Australian commandos in Afghanistan face political pressure from media over incident.

28 August 2010

By Sasha Uzunov

Australian commandos involved in a botched raid which resulted in 5 civilian deaths in Afghanistan could face courts martial because of intense political pressure from the media, as TEAM UZUNOV writing for warned last year.

The Fairfax press, which together with the Special Broadcasting Service (SBS TV) have been ferociously investigating the incident, reported on 27 August 2010 that:

“In an unprecedented move that has angered some senior military officers, Brigadier Lyn McDade has told the army she is preparing to lay charges in connection with a deadly raid involving Australian troops near the village of Surkh Morghab in Oruzgan province.”

But both Fairfax and SBS TV have for reasons unknown not taken the story further. The focus has been on the soldiers, not the politicians or the highly paid defence experts.

A scoop article titled “Commando Regiment in Firing Line,” on 7 December 2009, revealed:

“The Australian Army’s elite reservist unit, 1 Commando Regiment, is being made a scapegoat over allegations of misconduct in Afghanistan, a former unit member has told TEAM UZUNOV [blogsite].

“The experienced ex-Commando said that he was deeply concerned over claims that poorly trained and led members had breached rules of engagement during a raid on house in Afghanistan which resulted in the deaths of 5 local children after grenades had been thrown last February.

“My concern is the unit has been left out to dry by the Defence Department even before judgement has been passed. Let due process of law take place,” he said. “If people were innocent then that should be shouted from the rooftops but if people were guilty then throw the book at them.”

“Whatever the outcome of the investigation, the responsibility is with the government of the day as well Defence Department bureaucrats. It is they who send troops to war.”

It boils down to an unfortunate incident which saw Commandos entering a Taliban compound and being fired upon. And in the fog of war a grenade was thrown into the wrong house. Now it has been blown up, pardon the pun, into My Lai Massacre proportions.

The Australian newspaper’s Rory Callinan and Jeremy Kelly have summed up the dilemma for the soldiers involved:

“A source said the troops came under fire from a building in the compound and they responded with a grenade. When the firing continued they responded with another one as their training required, the source said. “What were they supposed to do?”

“The source said there was anger among the troops about what they would do if prosecution for a possible manslaughter went ahead. “Every time someone goes into a compound and gets shot at they will be thinking will we get charged with manslaughter if we use a grenade.”

“The former governor of the province where the incident occurred, Asadullah Hamdam, described the night raid as a mistake but one largely attributable to the behaviour of the raid’s alleged target, who was killed while shooting back at the commandos.”

SBS TV’s Dateline program reporter, the self-styled media tough gal, Sophie McNeill, broke the story, which initially got off to a false start, and Tom Hyland, self-appointed defence expert, has followed it for Fairfax.

McNeill back in 2008 asked not to be contacted to discuss media issues, including Afghanistan. It would appear taking no for an answer only applies to those who do not scrutinise SBS or Fairfax journalists!

McNeill’s advice for young journalists ( Walkely Magazine, issue 62, Aug-Sep 2010, page 37):

“Don’t take no for an answer. And once they actually let you in the building refuse to leave. Just quietly take over a desk and become part of the furniture…”

The ABC TV’s Media Watch program, hosted by Jonathan Holmes, revealed that SBS Dateline on 8 March 2009 with such haste put together a story by McNeill, which ended up quoting Zahir Khan, a survivor of the commando raid. But it turned out he was an imposter.

A year later McNeill went to Afghanistan and finally tracked down the real Zahir Khan. SBS Dateline threw the blame on wily Afghan media fixer Fazel Reshad “Arshad” Wardak for the mistake in the first story. If all else fails, blame the hired help!

You can see Wardak boasting about his services to SBS in 2008 on this youtube clip.

Jonathan Holmes then smacks naughty Sophie McNeill on the hand with the full force of a feather duster: as if the second story somehow redeems the first big mistake, a sack able offence. Great spin by Holmes. If only all journalists got such second chances.


“Sophie McNeill’s second report is compelling. It includes film of the surviving family, and the graves of the victims, in their village in Oruzgan. And it poses serious questions about the ADF’s original account of the incident, and why a year later it has said nothing more, and not even interviewed this family.”

