Discussing frontline combat in Afghanistan

A recent prolonged firefight over three hours by Australian troops on 24 August 2010 once again indicates considerable confusion about ADF operations in Afghanistan's Oruzgan Province. This confusion has several causes and effects, and at several levels, among the public, the media, our politicians and the profession of arms.

In assessing this action, and to clarify real and perceived shortcomings in ADF tasking and methods involved, the Australian people really need to hear from the commander of the sub-unit concerned and his task force commander. Only then can we really know what did or did not happen, and why.  

Moreover, professional discussions about the firefight back here in Australia — based on the insufficient and somewhat contradictory information available thus far — mainly depend on what you consider is the operational mission of our force in Oruzgan (and its relationship to the strategic objectives of our allies in the International Security Assistance Force).

If you think our mission should be, or is, to secure the province and destroy the Taliban operating there, then you are likely to be critical of the force levels the ADF has been allowed to deploy to Afghanistan and critical of the apparently unnecessary tactical risks taken on 24 August. If you think the ADF mission should be, or is, just to train the Afghan 4th Brigade until they can take over responsibility for the province alone, then you are likely to have a more sanguine approach to the operational risks posed in general and on the 24 August in particular.

This said, the task of our Mentoring Task Force in Oruzgan is a particularly challenging and dangerous one. In order to assess whether force levels are sufficient to the task, much more clarification of the mission, and the rationale underlying it, seems needed to restore public confidence. 

Some of the differing professional views in Australia about the 24 August action also appear to be due to differing assumptions about whether it was an action by a fighting patrol (which it was due to the limited forces involved), an advance-to-contact (which it was not for the same reason) or a patrol clash (which it was not in the conventional sense of the Taliban not patrolling), and whether this matters.

Some differences between the combined US-Australian effort in Oruzgan now, and the predominantly all-Australian effort in Phuoc Tuy Province for much of the Vietnam War, have led to further differing assumptions and perceptions among some Vietnam veterans when discussing the matter. As have discussions among veterans and military professionals generally about the real and perceived operational risks of having to rely on Coalition partners, especially for artillery and air support, no matter who or how reliable that partner country may be. 

Wider community confusion results from one or a combination of:

  • the generally poor standard of media coverage of defence issues;
  • the way the emails at the heart of the matter were reported publicly in often incorrect and sensationalist terms;
  • the general lack of military experience across Australian society;
  • imple misunderstandings about military terminology (artillery or mortars "in support" means they were available to fire, not necessarily that they fired); and
  • by the rather inept way the ADF tried to clarify the situation afterwards.

Every sloppy media description of the action as a "gunfight" or an "ambush", for example, no doubt led to much teeth grinding exasperation by those who know that soldiers are neither cowboys nor gangsters and that the Australians were not ambushed. Moreover, this type of tactical-level combat often involves confusing and confused situations and understandings even for those present. It is much more difficult for those not there to understand, especially for those without military experience trying to grasp what happened afterwards without a reliable frame of professional reference. 

Professional military historians are well aware of all these factors when later trying to reconstruct campaigns and battles from one or both sides — often from contradictory eyewitness accounts and incomplete, otherwise-focused or contradictory contemporary documents. 


ADA involvement

In terms of the ADA's involvement, the facts and chronology are as follows.

Following the 24 August firefight, over the next few days, a soldier engaged in that action had an exchange of emails with a family friend in Australia. This friend is a retired regular Army artillery officer and a veteran of the Vietnam War (where he served as a Forward Observer).

The emails were much more valuable in terms of the information and insight they provide because it was a two-way exchange and because the soldier was asked intelligent questions from an interlocutor who understood combat, military operational doctrine and battlefield tactics through considerable personal experience. This level of combat experience and military knowledge, and the consequent level of discussion, stands in stark contrast to much of the media reporting and commentary when excerpts of the emails were subsequently published in the media. 

On 27 August 2010, after seeking and receiving the usual assurances about confidentiality (to protect the soldier concerned), the veteran passed the email exchange on to the Australia Defence Association. He did so because he and the soldier's family respect the ADA's role as the national public-interest watchdog for defence issues and knew the ADA would try to help resolve the issues raised responsibly. 

It should be noted that subsequent reported claims in late September that the News Limited reporter, Ian McPhedran, received the email directly could not be and are not correct. 

The ADA often receives feedback from defence force and other personnel deployed on operations or returned from such operations.

This feedback comes from all ranks. The ADA also undertakes frequent consultations with members of all ranks (and other experts across Australia and the region) in order to obtain the fullest possible picture of how things are going and how the ADA can help rectify or forestall problems.

This is entirely consistent with our role as an independent public-interest guardian organisation. For decades soldiers of all ranks have trusted and respected the ADA for its efforts and we value their trust. 

