War crimes inquiry: Joel Fitzgibbon lays responsibility with the national cabinet.
Joel Fitzgibbon believes the responsibility for any war crimes committed by Australian special forces in Afghanistan goes right to the top national cabinet.

Defence top brass and politicians were condemned yesterday for sending special forces troops to Afghanistan up to 16 times, in a cultural failure that went right to the top.

Former Labor defence Minister Joel Fitzgibbon said SAS troops had been sent on too many deployments for too long and the responsibility lay with the national cabinet.

Mr Fitzgibbon was defence Minister from the end of 2007 until the middle of 2009 – during the period Prime Minister Scott Morrison said was at the centre of the damning report to be released next week.

“Culture comes from the top and when poor culture emerges we must all take responsibility, all the way up the chain of command and into the National Security Committee of the cabinet,” Mr Fitzgibbon said.

He was pushing through Defence strategic reform when he was forced to resign over a breach of the ministerial code of conduct.

Suggestions at the time that Defence officials had secretly investigated his relationship with a Chinese businesswoman were dismissed.

Mr Morrison said his government had never received any word of the alleged atrocities listed in the report. “The matters contained in the report were never raised … with government, with ministers at the political level,” he said.

Mr Fitzgibbon said the SAS had been deployed too often.

“Members of our Special Forces were sent to Afghanistan too often and rotations were too long,” he told The Daily Telegraph.
“The strategic objective was vague and the prospects of success were poor. Close air support and Medevac retrievals were unreliable.

“Our boys were operating under their Rules of Engagement and the international law.

Their enemy was not constrained by rules or Western values. It’s no wonder things went wrong”.

Former defence force chief Sir Peter Cosgrove said last month: “Some of the people who are swept up in this have had multiple tours in a very, very dangerous place. This has to have an impact.”

Australian Defence Association executive director Neil James said the average number of Afghanistan tours of duty were between eight and 12, and they were of between three and four months, shorter than the usual regular army deployments.

“I have heard of one person who did 16,” he said. “That’s part of the problem. The reason for this is governments because they feared the political blowback of higher casualties.

“The ADF should have protested, they should have said you need a balance of conventional forces. This is a big lesson for next time around.”

Mr James said the high tempo “stressed unit cultural norms, taxed individuals psychologically” and may have “diluted accountability mechanisms”.

Another major problem was that, under international law, the conflict was not defined as an international war but as a conflict within one country.

“And that’s why they had the stupid catch-and-release policy where you could capture someone but three days later they had to let them go.”

Mr James said that might prompt soldiers to think “why should I risk my life to catch someone who keeps getting released and why don’t we put a bullet in them”.

He said: “You should never put someone in that situation.”

Australian Defence Force Academy academic at UNSW in Canberra James Connor said it was time to think about “what created the conditions for the special forces to do this – how did they get away with it for so long?”

“This is about command, people not being responsible, the band of brothers idea and how special forces are bonded tightly together which goes with how they look after one another, but it sometimes means covering up or allowing bad things to happen.”

Dr O’Connor said the report would inevitably lead to major changes.

“There is something very problematic within the culture of the special forces and perhaps more widely in the ADF.”

Former soldier Bernard Gaynor said top brass in Defence was focusing too hard on cultural shifts – such as advertising female-only infantry jobs – and political correctness rather than the business of soldiering.

“I think this inquiry has been nothing but an arse-covering exercise by military leadership obsessed with political correctness,” he said.

The alleged war crimes were brought to light in a 2016 report by sociologist Samantha Crompvoets, who was hired to examine cultural issues in the ADF and SAS.

“I am very concerned that this investigation will do nothing more than provide an opening for military-hating leftists to impose their radical agendas in the SAS,” Mr Gaynor said.

“I would not be surprised if we soon hear the usual mantras that the SAS is too patriarchal and too masculine to stamp out micro-aggressions and unconscious bias,” he said.

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