Australia’s special forces have been in the news due to allegations ranging from poor culture to potential war crimes, including arbitrary executions. These allegations have led to a number of Defence-initiated reviews and investigations.
Much of the commentary has focused on individuals. And it’s a little dispiriting that Brendan Nelson, the director of the Australian War Memorial, wants to see the inquiries wrapped up as soon as possible, rather than insisting that we do whatever is necessary to reveal what actually happened. But Nelson did usefully invite us to examine not just the special forces but our national leadership: ‘If anyone bears responsibility, let it be the political class, including me, who sent them and the military leadership tasked with adherence to the truths by which they live.’
So let’s elevate our focus to look at the decisions of our political and military leaders who sent the special forces to Afghanistan and kept them there, and what they could learn.
Generally, Australia applies military force as a measure of last resort to achieve national goals. Use of force is part of a strategy. Strategy can be broken down into the classic triumvirate of ends, ways, and means: we want to achieve a goal, we plan how we are going to achieve it, and we apply resources to implement the plan. When those three align, the strategy can succeed. When they don’t, we have a situation like Vietnam and potentially now Afghanistan.