Twelve months after the release of the Brereton report into war crimes in Afghanistan, multiple defence sources say the key recommended reforms to the way Australia’s special forces operate have been “kicked to the kerb”.
“The general mood [among high-ranking defence officers] is that it has been squibbed,” one senior officer engaged with the Afghanistan inquiry reform process told The Age and The Sydney Morning Herald.
Sources who are not authorised to speak publicly say defence has been distracted by the French submarine saga and the three-way defence alliance, AUKUS. They also believe defence leadership wants to lay low in the lead-up to the federal election next year.
Special forces insiders also say an “SAS protection racket” within defence and the federal government has helped stymie key reforms recommended 12 months ago by the four-year-long inquiry on behalf of the Inspector-General of the Australian Defence Force by Justice Paul Brereton.
SAS v Commandos
As authorities seek justice for alleged war crimes in Afghanistan, including dozens of alleged murders, defence insiders speaking on condition of anonymity say rivalry between the two main special forces regiments – the Sydney-based Commandos and the Perth-based SAS (Special Air Service Regiment) – has once again come to the fore.
During the Afghanistan mission, sources describe them feuding like two bikie gangs, draining effectiveness and cohesion.
Australian SAS soldiers in Afghanistan.Credit:Simon O’Dwyer
All 19 soldiers facing possible criminal charges as a result of the Brereton report’s findings are from the SAS. The Commandos emerged with a better record, but the bulk of whistleblowers also came from the SAS, and the Brereton report observed that the Commandos’ cleaner sheet “might be attributable to the inquiry having less success in breaching the code of silence” in the NSW regiment.
A key recommendation of the Brereton report was to reduce the toxic rivalry by jointly selecting and training recruits to produce some unification of long-term rivals. But that proposal has been scrapped. David Irvine, the former director-general of ASIO, suggested the approach, which would have mirrored Canadian and British initiatives to “help establish at an early age personal relationships” between the two parts of Special Operations Command (SOCOMD).
But experienced special forces operators heard first through a report in The Australian in September that the joint selection initiative had been sidelined with the support of a different former ASIO director-general, Duncan Lewis. Mr Lewis was quoted stating it was vital “the people coming into the unit (SAS) meet the professional and moral standards that the unit demands”.
Lewis, also a former national security adviser with influence in political and military circles, is a former SAS commanding officer and the newly appointed Honorary Colonel.
The SAS brand
Another influential former SAS member is ex-troop captain, now Assistant Defence Minister, Andrew Hastie. Mr Hastie announced in September that his old regiment would in future be commanded by a full colonel, not a lieutenant colonel – an innovation that was not universally applauded, particularly among Commandos who saw more evidence of SAS exceptionalism. It was an example, said one Commando speaking anonymously, of “the SAS brand being so powerful it must be protected at all costs”.
A senior officer explained that the “SAS became the only unit of that nature commanded by a colonel”. Some welcomed the additional oversight, but the perception of Mr Hastie, a politician, becoming involved in tactical decision-making generated further disquiet.
Mr Hastie has proved loyal to his former regiment, but he has not, as some allege, been involved in covering up war crimes. Having heard rumours of misconduct before deploying to Afghanistan, then-Captain Hastie emphasised to those under his command that he expected them to adhere strictly to ethical conduct. When he returned and took on a political career, the Liberal member for Canning in Western Australia both called out war crimes and publicly supported the Brereton inquiry. As Assistant Defence Minister he became actively engaged in advancing reform of special forces.
But the protection of the SAS brand runs deep in Australia. When politicians travel to hostile environments, close-quarter protection is usually provided by SAS soldiers. The SAS Resources Trust dwarfs other defence-related welfare funds in wealth and is backed by WA billionaires Kerry Stokes, Andrew Forrest and Gina Rinehart.
Ben Roberts-Smith, who has been employed by Seven West Media since 2014, and Kerry Stokes. Credit:
The romance and mystique of SAS also attracts media patronage. Seven Group chairman Mr Stokes’ West Australian newspaper champions its cause, including that of former SAS soldier Ben Roberts-Smith, the only publicly named member of the regiment to face war crimes allegations, who is suing this publication with Mr Stokes’ financial backing.
