Australian death squads in Afghanistan

By Hamish Chitts

Last month the Melbourne Age revealed that members of the Australian Defence Force (ADF) had covered up the killing and wounding of civilians in Afghanistan by Australian Special Air Service (SAS) troops. In the same month, The Australian newspaper proudly reported the use of SAS patrols as death squads carrying out assassinations in Afghanistan.

In July 2006, near Tarin Kowt in Uruzgan province, Abdul Baqi was driving with members of his family when their car was fired upon. Baqi was killed, his wife blinded and their daughter so badly injured she later had a leg amputated. His son, a niece and a nephew were also injured. Afghan MP Haji Abdul Khaliq, who is related to the victims of the attack, told the May 11 Age he was convinced Australian soldiers were responsible. Khaliq said: “We asked the governor and police chief who made the investigation. They said that they were Australians [who had fired at the car]. They did not give any sign to stop. And my car’s windows were not dark. Inside the car was visible.” He said none of the Australian soldiers helped the injured. “They didn’t even give them a bottle of water and they didn’t even take them to hospital.”

ADF chief Angus Houston told an Australian parliamentary hearing in early 2007 that an investigation had found no substance to the allegations that Australian troops were involved in the shooting. An ADF spokesperson told The Age that Khaliq’s claims did “not correspond to coalition patrol reporting”. This contradicts the evidence ADF investigators found — that a SAS patrol was nearby when Baqi’s car was attacked and reported a “contact” (meaning they’d fired their weapons) in the same area where the car was hit. At the time, the SAS patrol believed taxis were ferrying Afghan resistance fighters in the area. Abdul Hakim Monib, the former governor of the area, told reporters that a senior ADF officer had told him Australians were responsible. “They expressed their sorrow for the incident and they said, ‘We thought they were the enemy.’ They said it was a mistake and we are upset about it”, said Monib.

Plausible deniability?

The Age reported that it was “almost certain” the information about Australian troops having attacked the Baqi family was not passed on to Houston before he gave his testimony to the parliamentary committee. However, it is unlikely that relatively low-ranking ADF investigators, upon finding that Australian troops may have killed and maimed the family of an Afghan MP, would decide not to inform the officials in Canberra. It is more likely that the Australian government tried to conceal the fact that Australian operations had resulted in the slaughter of innocent civilians. Prime Minister Kevin Rudd has refused calls to hold an independent investigation and has asked Houston to set up an investigation of the original investigation, whose correct findings never saw the light of day.

Prior to the 2003 invasion of Iraq, the US and Australian governments used the supposed existence of weapons of mass destruction in Iraq to justify the invasion. When they could no longer hide the fact that these weapons did not exist, these same governments called this “a failure of military intelligence” and blamed their intelligence agencies for not giving them the correct information. In reality, it was known even at the lowest levels of Australia’s spy organisations that there were no weapons of mass destruction. When the truth came out, the politicians were ably assisted in covering up the fact that they had lied to a few senior intelligence officials, who took the blame for deceiving the public and resigned — taking decent payouts and still able to pursue lucrative consulting contracts with private military and security corporations.

The Department of Defence has yet to release the findings of two inquiries into allegations Australian troops were responsible for the deaths of Afghan civilians this year. In January, an Australian military operation allegedly left four civilians dead. Five children were killed in an incident involving Australian troops in February. No doubt investigators will find there is no substance to these allegations as well.

Phoenix program revisited

The May 7 Australian reported that ADF special forces troops had taken part in a “targeted assassination” of a senior Taliban leader, Mullah Noorullah. The report could not say how senior Noorullah was, nor when the assassination took place, but it did say the assassination occurred in Deh Rafshan district in southern Uruzgan, where the Australian Special Operations Task Group is based. The Australian went on to admit: “The SOTG tag is commonly used by [the ADF] as a synonym to describe elite Special Air Service operatives authorised to hunt and kill Taliban leaders in an Afghan variation on the Vietnam-era Phoenix Program.”

The Phoenix program officially ran from 1967 to 1972, but the US and its allies in Vietnam employed similar tactics before and after these dates. Through infiltration, detention, terrorism and assassination, the program was designed to “neutralise” the civilian infrastructure supporting the National Liberation Front (NLF) of South Vietnam. The program used small special forces units, including the Australian SAS, for the systematic murder of Vietnamese civilians suspected of supporting the NLF. Men, women and children who were family members of an alleged NLF leader were massacred. Between 20,000 and 70,000 people were murdered, and tens of thousands more were detained and tortured.

The US military and CIA also used these methods in Latin America throughout the 1970s and ’80s and up to the present day. US-funded and trained death squads have propped up brutal and unpopular pro-US governments in Chile, El Salvador, Guatemala, Honduras and Nicaragua. In Colombia they continue to operate, murdering union officials and anyone considered a left-wing leader. Today Washington uses death squads in an attempt to destabilise the leftist government of Bolivia and the revolutionary government of Venezuela.

Washington has also used death squads in Iraq since 2003. In a report by Rafael Epstein for the ABC Lateline program in November 2008, Australian Major General Jim Molan admitted to overseeing assassinations of suspected resistance supporters. In 2004 Molan was chief of operations, coordinating all of the occupation forces in Iraq. He said:“I conducted these kind of operations every day of the week for the year that I spent in Iraq. We go to extraordinary lengths to try to get it right. But in a war, things don’t always go the way you want them to go and unfortunate accidents, incidents, do happen.”

Operation Peeler

Operation Peeler is the name given to the activities of Australian SAS death squads in Afghanistan’s Uruzgan province. According to Australian military documents, its aim is to “disrupt Taliban leadership and Improvised Explosive Device facilitators”. This means night raids on villages, doors kicked in and detention or assignation of people suspected of being part of or supporting the resistance. Those detained face torture at the hands of local and foreign interrogators — the same people behind extraordinary renditions, waterboarding and the Abu Ghraib prisoner abuse.

In November 2007, the SAS killed three men, two women and a child during an assault on an alleged insurgent house. The alleged insurgent was not there. Last September, the SAS was ordered to assassinate someone identified as “Musket”. Pro-government villagers thought the approaching Australian troops were resistance fighters; the Australians thought the villagers were resistance fighters and in the ensuing gunfight mistakenly shot dead a district governor, Rozi Khan, and another man and wounded five others. An Australian investigation found: “The forensic evidence is not available to definitively attribute responsibility for Rozi Khan’s death.” During March and April this year, the SAS reportedly carried out a major operation in parts of Helmand province that resulted in the deaths of 80 alleged Taliban fighters. In at least one case, it called in US air strikes on a civilian house where a resistance commander was allegedly making a last stand.

The use of Australian SAS troops as death squads that originate in the US Phoenix program should disgust all working people, including soldiers involved in Operation Peeler. The fact that these operations continue under Rudd and US President Barack Obama should shatter any illusions that these politicians are any different from Howard and Bush. There is no real difference between the policies of the leading capitalist politicians in Australia and the US; they all serve the interests of imperialist capitalism, with its drive to dominate the natural and human resources of the Third World.

[Hamish Chitts is a member of the Revolutionary Socialist Party and one of the founders of Stand Fast — veterans and service people against the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. For information about Stand Fast visit www.stand-fast.webs.com or phone 0401 586 923.]