You’re now beginning to get the picture: a boutique scandal which has Walkley Award, Australia’s version of the Pulitzer Prize, written all over it.

While the ABC’s Media Watch, quite rightly criticises the Australian Defence Force (ADF) over a lack of information on the commando story, an ever sceptical Australian public is still waiting for any more information about the controversial life and death of ABC cameraman Paul Moran who had alleged links to the CIA and was killed in Iraq in 2003. It seems the ABC is reluctant to open up its own scandals. Link:

A source, former Australian Special Forces soldier who served in Afghanistan, has revealed to TEAM UZUNOV that there are far worse incidents involving Australians in Afghanistan and cannot believe they have been buried and ignored.

“I can’t understand why they’re picking on the Commandos?” he said.

There could be three reasons why a court martial could be held. First, there is enough evidence of misconduct. Second, there is not enough evidence but a court martial would appease the media but find the soldiers eventually were not in the wrong. Third, and dare we even mention it, someone within Australia’s Defence Department, has a grudge against Commando reservists and wants them out of the frontlines.

The Sydney based 1 Commando Regiment is largely a reservist Special Forces unit, and has a high number of New South Wales State police officers who serve within the ranks.

Hyland, flashing his Fairfax Media Sherriff’s Badge, wrote on 21 March, 2010.

” Along the way, it has exposed a rivalry almost as old as the army itself, between full-time troops and part-time reservists – chocos, some regulars call them, chocolate soldiers who can’t take the heat.”

“The regiment’s experiences have triggered an intense debate within army ranks – about Special Forces tactics, and wider questions about a political and military preference for sending Special Forces, rather than large infantry units, to conflicts like Afghanistan.”

Hyland, after picking up the correct scent, pardon the military pun, then pulls back and does not take another step forward, likewise SBS TV’s Dateline. But why?

Here is a key point that has been missed: why is it Australian Defence Policy to use Special Forces in an infantry role in Afghanistan, as well as throwing Army reservists in the deep end? Who caused this dramatic shift in defence thinking?

The change came about in Defence policy when two key “experts” Professor Paul Dibb and ex-Fairfax journalist turned government advisor Hugh White decided to cut back the number of full time infantry soldiers with the consequences of using reservists in combat roles.

Mr Bruce Haigh, a former diplomat, in an interview which slipped under the radar, told SBS TV’s Dateline program on 27 September 2000 that:

“Defence is the department that’s divided amongst itself, as far as I can gather, and there are certain people inside Defence who’ve taken a certain line for a long period of time – the Paul Dibb line, if you like, which is high-tech, US-alliance – and you’ve got others who are saying, “No. We’ve got the situation to the north- we need to have more people in uniform, we need to have them trained, we need to have night-vision equipment provided for them. “… the Australian Army can see what needs to be done, but many of the civilian Defence personnel, who’ve built their careers on playing up to this particular line, are arguing the other case, and feeling increasingly isolated, because they are not facing reality. That’s the problem.”

Respected Brigadier Jim Wallace, former Special Forces Commander, wrote in 2003:

“Unfortunately, Australian defence policy has been mainly wrong for the whole of this period. Even after we committed troops to East Timor, Professor Paul Dibb, the policy’s chief architect, was standing in front of parliamentary committees vowing that Australia would not be conducting what he called “expeditionary” operations out of the region. This was despite a series of major UN deployments over many years to places as far afield as Rwanda and Somalia. Afghanistan and Iraq have hopefully now discredited this logic.

“At the same time, Dr Hugh White was arguing in initial drafts for the 2000 white paper to reduce the size of our army to about 19,000, on the basis that, like Professor Dibb, he didn’t see the Government needing options for deployment out of the region, particularly for sending the army. The result has been an incredible demand on the dedication and professionalism of our special forces as they have again been thrown into the breach that our supposedly expert defence planners couldn’t predict.”

McNeill and Hyland now need to take their story all the way and not just take aim at sitting targets—soldiers. But we seriously doubt if failed defence theorists and ex-Fairfax journalists will be scrutinised.