The Defence Force chief’s pledge to strip honours from thousands of special forces troops in Afghanistan has seemingly been reversed, in a major backdown by the ADF.
Less than two weeks after General Angus Campbell said he would write to the Governor-General, asking for the revocation of the Meritorious Unit Citation for 3000 special forces who served in Afghanistan between 2007 and 2013, the Chief of the Defence Force has now said no decisions have been made.
“Defence is developing a comprehensive implementation plan to action the Inspector-General’s recommendations,” General Campbell said in a statement late on Monday.
“No decisions have yet been made with regard to the appropriate options and approaches to implement the more than 140 recommendations, as the complexity and sensitivity of the issues outlined in the report will take extensive and considered deliberation.”
His comments stand in contrast to November 19, just 11 days earlier, when he had presented his decision as a final one.
“I have accepted the Inspector-General’s recommendation and will write to the Governor-General requesting he revoke the Meritorious Unit Citation for Special Operations Task Groups who served in Afghanistan between 2007 and 2013,” General Campbell said on that day.
“While necessary, I appreciate that these latter decisions will be a bitter blow for many.”
Initially, he said there was a “collective responsibility” for the entire unit over the shocking allegations, and said it was his call on whether citations would be stripped.
“I will review and make recommendation to the Governor-General with regard to the honours and awards received by a range of officers both in Australia and Afghanistan,” General Campbell said on November 19.
The New Daily had reported on Monday on the confusion over the status of the citations, and seemingly conflicting statements from Defence and politicians.
A petition from a leading veteran’s support group, opposing the blanket revoking of citations, hit 55,000 signatures in a matter of days.
The abrupt backdown comes after days of heated criticism from politicians, veterans and media reporting over the blanket nature of the punishment – affecting all special forces troops serving in Afghanistan at the time, not just those accused of grave misconduct.
Prime Minister Scott Morrison had, hours earlier, hinted at the reversal.
“Were decisions to be made on [citations], that would only be following a further process and that is where that matter rests right now, as is my understanding,” he said at a press conference.
“The best thing we can do, is to ensure that we have a fair process … We deal with them according to the rule of law, the presumption of innocence until proven guilty.
“What I am saying is that that process is not completed yet and so the issues that have been raised are not ones that are current.”
General Campbell’s Monday statement included several references to the government having a critical say on the outcome of the recommendations.
“Any further action in response to the Inspector-General’s recommendations will be considered as part of the implementation plan, which is being developed with the oversight of the Minister for Defence and the independent Afghanistan Inquiry Implementation Oversight Panel,” the CDF said.
General Campbell added issues including referrals of allegations for further investigation, compensation for victims, and “honours and awards including citations”, would be “addressed through the implementation plan”.
“Transparency is key to this process and I intend to speak publicly again, once the initial implementation plan is developed and first considered by Defence leadership and presented to government for consideration and input.”
Dr Allan Orr, a counter-insurgency expert, said it would have been “political suicide” for the government to strip citations from the whole SAS regiment.
“It’s a dumpster fire. The optics are horrible, [The citations] aren’t going back,” Dr Orr, who also works in defence engineering, told TND.
“They are right. The citations wouldn’t have been awarded if the ADF knew about the allegations, but they should have known.”
Dr Orr suggested it was an “ugly situation” that may only be able to be resolved by keeping the honours in place but dissolving the entire SAS regiment.
“Their only play is disbanding the squadron. All you can do is divert the blood flow. You have to leave the medals in place but disband the squadron,” he said.
He suggested special forces missions could be carried out by commando units, but that the SAS identity may not be able to survive.