Populist media outside Perth has also thrown its weight behind the SAS’s accused soldiers, attacked whistleblowers and criticised the Brereton inquiry, including by falsely asserting that soldiers facing punishment have already been exonerated.
The beret wars
Some in defence believe a form of “scandal fatigue” has also set in, which has stymied attempts to reform special forces. Eighty per cent of current SAS members did not deploy to Afghanistan and Jim Wallace, the regiment’s former honorary colonel, comments “there has been punishment enough and now a need to move on”.
Geography also helps protect the SAS, which has seen itself as an exclusive and autonomous operation – part of what led to problems in Afghanistan. This was meant to be improved by more interchange with the broader defence force and security agencies – an ambition that now seems largely defeated.
A review of the regiment last year by Mr Irvine said: “Given issues of geography the manner in which [the SAS] will participate in the whole-of-command processes, particularly in respect of selection and training, remains to be played out.”
The SAS’s participation was “critical for the success of the united [special forces],” he said. But the attempted unification has failed. Twelve months on from the Brereton report’s findings, numerous defence sources say the so-called “beret wars [are] as bad as they have ever been”.
Another clear failure is that the SAS’s senior leadership has not been held to account. After four years of examination, with a lawyer’s eye for evidence, Justice Brereton found “the criminal behaviour of a few was commenced, continued and concealed at the corporal or sergeant level”. But he added that it “does not relieve commanders of responsibility”.
A series of stories appears to be intended to undermine confidence in war crimes investigations into special forces operatives.Credit:
His report did not allege any individual officer was culpable. But the pressure to hold the leadership to account came from a range of quarters. The rank-and-file, familiar with the military maxim that a private who loses a rifle suffers far greater consequences than a general who loses a war, wanted a scalp. And as one insider puts it, “a predominantly populist media campaign helped generate an expectation by government that someone in the command team would be held responsible”.
After multiple inquiries, the officer who commanded the 2012 rotation to Afghanistan came under pressure, military sources have confirmed. According to Brereton, this rotation encompassed “possibly the most disgraceful episode in Australian military history”. That officer was initially pressured to resign, but the request was rescinded in the past month.
Removing him would have appeased some, but, according to multiple insiders, would have also led to anger and further undermined morale. The officer is highly regarded, was not singled out for blame by Brereton, and was himself a Commando who “had little prior influence or exposure” to the SAS operators accused of misconduct. The result is, 12 months on, no officer has been punished.
Respected and now retired lieutenant-general John Caligari said the flouting of rules by special forces in Afghanistan was partly a result of a culture of exceptionalism that “took years to develop”. And, as one insider explained, “misconduct was not revealed for five years and more, by which time most of the commanders had gone”.
A recommendation of the Brereton inquiry that medals be handed back has also failed. He said the Meritorious Unit Citation (MUC) for special forces should be revoked. This was swiftly overturned by Defence Minister Peter Dutton, who said, “we shouldn’t be punishing the 99 per cent for the sins of 1 per cent”.
Justice Brereton recommended that citations be reviewed on a case-by-case basis, saying, “it is difficult to see how any commander … on whose watch … any substantiated incident in this report occurred, could in good conscience retain a distinguished service award”. But “procedural difficulties” have stymied those individual reviews. Some soldiers, including from SAS, are now choosing not to wear their Meritorious Unit Citation because they believe them to be tarnished.
Parts one and two of the Brereton inquiry, which focused on 23 incidents involving the killing of 39 individuals have been referred to the Australian Federal Police, and separately, the Office of the Special Investigator.
Part three, which looked at systemic issues in response to 143 recommendations, has according to one senior officer attached to the reform program, “gone missing”.
“Despite the massive problems revealed in SAS and a clear need for reform, in 12 months the changes have been largely cosmetic,” another senior officer said.
Senior people in Special Forces command believe “Perth has won”.
But, they say, it could be a short-lived victory.
“Protecting the brand rather than accepting the need to modernise” has merely “delayed the inevitable,” one source said.
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