Monday 26 Sep 2022 | 03:09 | SYDNEY
Monday 26 Sep 2022 | 03:09 | SYDNEY

ADF and the Afghan army: A question of command

10 October 2012 12:29

Tom Hyland is a freelance journalist and former foreign editor of The Age and The Sunday Age. This is the first of a two-part post.

When Australian troops go on patrol with the Afghan army, and things turn nasty, who’s in charge?

The question, which goes to the heart of  Australia's effort in Afghanistan, is prompted by last month's release of a 2011 report of an Australian Army inquiry into the death of an Afghan teenager and the wounding of two other civilians.

Despite the promiscuous use of censor's ink, the report reveals previously unacknowledged risks in the army's mentoring task in Afghanistan. It predates the spate of murders by Afghan troops of their foreign mentors that has compounded the danger.

The civilian casualties were inflicted when an Australian-Afghan patrol was attacked by insurgents on 2 November, 2010. Locals blamed 'foreign' troops for killing the teenager as he tended a garden. It's likely Afghan soldiers also blamed Australians, but this was censored when the report was released last month, almost two years after the incident and 16 months after the report was submitted to the then chief of joint operations, Lieutenant General Mark Evans.

The report finds it highly unlikely that the civilians were shot by Australians, only one of whom, a private, used his weapon, firing three shots at an armed insurgent. The inquiry was unable to determine if the Afghan National Army or insurgents were to blame, but it's clear that ANA troops fired until the same private ordered them to stop. It appears he wasn't the only low-ranking Australian solider to take a leadership role.

The fact that junior Australian soldiers gave orders to Afghan troops raises a basic issue: who's in charge when Australians go on patrol with Afghans?

In this incident, it appears no one was; or, rather, that several people were. The patrol was initially commanded by an ANA sergeant, then an ANA lieutenant turned up and took charge. Yet the Afghans were out-ranked by the senior Australian present, a captain, who had ultimate control of  'all of the assets'. Just what these assets were is redacted.

The report finds leadership 'confusion' did not contribute to the civilian casualties. But it warns:

Uncertainty in this area leaves room for confusion during contact which is obviously undesirable. There should be no doubt in the minds of ADF (and ANA) members in regard to command status within a patrol.

If there was confusion over who was in command, there was also uncertainty over the rules under which the ANA fought, or if they had any rules at all. While the report found the Australians adhered to their rules of engagement, they did not know what rules the Afghan were following. Nor was the inquiry able to obtain copies of any relevant ANA rules.

The report makes nine recommendations, all partly or wholly redacted. What's not censored is the unsurprising recommendation that leadership be sorted out before troops go out on patrol.

The ADF says all the recommendations have been implemented. Maybe, but this report shows that the mentoring program was still beset by dangerous ambiguity two years after it began.

Visiting Afghanistan this week, Defence Minister Stephen Smith issued another statement declaring the program is making progress and the ANA are on track to take the lead sometime over the next 12-18 months. On the basis of this report, that's when things really could get nasty.

In part 2: other issues raised by the report, including the risk to the ADF's reputation in serving alongside the ANA.

Photo by Spc. Nevada Jack Smith/ADF.