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Winning hearts and minds in Afghanistan

By Keith Suter - posted Wednesday, 29 September 2010

Three Australian soldiers have been charged with a range of offences, including manslaughter, after an incident in Afghanistan in February 2009, in which five children were killed. The military trial will take place in 2011.

The September 27, 2010, media statement, from the Director of Military Prosecutions, about the charges generated considerable debate. This is the first time, apparently, that Australian soldiers have ever faced such charges. It also seemed a little odd to media commentators that the military legal system was charging soldiers with violent offences when they were in the middle of a brutal war.

Far more facts will come to light as the trial gets underway. Here are a few points to ponder - in no particular order of priority - by way of background.


First, although the charges made the headline news on September 27 and 28, the incident itself has been spoken about for many months. The SBS TV website in particular has had a continuing interest in this matter, including statements from the relatives of the victims. There has also been a Senate debate. There are, then, many allegations, rumours and innuendo. The trial will enable the full facts to be examined, not least how the victims died.

It has been claimed by some commentators that having the trial will be bad for the morale of serving Australian military personnel. But it is also bad for there to be the continued rumours and allegations circulating about the incident. The trial will clear the air.

If the trial reveals that there were systemic operational problems then these can be addressed, such as through improved training. Even when the Afghanistan operation is eventually over there will still be many other guerrilla operations to be carried out. We are living in a new warfare state and guerrilla warfare is now the common form of warfare.

Second, Australian military personnel are very well trained both in how to fight conflicts and the international humanitarian law which regulates conflicts. It is one of the reasons why Australian troops are in such demand for so many global hotspots. The trial will doubtless reaffirm that the troops involved in the incident were well trained - but that accidents can happen. (The September 8 shooting of New South Wales police officer Bill Crews by a police colleague during a gunfight was a tragic reminder than even in NSW mistakes can take place in a violent encounter.)

The Taliban by contrast have killed far more Afghanis than the Allies. That is their standard method of operations. But the Australians are the “good guys”: they are a cut above their merciless enemy. This commitment to a higher set of values and the international humanitarian law of armed conflict needs to be demonstrated in the daily behaviour of all Australian personnel - and the investigation of alleged inappropriate acts.

No doubt the Taliban will be most interested in the amount of resources Australians are now devoting to investigating Australian behaviour. Being a “good guy” carries a high price. But in the back of the Taliban’s mind must be the lingering fear that Australian high-mindedness will make their task all the more difficult should they seek to retake the area when the Americans (and Australians) start the drawdown in July 2011 and they try to take the country back to the barbaric Middle Ages.


For a brief moment Afghanis have seen an alternative way of life. For some of the old men, the prospect of (say) educated young girls must have been seen as a threat. But for many other Afghanis - most of whom are not conservative old men - the “western way of life” (including respect for law and order) has provided an alternative vision of how society can be organised. They will not want to lose that vision easily once the Taliban try to retake their areas.

Third, Afghanistan’s guerrilla warfare is very different from the conventional fighting of the two World Wars and the stylised Hollywood movies. There is no set “frontline” in a guerrilla struggle - the frontline is all around you. There is a constant risk of violence - especially when the Taliban use children as a decoy behind whom to fire.

The key factor for victory is “winning hearts and minds”. Hearts and minds are not won by putting people in coffins. Therefore a key to victory is not so much the excessive use of violence but the restrained use of it.

This was brought home to me in Vietnam during the war. I interviewed some of the survivors of the 1968 My Lai massacre. What struck me was the way in which many of the ordinary peasants did not care who won the war; their life was hard enough no matter which ideology won out. But the Viet Cong/National Liberation Front were more disciplined and had less ammunition to use than the Americans who fired indiscriminately. The My Lai survivors had a grudging respect for them because they left them more in peace than the Americans.

Therefore victory in a guerrilla struggle requires both restrained use of force and extensive economic and social reform to give local people a reason for one side winning over the other. Restricting the alleged use of inappropriate violence is one part of that grand strategy. Hence it is important to examine all allegations of inappropriate violence.

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About the Author

Dr Keith Suter is a futurist, thought leader and media personality in the areas of social policy and foreign affairs. He is a prolific and well-respected writer and social commentator appearing on radio and television most weeks.

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