As with previous feedback, the account of the 24 August action provided in the emails was necessarily incomplete because no one participant in such an action can be aware of all that occurred or did not occur — and why.

The perspective, and indeed the direct experience, of every soldier in a combat action can be different depending on:

  • where they were physically on the ground relative to the others involved;
  • the effects of terrain and other cover of the area concerned;
  • the effects on them of enemy fire and noise generally;
  • what their particular command or specialist responsibilities were;
  • what ability they had to communicate with the others involved; and what opportunities there were for post-operation debriefs and informal discussions (including their extent).

The emails in question had also been written in the heat of the moment, after losing a mate killed in action, and probably before some confirmatory and background detail was available to the author. 

This noted, much of the material contained in the emails obviously needed pursuing to either clarify the detail or rectify perceived deficiencies and (on the face of it) apparent anomalies in how battles are or should be fought.

These included the clarity and operational basis of the mission of this particular fighting patrol, the combat force groupings involved, the provision of direct and indirect fire support, and the quality of the intelligence support the operation was based on.

 Some concerns about whether the application of greater force might have destroyed even more of the enemy also seemed to require clarification.

It is probable that only the tactical sub-unit commander on the ground (and perhaps his unit and task force commanders) could really be expected to know the answer to this question — and indeed whether such greater force (in manouvre and/or firepower) was even available or could have been used tactically in the situation applying.

In the final analysis these are command decisions taken at the time and without the benefit of 20/20 hindsight in later armchair reflections. This is why our military forces have and need commanders and why we must rely on their professional judgement. 

Allowing for these limitations and reservations, the ADA initiated immediate steps to obtain or confirm basic information in order to take the matter further.

Care needed to be taken because some information in the emails, if publicised out of context, precipipantly or sensationally, risked affecting the teamwork, morale and operational task of the force elements involved.

The action also occurred during the post-election caretaker period. There was therefore an even greater than normal risk of inaccurate and sensationalist media coverage and/or party-political controversy.

The ADA was also concerned that any professional debate within the ADF over the incident produce a positive result for all involved rather than the opposite.

The same concerns applied, to a somewhat lesser extent, to the risk of uninformed public debate generally. The lesser degree of concern was because eventual public debate could not be avoided and would generally be led by media descriptions anyway, at least initially, until clearer professional explanations emerged from participants. 

Again, as is standard procedure with the ADA, the exchange of emails was converted to a document that does not allow the author or his interlocutor to be identified. No substantive detail was changed or edited out in this process.

In a one-on-one meeting with the CDF soon afterwards the ADA's executive director sought and received an assurance that the author of the emails would not be subject to disciplinary action or informal disadvantage, and that no "witch hunt" to identify him would be mounted. The ADA then passed on their redacted version of the email exchange.

Discussions over the following three weeks, and ADA consultations elsewhere, indicated clearly that no clear picture of the 24 August action seemed to be available. 


Subsequent actions and developments

The CDF subsequently convened a media roundtable to discuss the issues raised in the email exchange against the background of ADF operations in Afghanistan in general . The ADA's advice (from both ADF sources and the more informed journalists) is that the journalists attending were generally satisfied with the discussion. 

It should be noted that in his much later reporting based on leaked excerpts from a transcript of the original email exchange (apparently obtained through a Vietnam veteran who is now in some trouble from his mates), Ian McPhedran of the News Limited tabloids allowed the soldier concerned to be easily identified by anyone with professional knowledge of military matters.

Even allowing for the fact that McPhedran probably did not realise this because he lacks such knowledge of military operations, terminology and procedures, surely he could and should have checked with a knowledgeable person before publication.

 Furthermore, the day before publication, McPhedran was also advised by a retired senior officer he had rung about the email that, if he must publish it, protecting the identity of the soldier must be the paramount consideration. This advice was reiterated in an SMS sent to him the day before publication.

Moreover, if McPhedran was really across this issue as a reporter covering defence matters, he surely would and should have known about the redacted version being used by the ADA in its negotiations in order to protect the soldier's identity. 

Ian McPhedran's action in pushing ahead with a version that identified the soldier is simply not understood. It also appears quite contrary to the journalism code of ethics and contrary to the claim by his employers that they always seek to protect the identity of whistleblowers.

Soldiers of all ranks have raised this matter with the ADA and have described his action in scathing terms. At the very least, McPhedran's editors and other supervisors must surely take immediate and thorough steps to prevent a recurrence of such privacy protection and whistleblower protection breaches. 



Some broad and specific lessons from this incident seem clear.

