How to Break the Rules without Breaking the Law

In 2009,  coalition casualties in Afghanistan had as much as doubled in the space of a year. Civilian casualties climbed to 2412. It was 2009. Coalition forces had been there since 2001 with no end and, to this point, no real campaign plan in sight…

Chris Masters, who was the only journalist to have been embedded with Australian special forces soldiers (SASR) in Afghanistan, believes a desensitisation occurred within the forces that allegedly allowed a “kill count mentality to develop”…SASR’s sabre squadrons are the tips of a trident of land, air and water operators, with the “wateries” an elite within an elite. And like their US counterparts, the Navy SEALs, unquestionable ability can come tinged with arrogance. In SASR, their rock-star persona did not sit easily with everyone when modesty was supposed to be a core value…

The most prominent allegation is traced to an assault on a compound codenamed Whiskey 108 at Kakarak in Oruzgan on Easter Sunday 2009…As shooting erupted, one operator remembers thinking: “I am going to die today.” Instead, methodically, they closed in on the remaining enemy, killing them one by one.  At this time Australian weapons were again heard firing and soldiers entering the compound saw something hurled from a window. It was an older man with a prosthetic leg, shot and now lying dead. The prosthetic leg was souvenired and returned to Perth to be fashioned into a drinking vessel.  What troubled a range of witnesses was not so much the killing of the men, who whether armed or unarmed were considered Taliban. It was more that the grim task of pulling the trigger had been pushed onto a “rookie”. As one operator told me: “If s— needs to be done, do it yourself.”

In rotations to come, the concept of blooding became well known. What became more disturbing was a suspicion the practise was not only about a first kill but also executing prisoners. ..What was not thought through was how many of the “blooded rookies” would be haunted well into the future by what was done…Soldiers began to refer to some of their members having gone “up the Congo”, into the moral wilderness of novelist Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness. Numerous witnesses have spoken of one SASR team posting a kill board on their door. The patrol commander was heard talking about needing more kills and subsequently of the goal being met….

As the mission wore on, further alleged breaches of the rules of armed conflict began to emerge, conspicuously contained to Special Forces and most particularly to SASR. The “Who Dares Wins” ethos of the regiment encourages the testing of boundaries. As they often tell themselves, “you break the rules but not the law”.

Exceprts from Chris Masters, Australia’s ugly turn in Afghanistan, Sydney Morning Herald, June 8, 2018

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