Thursday 29 Sep 2022 | 23:25 | SYDNEY
Thursday 29 Sep 2022 | 23:25 | SYDNEY

The ADF and the Afghan army: A question of command (2)

11 October 2012 16:05

Tom Hyland is a freelance journalist and former foreign editor of The Age and The Sunday Age. The need for a clear command structure when Australians patrol with Afghans was the subject of part 1 of this post.

So-called 'green-on-blue' killings by Afghan soldiers of their foreign mentors – including seven Australians – have brutally exposed the risks faced by international troops in Afghanistan. But pre-dating those murders, the Australian Army report discussed in yesterday's post throws a chink of light on previously unacknowledged risks in the international effort to train the Afghan National Army (ANA) so it can take charge of security and foreign troops can leave on schedule by 2014.

If the actions of some ANA soldiers put Australians and their foreign allies at mortal risk, other aspects of the ANA's behaviour apparently puts them at moral risk.

The report, by an Australian brigadier investigating the death of a teenager and civilian injuries in Oruzgan province during a patrol of Australian and Afghan troops in November 2010, found it was highly unlikely that Australian troops caused the casualties, but was unable to say who did: either the ANA or insurgents who had fired on the patrol.

As yesterday's post revealed, what the inquiry does say is that there was confusion over who was in charge of the patrol – Afghans or Australians – and over what the ANA's rules of engagement were.

The Afghans appeared not to have any standard operating procedures and, if they did have rules of engagement designed to avoid civilian casualties, the Australians didn't know what those Afghan rules were.

While the report has suffered at the hands of zealous censors, a close reading raises the suspicion that the ANA's use of weapons that day was undisciplined and uncontrolled. This, it seems, is what creates the moral risk for foreign forces which have clear rules of engagement and well-practiced battlefield procedures, while serving with the ANA who appear to have neither.

A civilian trying to decipher this report needs to navigate rivers of black ink, but it is implied that the Australians struggled to control the ANA's fire and that the ANA's behavior risked creating 'a significant element of "reputational risk" for the ADF'.

The 'reputational risk' isn't explained in the public version of the report, but it warns the risk will be greater as the ANA increasingly takes charge. It says: 'As the ANA progressively take the lead, the ability of ADF members to influence their mentored ANA forces will be diminished, and the prospect of actions/outcomes that are not always consistent with the ADF's approach, will increase.'

Of course its relationship with the ANA isn't the only 'reputational risk' facing the ADF in Afghanistan. It has, after all, overcome the misgivings of some of its officers to nurture a close alliance with the notorious local strongman and now Oruzgan police chief Matiullah Khan (pictured above), on the grounds that he is a reliable 'security partner'.

By the time Matiullah or the ANA finally take the lead, most of the ADF will have gone, taking with them what little Australian scrutiny and interest there is in Afghanistan.

Photo by FLTLT Michael McGirr/ADF.