Address by Major General Tim Mcowan DSC, CSM
[Australian] Special Operations Commander,
Canberra, December 11, 2008
1. Good afternoon ladies and gentlemen, and thank you for the chance to talk to you about some of the achievements of the Special Operations Task Group (SOTG) who have been operating in southern Afghanistan for the past two years.
2. These men continue to operate in extreme danger and in an extremely demanding physical environment, and they continue to deliver the results expected of them. In fact, they frequently deliver results well beyond that expected of them.
3. Needless to say I am extremely proud of them and I am pleased that some of their excellent work can be acknowledged here today.
4. I have indicated my willingness to speak to you today because we recognise the right of the Australian people to understand the challenges facing their soldiers and the wonderful work they are doing.
5. However, as I am sure you will all appreciate, we must balance this against the need to keep our soldiers safe and the importance of ensuring that the operational information we release cannot be used to harm our people or prevent us from achieving our mission. Operational security is a much used term – for us it very real and can mean the difference between keeping our soldiers safe and allowing them to return home to their families or otherwise.
6. I intend to explore some of the specific combat incidents, patrols and successes of the SOTG in some detail and I ask you to please respect that there is some information that I just cannot and will not provide. We have seen time and time again the effectiveness of our enemy in exploiting this information and using it against our troops in the field. Every time information is leaked it provides another opportunity for the enemy to hurt us. Ultimately, it’s the soldiers’ lives which are at risk when this happens.
7. As an example of the immediate effect such leaks have - in early Sep, the wounding of Australian special forces soldiers was leaked and found its way into the Australian media. This news was exploited by the Taliban the same day, who broadcast their success against coalition troops on local radio in the Khaz Oruzgan region; in essence, an information release by us afforded them a propaganda opportunity.
8. I would also like to acknowledge up front that the SOTG is but one of the force elements that is contributing to the overarching NATO (ISAF) plan to stabilise Afghanistan and to defeat extremist elements in that country. The overall effort of course, is made up of many different countries all working together for the same goal, and our successes should never be looked at solely on a national basis as it is only through the support and assistance of our coalition partners that they have been achievable.
9. Whilst today I intend to focus on the sterling efforts of the SOTG, I would also like to take this opportunity to highlight the work of whole Australian Defence Force in supporting operations in Afghanistan and elsewhere. Importantly, the SOTG’s operations are enabled and facilitated by the wider ADF and indeed the wider Australian Defence department. We would be nowhere near as successful was it not for all that is done by others in support of our effort.
10. As Special Operations Commander Australia, I am responsible for preparing each Special Operations Task Group for deployment. Once deployed for operations in Afghanistan, the SOTG are assigned under command of the chief of joint operations for operations in Afghanistan.
11. Our people are making a difference, ……….their efforts are worthwhile and the Australian public should feel rightly proud that they are improving the lives of ordinary Afghans. On a daily basis we seek out those who would impose their violent will upon the disenfranchised and poor within Oruzgan province. We seek out those that kidnap and kill indiscriminately and those that extort and issue ‘night letters’ to the locals in order to intimidate them. In so doing we are facilitating a return to some form of normalcy for these poor people.
12. While the SOTG provides security ‘in the deep’ the mentoring and reconstruction task force (MTRF) is facilitating a more pervasive security by assisting in the development and operational design of the local Afghan national army ‘Kandaks’. Simultaneously they continue their wonderful work in building causeways, bridges, mosques, schools and administration buildings for the local people. Their work is cleverly designed to employ local labour and incorporates the purchase of local goods. This way some additional money is injected into the local economy and, importantly, work and learning experiences are provided for the local people. This is where the real lasting work is being done and where the greatest influence with the Afghan people is achieved. While the SOTG does wonderful work…..its work will not provide a lasting solution in Afghanistan….all we can hope for is to provide enhanced security for the MRTF and others (UN, Ausaid etc) to do their work.
13. I will now expand on a number of examples that illustrate the types of operations in which the SOTG have recently been involved. I stress that these are merely cameo examples…. they are by no means the sole exemplary actions. Indeed, I see and hear of their actions on a daily basis….and after 28 years in Special Forces I am often still astounded by their actions and their bravery.