Before we can focus in on the operational risks to our troops in Afghanistan, and whether there are enough of them and whether they have sufficient support, we need to place their operational mission and the strategic objective it is designed to achieve in an overall framework of moral, national governance, strategic and operational considerations: 

  • Australia is at war, not just our defence force. Public debate on the war, including media coverage, must be conducted responsibly no matter whether it is supportive or critical.
  • All wars are ultimately contests of will and end when one side gives up. Wars must therefore be fought with ideas and words as well as bullets. Vigorous, informed argument focused by responsible debate is needed to win wars just as much as soldiers are. Uninformed, lazy or subjective argument, on the other hand, undermines our national will and irresponsibly assists our enemy.
  • Ruthless, undemocratic enemies exploit the need for debate intrinsic to our democratic system of government. The globalisation of information via the world-wide-web helps even the Taliban and Al Qa'eda to subvert our national will directly and indirectly. Many contributors to public debate in Australia ignore this.
  • If Australian public opinion now seems against the war in Afghanistan, this would only be important if the majority of the adverse opinion became informed and objective. Uninformed or mindlessly defeatist opinion should be reversed, not feared or respected.
  • Australia should not be in any war we do not intend to win (or help win). If we do not intend to win we should not be there in the first place. We owe this to the soldiers we commit to fight our wars.
  • The lives and the health of our troops should not be risked to satisfy alliance maintenance objectives alone. Nor for inchoate policy settings that result in having to accept a risky operational status quo on the ground for our troops through ambiguous, unclear, or operationally illogical or unsustainable missions ? especially when such missions seem to be sustained more by policy or bureaucratic inertia rather than robust review.
  • Our war-fighting policy and strategic direction should be based on proper, regular, intelligence estimates and formal strategic and operational appreciations, not bureaucratic policy waffle, armchair strategic theorising or perceived damaging electoral considerations. Objective concern for the long-term national interest should drive such formal appreciations.
  • The Australian Government needs to clarify its strategic guidance for ADF operations in Afghanistan. Within the obvious constraints of security and diplomacy the government then needs to lead public debate with logical argument and facts, rather than let uninformed (and too often mindlessly defeatist) public opinion predominate.
  • The Australian Government must retract arbitrary caps on force levels driven by domestic political considerations (including a seemingly irrational fear of casualties). It must allow the size, composition and balance of the force in Afghanistan to match the mission set and the consequent operational tasks required.
  • No matter whether our mission is to secure the province or just train the Afghan 4th Brigade to do so, more troops-to-task now is more likely than not to lead to less casualties over the long run and to bringing our troops home sooner. Arbitrarily capping the size, composition and balance of our force in Afghanistan is both short-sighted and counter-productive.
  • The Australian Government should not, therefore, discourage military professional advice it may not want to hear for party-political or electoral reasons, or for fear of adverse public opinion. ADF commanders must also offer frank and fearless professional advice. They must not fail to do so because they consider the effort wasted due to a Government (of either political persuasion) being not willing to listen and not keen to ask for advice they do not want to hear.
  • We need to let our commanders command at all levels. We must not unduly restrict their professional judgement. While holding them to account, we must not second-guess them in public debate based on uninformed views, political prejudices or other biases. We also need to let commanders at all levels explain what they are doing.
  • We should return to the former (mid-1990s) policy whereby ADF commanders at unit and formation level and above are authorised to speak to the media directly to explain what their forces are doing and why. If they make a mistake when doing this, they (and their ministerial masters) should be prepared to wear the consequences.
  • Our theatre commander in Afghanistan (a major general) should be free to conduct his own public affairs activities. This is probably the best level to swiftly and effectively meld tactical, operational and strategic information of interest to the public (and the media). Trying to do so in Canberra does not seem to work and the ADF (and Ministers for Defence) should stop trying.
  • Within reason, properly qualified and accredited journalists should be forward deployed with our troops. Within reason, they should have day-to-day access to sub-unit commanders (down to infantry section level) to help explain what our troops are doing and why. If they betray operational security or have no reasonable respect for the safety, security and morale of our troops they should be refused all further access and sent home. Trust must be re-established and both the media and the Department of Defence must work at this.
  • Regular and informative media briefings should be conducted in Canberra by a suitably qualified, and not necessarily senior, ADF officer in order that journalists covering defence issues can appreciate the strategic and operational-level thinking underlying war-fighting and other operations.
  • The quality and general relevancy of press releases and other information promulgated by the Department of Defence should be improved.
  • The Department of Defence, and the Minister's office, must cease their grossly over-centralised and highly bureaucratised control over the release of public information.
  • Ministers in the Defence portfolio should cease issuing media releases on every ADF activity no matter how mundane or trivial. They should only issue media releases on important subjects of genuine national interest.
  • The Minister for Defence, the Department of Defence and the ADF should refuse any contact or co-operation with unprofessional journalists who commit security breaches, or who are prone to write inaccurate and/or sensationalist stories with no regard for the safety, security or well-being of our troops or the success of the mission set for them by the Australian Government.