In 1998, a year before the break out of conflict in East Timor, Lieutenant General Frank Hickling, then Chief of the Australian Army, wisely undid some of the damage caused by defence experts in their running down of the Army’s warfighting capability. It seems the Australian media have failed to scrutinise these “failed defence theorists” in light of recent controversies in Afghanistan. Hickling is pictured (second from left) with then Major General Peter Cosgrove, the 1999 East Timor mission commander. Photo source: ADF.

By Sasha Uzunov

Fairfax newspaper reporters Jonathon Pearlman and Tom Hyland are ferociously targeting the Australian Army’s 1 Commando Regiment over an alleged botched raid which resulted in the killing of children in Afghanistan last February. Soldiers from that unit, largely reservist, could possibly face legal proceedings.

But there are three important issues being missed here in the Fairfax’s crusade: due process of law, the presumption of innocence and who shapes Australia’s defence policy.

Here’s a recap. Pearlman wrote in the Sydney Morning Herald on 5 December 2009


A NIGHT-TIME raid in which five Afghan children were killed has cast a cloud over Australia’s elite forces and could result in combat-related charges against Australian soldiers for the first time since the Vietnam War.

TEAM UZUNOV on 7 December 2009 reported the other side of the story in www.scoop.nz.co

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.

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.”
Tom Hyland, the “defence expert” for The Sunday Age in “Deadly Afghan raids expose leadership failings” on 21 March 2010 wrote:


“Now, 12 months on, members of the unit await a decision on whether they will face criminal charges over the deaths of Amrullah and the children, killed on February 12, 2009.”
Tom Hyland quote:, Sunday Age, 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.”
TEAM UZUNOV quote, 7 December 2009,


Traditionally a fierce rivalry has existed between the Australian Regular Army (ARA) and the Army Reserve (Ares). Reservists are known as “chocolate soldiers” or “chockos” for allegedly not being able to withstand combat and melt under pressure.

Some Regular soldiers and officers see the reservists as allegedly incompetent or as “weekend warriors.” Some reservists regard their full time colleagues as “lifers” unable to think outside the box.
Tom Hyland, Sunday Age, 21 March 2010

“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.”

The Herald Sun newspaper
A grand political warrior

by Sasha Uzunov21 January 2005

…Some have criticised General (Peter) Cosgrove on his over reliance on the SAS to do the fighting in East Timor that would normally have been taken up by the regular infantry. But I think this criticism is unjustified.

Criticism should be aimed at the government of the day (Howard 1996-2007) and those at home squeamish about seeing a 19 year old lad away from home for the first time fighting a war. Better to send the SAS, whose identity cannot be revealed…

TEAM UZUNOV – 9 September 2008



To top that off, a legacy of the Nelson-Howard military doctrine has the Special Forces doing most of the fighting (in Afghanistan), because of the fear of casualties to our regular infantry units. The long term effect could be burn out of our Special Forces. But the irony is if we withdraw our SF units and do not replace them with infantry units, then the pressure on Taliban is eased. It is one contradictory military doctrine, to say the least.

Both Pearlman and Hyland are quite correct to scrutinise the above story and we would encourage them to do so in an even handed manner. We would encourage them to examine overall defence policy and who shapes it.

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?

Hyland has gone on the record as calling anyone, other than fellow Fairfax journalists, who scrutinises defence experts or defence policy engaged in a “curious crusade.” See link: www.onlineopinion.com.au/view.asp?article=9078&page=0

What Pearlman and Hyland will not touch upon is 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.

Here’s a blast from the past:

Generals and Diggers saved the day in Timor – 20 November 2008

Influential Defence expert and former Fairfax journalist, Hugh White, has revealed that Australia’s involvement in East Timor succeeded because of the Indonesian military’s (TNI) reluctance to fight a full scale war; this is partly true.

“Interfet succeeded as well as it did largely because Habibie and the TNI allowed it to succeed,” White said.

Interfet was the name of the 1999 Australian led mission to restore order after East Timor declared its independence from 24 years of harsh Indonesian occupation. BJ Habibie was the then President of Indonesia who permitted East Timor to hold a UN supervised referendum.

White, who was the deputy secretary (strategy and intelligence) in the Defence Department, and the mastermind behind the Interfet mission, fails to mention four big factors behind the success.

They are: the brilliant leadership of two Australian Army generals, Frank Hickling and Interfet Commander Peter Cosgrove, the calibre of the Special Forces, the SASR, and the ordinary digger when confronted by the pro-Indonesian militia groups.

There was a secret war in East Timor fought by Indonesian Special Forces: Kopassus. The objective was to inflict as many casualties on Australians and New Zealanders in the hope that their respective governments would withdraw.

The Howard government at the time deliberately used the Army’s elite Special Forces unit, SASR (Special Air Service Regiment), to do most of the fighting in East Timor: fighting which should have been performed by the infantry.

The political logic was that the public and media would accept SASR casualties rather than a 19-year-old infantryman, fresh out of home or from a small country town.

But political logic does not necessarily make good military sense and vice-versa. In East Timor the pro-Indonesian militia tried to inflict as many casualties as possible on our infantry units, including battalions made up of many reserve/part time soldiers, in the hope that Australia would withdraw.

White is quiet on the issue of throwing reservists into the deep end after the regular army had been gutted; it was only the quality of the ordinary Australian soldier which stopped a disaster from happening.

It was General Frank Hickling’s foresight in 1998 as the Chief of Army that should be acknowledged. He issued his famous “back to basics” order that all Australian soldiers, regular and reserve, must sharpen their war fighting skills. He was concerned at the rundown of the Army.

Ironically, it was White and another defence expert, Paul Dibb, who were the prime movers in cutting back Army numbers in the late 1980s. Neither have ever served in uniform.

Here’s more on Dibb and White


September 23, 2008 – RUDD THE REAL McCOY ON DEFENCE?

Whatever PM Rudd’s true motivation is, you have hand it to him he is a very clever strategic/foreign affairs operator that many pundits have not given him the credit. Let me explain by drawing a comparison with Bob Hawke, another ALP Prime Minister (1983-91), also with messianic tendencies.

Hawke was known as the great conciliator whose claim to fame was his ability to bring opposing groups to the negotiating tables and hammer out a deal. During his Prime Ministership he brought in British academic Professor Paul Dibb and ex-Fairfax journalist Hugh White. Their brief was to transform the defence department with a number of reports, Defence White Papers and so on. Instead we ended up with a mess that took over a decade to bring under some form of control.

Mr Bruce Haigh, a former diplomat revealed during an interview with SBS TV’s Dateline program on 27-9-2000 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.”

Professor Dibb’s response was to make the snide remark on the ABC TV Lateline program on July 11, 2002 that Wallace was a “retired brigadier.”

The moral of the story is if your a big name Fairfax journalist you have a “Special Media Licence” to scrutinise or a ‘Media Sheriff’s Badge” which no one else seems to be entitled to.