14. The Australian public was starkly reminded of the dangers facing the SOTG when nine SAS members were wounded on 2 September of this year in one ambush. This is the largest number of Australian soldiers wounded in a single action since Vietnam. …………what was not revealed was that there were 13 TB confirmed killed in the actions of the preceding day leading to this ambush. We know that the actions during the ambush itself would also have, conservatively, led to the death of many more TB.
15. The SAS element was part of an Australian, U.S and Afghan hummvee vehicle convoy returning to base when it was ambushed by a numerically superior, well sited and prepared enemy.
16. In order to regain the initiative, several soldiers reacted to the ambush, without regard for their own safety.
17. One soldier, who I will refer to as Trooper F, moved between positions of cover to engage the enemy using anti-armour weapons as well as his personal weapon. This soldier deliberately exposed himself to enemy fire on several occasions in order to draw fire from those soldiers already wounded in the initial heavy fire when the ambush was initiated by the TB.
18. During the subsequent manoeuvre to extract the convoy from the enemy’s fire, a severely wounded Afghan interpreter had fallen from one of the hummvees. Trooper F saw that he had fallen and was lying to their rear in the open in ground being raked by machine gun fire. Without prompting, and without regard to his own safety, Trooper F ran back to recover the wounded Afghan. He ran across about 80 metres of fire-swept and exposed ground, drawing intense and accurate machine-gun fire from the entrenched enemy positions. Still under fire, Trooper F then lifted the wounded man onto his shoulders and carried him back to the vehicles before applying first aid and then returning to the fire fight.
19. Another member of the same SAS element, Trooper G, was in close proximity to another severely wounded Australian soldier. He moved the wounded soldier to the exposed rear tray of a coalition vehicle, not being able to get him inside the vehicle. Conscious of the heavy enemy fire, Trooper G used his own body as a shield and positioned himself over his wounded comrade. On several occasions, enemy bullets and RPG fragmentation struck his clothing and equipment………..despite the heavy incoming fire, this soldier continued to engage the enemy from this position. At an opportune moment, he provided medical attention which ultimately saved his mate’s life.
20. Throughout the ambush, the soldiers displayed the leadership and initiative that are so often the hallmarks of their kind. One SAS Non Commissioned Officer, Sergeant H manned the crew served weapon of his vehicle when the operator was shot. From this position he continued to engage the enemy throughout the engagement. Finally after he had been shot in the leg and then unable to remain standing, Sergeant H continued to assist the wounded and provided ammunition to the replacement vehicle gunner.
21. This small example illustrates the mettle of the men that I command but we should never forget the quality of our adversary. They should never be underestimated. They are fearless and elusive, there are many of them and they are tough.
22. They are also ruthless. They have proven time and time again that they are not reluctant to contrive situations where innocent men, women and children are likely to become caught up in their fight. They do this knowing that we will rarely engage them under these circumstances. Nonetheless they have proven they are always ready to use any propaganda afforded by an accidental wounding of an innocent………even if it is they that have caused the woundings.
23. In circumstances where innocent Afghans are in proximity the SOTG are careful to only prosecute operations after a thorough risk analysis is conducted by the commander on the ground.
24. The TB also place IEDs on roads commonly travelled by Afghan civilians, they regularly kill the innocent in order to impose their will. They frequently employ ‘night letters’ and death threats to intimidate and terrorise the local population. This makes them a difficult opponent because they are largely unrestrained in their actions and in their operations, while we recognise the imperative to retain a moral and ethical basis to all our operations. We abide by the laws of armed conflict and the rules of engagement and strive to foster confidence in the local population.
25. That said, I make no apology for the need to prosecute our operations or the need to employ deadly force in accordance with our rules of engagement when the situation demands. Our role in Afghanistan is to provide security for the population and to enhance security for the Mentoring and Reconstruction Task Force. We do this through indirect means by deliberately targeting the TB leadership and IED facilitators in Oruzgan province.
