable soldiering after anti-coalition militia uncovered and then mounted repeated attacks on the observation post on June 2. They were partly kept at bay by the efforts of Roberts-Smith. During one engagement, “whilst isolated, and in his precarious position” he spotted 16 enemy moving across open ground towards his patrol.
“Roberts-Smith effectively employed his sniper rifle to stop their advance whilst receiving very accurate small arms fire from another group of militia to his flank. Through his efforts, Lance Corporal Roberts-Smith maintained the initiative and ensured that his patrol remained secure by holding this position without support for 20 minutes.”
Joined by a second SAS soldier, he “continued to hold off the militia advance for a further 20 minutes until offensive air support arrived”.
“Under heavy anti-coalition militia fire and in a precarious position, threatened by a numerically superior force,” Roberts-Smith displayed “courage, tenacity and sense of duty to his patrol”.
The citation, though, is not exhaustive. It does not deal with all the events on the Chora Pass, including the first death earlier the same day, that of an Afghan teen. Veteran investigative journalist Chris Masters, Australia’s unofficial Afghanistan war historian, touches on this death in his book No Front Line, which examines the SAS and commandos’ 13-year mission in Afghanistan.
The book was vetted by the Defence Department. Its cover is adorned with an endorsement from former defence force chief Sir Angus Houston. Houston has privately told defence watchers that the value of Masters’ work extends beyond its exhaustive recounting of the heroism, humanity, ingenuity and resilience of many of the special forces members, a feat Masters has accomplished after years spent gaining the trust of the tight-lipped soldiers.
Masters’ book also acknowledges the moral ambiguity of some of these soldiers’ necessarily ugly work and the fact that questions about some missions remain.
The death of the teen on the Chora Pass is a case in point. It fuelled a deep divide in the six-man patrol, which lingers still among some of its members.
Roberts-Smith says misgivings raised by his colleagues about his treatment of fellow officers coincide with his being awarded the nation’s most prestigious military award, the Victoria Cross, in 2011. At the time of the award, Angus Houston praised Roberts-Smith’s acts of “extreme valour” during a 2010 battle to protect fellow soldiers, with no regard for his own safety.
Roberts-Smith told Masters his SAS critics were hypocrites: “The bullying is what they do to me. Bullies are cowards. They stay in the shadows. This is about group cowardice. I don’t like bullies. I am sick of it.”
Roberts-Smith’s lawyer, defamation specialist Mark O’Brien, has sent legal letters to two of the patrol members amid persistent complaints about how Roberts-Smith’s interactions with his colleagues fractured relationships within the elite, secretive military unit.
The schism in his patrol is just one of many ugly, unresolved spats that have been eating away at Australia’s special operations group, fuelled by stories told in jumbled snippets at barbecues, pubs and, increasingly, during veterans’ debriefings with psychologists. As these opaque tales have persisted, they reached Masters and also the military’s top brass.
They have also come under the gaze of a NSW judge, Paul Brereton, who has been commissioned by Defence to sort fact from fiction. As the Chora Pass incident makes clear, nothing is clear or certain in war, let alone in a complex battleground such as Afghanistan.
Prior to the teenager’s death on June 2, two SAS troopers manning the observation post had spotted him about 70 metres away. He appeared to be unarmed. The surrounding hills were used by civilians as well as the Taliban, and a later patrol report describes the teen as a spotter working for nearby insurgents.
The two troopers observed the teen walk at a distance past the observation post. A short time later, he walked back in the direction he had come, this time carrying a bag. The troopers chose not to fire at him, even though killing him may have been later justified given the potential risk he posed to the patrol. But they believed that shooting wasn’t necessary. The reason for the restraint, says Masters, was also “that as a clandestine observation-only patrol, a prime objective was to maintain concealment”.
In a tape-recorded interview in 2011, obtained by Fairfax Media and which was also relied on by Masters, Roberts-Smith provided Australian War Memorial historian Peter Pederson with his recollection of events on the Chora Pass.
Roberts-Smith describes two hostile Afghans spotting the operation post. “A couple of [Afghan] blokes just walked up literally, probably about two hours before dark, walked straight up to the front of the OP [mission’s observation post].”
