Expert reactions: should death of Australian diggers prompt policy rethink?

Left to right: Captain Bryce Duffy, Lance Corporal Luke Gavin and Corporal Ashley Brit. AAP (composite image)

Following the killing on Saturday of three Australian soldiers and an Afghan interpreter by an Afghan comrade from the National Army, many questions about the bond between Australians and Afghans have been raised. Some Afghans have since accused Australians of carrying out what amounts to a summary execution.

Prompted by the slaying of the Australians, here is some academic analysis:

Ian J. Bickerton, Honourary Associate Professor, School of History and Philosophy, University of New South Wales

Australians were saddened by the news over the weekend of more Australian casualties in Afghanistan, as our troops make preparations to withdraw by December 2014. Three soldiers were shot and killed and seven wounded.

As we know, the attack was carried out by a local person being trained by Australian forces in Kandahar province as part of the broader programme to train the locals for the Afghan National Army to secure the province against a Taliban takeover.

The deaths come amidst optimistic claims by political and military leaders of progress against the Taliban. However, the open and deadly attacks launched by the Taliban insurgency on the ISAF and their operating bases over the past few weeks in Helmand and Kandahar provinces suggest that, in these provinces at least, the Taliban can choose when and where to attack. The danger for Australian soldiers is that they are attempting to incorporate and mentor local community elements into the country’s police force and army and it is impossible to tell who may be disloyal.

We are told that the perpetrator of this multiple killing was a rogue or renegade assailant, but that is what we are always told when unpredicted murderous attacks occur. We were told that the men who assassinated the Kennedys in the 1960s, Yitzhak Rabin in 1995, and the thirteen US soldiers at Fort Hood, Texas in November 2009 were all rogue elements. But there is invariably more to the story than the actions of a ‘lone crazed gunman.’

In this case, there are precedents and parallels. The Soviet Union when they invaded Afghanistan in December 1979 faced the same experience facing the IFAF. Their mistake, as is the case now, was to broaden their clear and limited objective in the pursuit of unattainable goals.

The Soviet Union sought to ‘Sovietise’ Afghan society, and now the US-led International Force, having invaded Afghanistan to remove Osama Bin Laden and the Taliban, is attempting to ‘democratise’ the country. The Soviet Union did not intend to stay long, but left, defeated, after nine years. US coalition forces have been in Afghanistan eleven years, and although Bin Laden has been killed, the Taliban remain. The way things are going, it is difficult to see how ISAF can claim victory in Afghanistan and depart leaving what they regard as a satisfactory political situation in what is essentially an unwinnable war.

We can only hope that inclusive negotiations will lead to an end to the belief in military solutions.

Shahram Akbarzadeh, Professor of Asian Politics (Middle East & Central Asia), University of Melbourne

The death of three Australian soldiers in Afghanistan is a tragedy. A tragedy made even more appalling when we note that these soldiers were killed by the very people they thought they could trust. This is not the first time that an Afghan soldier has turned on the Western forces that are there to train the Afghan security forces and protect the central government from the Taliban and its ilk. This incident raises serious questions about the capacity of the Afghan forces to live up to the expectation of providing security once the international community withdraws its forces from that country.

Indeed, if the Afghan Army cannot control its recruitment and training process to stop the infiltration of its ranks by Taliban agents, how can it be expected to provide national security and deal with the Taliban forces? And an even more urgent question for the Australian government is whether this is a lost cause. Is the situation in Afghanistan beyond repair? Is the human and financial commitment to Afghanistan a pointless exercise in humanitarian and state-building intervention where no modern central state had existed, and there is no desire among the many local tribes and sects to live in a unified nation? Is the international community trying to make something in spite of the wishes of the local population?

With every death and casualty suffered by our troops, public opinion turns slightly away from the commitment to Afghanistan. President Barack Obama has experienced this, and the Australian government is experiencing it now. The pressure is on to expedite our exit strategy.

But the most important point that should not be forgotten about Afghanistan, is that we are not there for humanitarian reasons. Humanitarian concerns with the fate of Afghan surely play a role in the public debate; but Australia committed troops to Afghanistan in the wake of the September 11, 2001 and the US move to hunt bin Laden and deprive al Qaeda of a hide-out.

The international commitment to the post-Taliban Afghanistan was based on hard-nosed realpolitik not fluffy humanitarianism. We are there to prevent Afghanistan slide into anarchy and lawlessness again. We are there to prevent Afghanistan becoming a failed state again. We are there because we don’t want Afghanistan to become a launching-pad for terrorist organisations once again.

It is easy to say, lets wash our hands off Afghanistan and let them sort out their own mess. The problem is that, ‘their own mess’ is partly due to our involvement and is more than likely to get worse – posing serious risk factors for our interests.

Ben Wadham, Sociologist, Civil-Military Relations Project, Flinders University

Morning parade is one of those age-old rituals of soldiering. It is the start to the day, a moment where everyone on hand comes together to present themselves, and to get their bearings on what the day ahead presents. It is also a ritual of community.

On Saturday this ritual was shattered by an Afghani national soldier who turned his weapon upon this parade of unsuspecting Diggers. It registers as a profound betrayal, at a time of relative sanctuary.

Three Australians soldiers dead, seven more wounded, some with life threatening wounds. One Afghani interpreter killed.

Esprit de Corps is the foundation of military culture, and it is the expression of deep-felt camaraderie and mateship. It is established through training but also through experience, the experience of working under immense hardship, including deprivation of liberty, sleep and comfort, for the greater good: the good of the group.

It is that bond of the combatant that leads to lifelong loyalty to the service and to one’s mates. This affiliation, forged through the identity of the Australian digger was massacred along with the three diggers on Saturday morning. Their bond was desacralised.

When that community is broken by the enemy within, by an individual who the Digger understands they have come to help, the wound cuts deep. The ADF will be working hard to keep the troops involved in-hand, to allay their fears and to dampen their anger.

This violation will galvanise the soldiers as a group, but also have far deeper implications for their commitment to their presence in Afghanistan. For the enemy within it is an intense victory.

Killed on Saturday: Corporal Ashley Brit, 22. AAP/Australian Defence Force
Killed on Saturday: Lance Corporal Luke Gavin, 27. AAP/Australian Defence Force
Killed on Saturday: Captain Bryce Duffy, 26. AAP/Australian Defence Force
Afghan grief: a man cries after his relative was killed in Saturday’s car-bomb strike against an International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) convoy in Kabul. The attack left at least 17 people dead. AAp/EPA/S. Sabawoon