26. If, after this briefing, any of those two target groups should read on the web of those we are after ….then know this; ……….we will find you, we will hunt you down. Your time is limited, leave now and go back to a normal life without violence………….
27. I now want to give you some facts and figures to take away with you which will demonstrate how the soldiers have performed between their re-insertion in April of last year (2007) until last month. These figures cover off on what we know as rotations 4 through 7. Of the 524 days that we have been deployed the SAS element have spent 216 days outside the wire and the commando element 256 days outside the wire. In almost every patrol outside the wire both elements, whether commando or SAS, have been involved in some form of contact or firefight. The Australian public should understand that, once outside the wire, our troops are in harms way.
28. During those days the soldiers conducted 355 separate missions and employed offensive air support on 38 occasions.
29. One measure of effectiveness of these missions over the last 18 months has been the death of four key Taliban insurgent leaders and the capture of another seven. These are all key middle to high level Taliban leaders or IED facilitators. These are individuals who are, or have been, involved in killing innocents and actively trying to kill coalition troops.
30. These are successes not just for the SOTG but for the hard working, poor civilians of Afghanistan and for the fledgling democracy itself.
31. In early October the SOTG was involved in an operation that included clearing a compound of interest when they were engaged by Taliban insurgents.
32. What we have not previously released, is that a high level Taliban commander, Mullah Khairullah Shakir was subsequently confirmed as killed during the operation. Khairullah was directly involved in planning, coordinating and commanding attacks against coalition forces. He also facilitated the manufacture of IEDs and was involved in the intimidation and murder of innocent Afghan locals.
33. We know that the loss of these individuals has a dramatic effect upon the resilience of the TB networks. It takes them some time to recover or rebound. They know that the next ‘Lieutenant’ appointed as the local TB leader will also be targeted. We, in turn, know that he will invariably be less experienced and will be operating in fear for his life. While there is certainly no glory in pursuing these individuals, our soldiers nonetheless know that they are working in a moral context and that what they are doing is right.
34. It is easy to critique our operations when removed by distance from the reality of what we have been sent there by our government to achieve. On at least one occasion we have been accused of assassinations; I reject this vehemently. What we do is lawful in war, it is conducted in a moral, ethical and legal framework and our actions are always subject to constant review. Whilst deadly force is sometimes used it is not our automatic or first recourse, we always seek first to capture our adversary. Our operations are always proportionate. We are always mindful of the possibility of injury to others or damage to the belongings of the innocent and on many occasions operations have been aborted due to the possibility of innocents becoming injured or hurt.
35. It is important to me and our soldiers that the Australian public understand the role that the Special Forces play in Afghanistan. We are the unconventional part of Army and we do not operate in a traditional infantry sense. As I have highlighted, we don’t seek to clear or hold ground, roads or other objectives. We cannot provide the type of pervasive security that say, the MRTF can provide. They, in turn, cannot do what we are doing in targeting the TB leadership and IED facilitators. However, our roles are quite complimentary. As an aside, I assess that once the MTRF consolidates in Oruzgan, it will add substantially to the security in Oruzgan in their role.
36. The soldiers of the SOTG possess very specific skills. These skill sets enable them to conduct highly targeted operations against the insurgent command infrastructure. By disrupting these networks, the SOTG is able to terminate or prevent TB operations being conducted in the province.
37. Without the SOTG’s actions, the success of Australian efforts in reconstruction, and now mentoring and training of the Afghan national army, would be greatly constrained.
38. The SOTG regularly operate deep within known Taliban safe havens in order to disrupt the Taliban attempts to coordinate attacks from the perceived security of these locations. During one such operation, the commandos operated for over forty days in a known Taliban safe haven, successfully killing or capturing five Taliban leaders and killing or capturing dozens of Taliban fighters.