He said he and another decorated SAS member, Matt Locke, decided to hunt down and shoot dead the two “enemy” after concluding they had spotted the patrol.
“A decision was made that they had seen us and we thought were just playing coy and doing a ‘let’s get out of here and get some other lads’. So Matt and myself left the OP and hunted them down and got rid of them. We dragged the bodies and went back to the OP.”
After Masters quizzed Roberts-Smith about differing accounts of the incident, Roberts-Smith wrote to the War Memorial. “Five years had passed since that day [of the mission],” he wrote.
“I had conducted four more tours of Afghanistan and the interview itself was more than two hours and 40 minutes in duration. Without the benefit of the patrol report to guide me it would appear I have confused my many engagements and identified two insurgents initially locating our observation post as opposed to one. I also note I thought we cleared [moved] the insurgent bodies, but then that is not correct as identified in the patrol report.”
The conflict the death caused within the patrol encapsulates the moral ambiguity of battle, and questions over when and when not to fire. It’s an issue some SASsoldiers believe has been left to fester. It’s certainly complicated given one of many players is the iconic and polarising figure of Roberts-Smith.
For those grumbling about the decorated soldier turned successful businessman, jealousy looms as an obvious motive.
And yet the existence of similar and persistent rumblings extending beyond Roberts-Smith to a series of actions involving other soldiers suggests deeper issues are at play in Australia’s special forces. There is a deep discontent among some SAS veterans that elements of the regiment operated without adequate oversight or accountability, leading to a culture that shirks scrutiny.
That such a culture could exist in the army was flagged by a lieutenant-colonel in a post-operation report who warned: “The hyperbole surrounding the contribution of Australian soldiers in Afghanistan makes the soldiers feel entitled to be treated as Roman gladiators.”
Some defence insiders say high-profile soldiers may be victims of government-sponsored hyperbole, which makes them poster boys willed to increasing acts of greatness by a defence and political machine eager for a good narrative.
A complaint – obtained by Fairfax Media and marked “sensitive” – written by an SAS Regiment sergeant, signed by five SAS members and lodged with a senior SAS officer on June 6, 2014, also alleges hyperbole has undermined the integrity of another official citation involving Roberts-Smith.
The complaint refers to his leadership of a patrol in Afghanistan in 2012, for which Roberts-Smith was awarded a Commendation for Distinguished Service.
The most scathing part of the complaint is not aimed at Roberts-Smith, though, who had nothing to do with writing the citation, but the unnamed senior officers who compiled it.
This report alleges these officers glossed over bungled and dangerous incidents that dogged the 2012 special forces’ rotation, including an incident in which two SAS patrols were involved in a “blue on blue” incident in which Australians mistakenly fired on each other.
The complaint alleges the “incident caused a rift in the troop as there was an attempted ‘cover-up’,” involving senior officers unwilling to ask tough questions of what went wrong. The complaint also alleges the award citation papers over a complex reality on the ground in which some SAS soldiers allegedly took unnecessary risks. The complaint’s ultimate beef, though, is not with Roberts-Smith but with those up the chain of command.
“As SAS soldiers, we are responsible for accurate reporting and honesty, in the field and in camp. This citation is a contradiction of those values.”
Roberts-Smith lawyer, Mark O’Brien, has dismissed the critique of the citation as the work of a disgruntled SAS member. There are allegations, understood to be denied, that this member smuggled weapons into Afghanistan.
Well-placed sources familiar with the review by Justice Paul Brereton say it is likely he will seek to speak to those involved in making the complaint, and Roberts-Smith, to assess the claims and counter-claims.
Justice Brereton, though, is most focused on allegations that have nothing to do with Roberts-Smith or any other soldier mentioned in this story. They range from sinister to shocking: a training exercise in which one SAS member instructed a junior soldier to practise executing prisoners of war; kill competitions which encouraged soldiers to chalk up head-counts; pistols planted on unarmed Afghans to justify their deaths; an Afghan prisoner of war thrown off an embankment and murdered.
At the heart of the judge’s inquiry – from the relatively minor to the most serious of issues under scrutiny – are questions of a command and culture failure.
If such a failure existed, did it play a role in pushing any soldiers over the blurred moral line between whether to shoot or not? And did it lead to a view that simply adding to Afghanistan’s body count was somehow a measure of success?
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