39. In many instances your Special Forces soldiers are able to clandestinely capture these leaders without ever firing a shot. On one occasion the commandos infiltrated undetected into the heart of a TB safe haven to capture the Taliban leader Ahmad Shah in his bed. The effects generated by this operation enabled the ISAF conventional forces to enter the same safe haven unopposed and to search for and destroy the large quantities of IED making materials located there. Overall, this operation reduced the capacity of the Taliban to coordinate the construction and export of IEDs into those areas in which the Dutch and Afghan security forces and the MRTF are operating.
40. The SAS and commando soldiers, while generally operating independently of each other, have proven extremely effective working in concert with one another, focusing on their respective strengths and fields of expertise. And while it’s important to acknowledge the efforts of both the SAS and commando soldiers it’s just as important to acknowledge the efforts of the incident response regiment and the other support elements.
41. The incident response regiment’s role is to advise, find, exploit, eliminate and protect against IEDs and other specified threats. IRR members continue to provide critical mobility capabilities in the high IED threat environment. They also provide a number of other specialist capabilities in the area of retention of evidentiary material so critical in bringing many of these insurgents to justice under the Afghan judicial system.
42. Given that we have experienced multiple IED strikes our IRR experts are well respected and valued for the skills they bring.
43. The SOTG doesn’t only include SAS, commandos or IRR either. There are over 30 different units represented in the SOTG. Some of the other support elements include mechanics, communicators, logisticians and medics, just to name a few. These individuals work hard to ensure the operators are ready and able to focus on their dangerous work.
44. They often work under very difficult circumstances and without them the operations could not occur. Deployments for these individuals generally last around 6 months, and in that time they can work anywhere upwards of 16 hour days, seven days a week.
45. Finally you should also realise that the SOTG never works in isolation from the people they are trying to assist. All our operations include Afghan national army personnel or Afghan national police. These individuals assist us in our relations with the local population whilst simultaneously providing the ANA with visibility of our proportionality and evidence of the fact that our operations are always conducted in accordance with president Karzai’s directed authority.
46. It would be unwise to believe that all of the work done by the Australians involves targeting and fighting. Frequently their work involves key leadership engagement, humanitarian assistance work and medical support in the more remote areas.
47. One of the larger operations in which the SOTG have been involved genuinely brought assistance to the local Afghans on a dramatic scale. This was operation Arum Tander II. The commando group contributed to a multi-national operation to install the new turbine at the Kajaki dam in northern Helmand province. In conjunction with another coalition SOF unit, the commandos supported the delivery of the turbine by threatening a known Taliban safe haven, thereby drawing the Taliban fighters and leaders away from the vulnerable turbine as it was being transported.
48. During this operation, over a period of about a week, the commandos were in almost daily contact with the Taliban who fought fiercely from compounds and prepared positions. Fighting alongside another coalition Special Forces unit, the commando’s frustrated the TB’s ability to prevent the turbine being emplaced.
49. Nearly 4,000 troops from the UK, US, Canada, Denmark and Australia along with soldiers from the Afghan national army were involved in this operation. The result is that the new turbine is now capable of producing 18 mw of electricity on an ongoing basis. The additional electricity helps to ensure light to classrooms in the local schools, to allow farmers to store their produce in chilled storage and to generally improve the lot of the people in the northern Helmand area.
50. There has been considerable discussion of the incident which resulted in the unfortunate death of the Chora district governor, Rozi Khan in September. The ADF completed its inquiry into the contact that resulted in this death but let me make a few extra points.
51. The discipline and discretion displayed by the SOTG soldiers in this instance prevented a tense and tragic incident from deteriorating into a situation that had the potential to be far worse.
52. Imagine yourself in a situation where you are moving, by night, close by a series of compounds to capture a known TB leader. You know that the TB leader is very close by. Suddenly you and your fellow soldiers come under fire from several different directions simultaneously. You respond, as is your right, by returning fire at those attempting to kill you. Almost immediately in the darkness you hear others approaching from a number of directions in assault formations, upon getting closer they too fire at you, are clearly armed and are dressed in civilian clothes. They do not identify themselves as Afghan national police as they continue to approach.
53. Tragically one of these groups included Rozi Khan, a friend of both the Australians and the wider coalition.
54. Unquestionably this was a tragedy; but the actions of the soldiers involved, given the circumstances, were appropriate and entirely reasonable. Thankfully, most people will never experience what it is like to be fired upon by night in the middle of an area known to be a TB safe haven. Try to imagine the level of discipline and composure it took to deliberately react with minimum force and then to diffuse the situation without further loss of life.
55. In our earlier operations in Afghanistan we lost Sergeant Andy Russell when his vehicle was struck by a mine, but over the last 524 days the Australian public have been made aware of a further five special forces members and a reconstruction task force soldier tragically killed in action.
56. What is not so well known is that during that same time we have suffered around fifty wounded……many of these have been superficial fragmentation woundings but equally many have been serious life threatening woundings. The frequency of these woundings speaks of the violence and danger that these men face on a daily basis.
57. There are no words to describe how devastating these deaths have been. Whilst we within the Special Forces and Special Operations Command feel the losses deeply; I can assure you that our sense of grief is nothing compared to that of the mothers and fathers, brothers, sisters and partners. I see the pain these people suffer through the loss of their loved ones; but we understand that their cherished son, brother or spouse was involved in a worthy and decent endeavour to improve the dignity and the lot of fellow human beings.
58. The threat in Afghanistan is real and the loss of these men is proof of the intensity of this conflict. SOTG soldiers are engaged in the fight against insurgents on a daily basis. They operate in an extremely demanding and complex environment……… they operate in that horribly unpredictable world where the indiscriminate IED can kill in an instant.
59. This was demonstrated so tragically on 8 Oct last year when Trooper David Pearce, a member of the reconstruction task force, was killed when his vehicle struck an IED.
60. Later on the 25th October last year, Special Operations Command suffered its first fatality within the SOTG when Sergeant Matt Locke was killed by small arms fire from enemy insurgents. Matt was a wonderful soldier and a wonderful human being.
61. As we were recovering from his loss, the commando’s suffered their first death as part of the SOTG. Private Luke Worsley was killed by small-arms fire on the 23rd November 2007. He was everything you would imagine a commando to be: tough and strong, with a heart of gold and a passion for what he was doing.
62. The commandos then faced the death of another soldier. Lance Corporal Jason Marks who was killed during a fire fight on the 27th April this year. Jason was an inspiration to those around him and a person many others sought to emulate.
63. Signalman Sean Mccarthy was killed on 8th July 2008 when his patrol struck an improvised explosive device. Sean’s soldiering skills were of the highest order and had been recognised on a previous tour when he was awarded a commendation for his outstanding professionalism and dedication.
64. And most recently Lieutenant Michael Fussell, a member of 4 RAR commando, was killed on the 27th November 2008 when his dismounted patrol struck an IED. Michael’s dedication and skill in coordinating the air and surveillance support for the commando was so highly valued and critical to those around him. He was truly an individual who grasped every opportunity to live his life to the full.
65. I would like to take this opportunity to publicly honour these men whose lives have been lost to date. I pray there will be no more, but fear that there may well be others. Most come home safe, but some do not……….in those instances I simply ask that you think of the families and the tragedy they have suffered……………...
66. Every day the men of the SOTG demonstrate that the physical and moral courage displayed by these men is common-place and not the exception. You should be very proud of your Special Forces soldiers.
67. In closing, I ask that you try to place yourselves, if only momentarily, in the mindset of these men who have been asked by their government to undertake these operations. try to imagine the physical demands of the long marches by night, the lack of sleep and the rigours of their lives, imagine the anticipation as they approach a compound in which they know TB are holed up ready to kill them. Imagine the fear as they enter that compound as they know they must.
68. In saying this, I know my soldiers don’t seek any form of sympathy; they have volunteered and willingly chosen the life of a soldier. Many of them have deployed into Afghanistan and other areas of conflict multiple times, always willingly and eagerly. But they do, quite reasonably, expect to be treated fairly and shown a degree of understanding. It’s not much to ask for what they give.
69. I hope this has given some insight into the actions of the SOTG, ………your special operations task group.
70. I would now like to take some of your questions.