SAS—Early Iraq-Afghanistan operations

AN SAS patrol occupies a low-lying position to remain undetected by passing Iraqi's. Patrols observing enemy movements could quickly call on the support of these vehicles if required.

Anaconda was another debacle, but on this occasion the Afghans were not wholly to blame. At the last minute, American intelligence revised the estimated strength of the al-Qaeda forces in the mountainous training area from between 150 and 200 to almost ten times that figure. The US commander, General Franklin L. Hagenbeck, told his inner circle, ‘This is bigger than we thought. There’s going to be up to 1,500 bad guys out there.’ However, he decided to proceed with the original plan, believing their control of the air would allow them to destroy the enemy’s fighting ability even before the ground battle was joined.

The US Air Force was scheduled to unleash a pre-emptive carpet-bombing assault on all the Shahi-Kot defensive positions – caves, mountain redoubts and training facilities – for a full 55 minutes. Unfortunately, according to the Australian liaison officer Clint Palmer, only one B-1 bomber arrived and dropped six bombs along a humpback ridgeline in the valley. The raid lasted a mere five minutes.

More importantly, perhaps, the Afghan-led ‘hammer’ force was spotted by al-Qaeda lookouts before they reached the battle space in their convoy of trucks. They were assailed by a fusillade of mortars. Then, without warning, an American AC-130 gunship, wildly off course and 10,000 feet (3,000 metres) above the convoy, fired a deadly broadside of Howitzer shells into Zia’s forces, killing several of his men and mortally wounding an American Special Forces soldier. Zia turned tail and fled. The SAS men escaped unscathed, but the hammer was no more.

When the American ‘anvil’ inserted by helicopter at 6 am, they were unaware that the hammer had been shattered. The 82 members of the Ranger Company were now exposed to a powerful counterattack from the enemy, and for the next 18 hours they were under constant mortar, rocket-propelled grenade (RPG) and sniper fire from the high ground. The American troops fought back valiantly and casualties were kept to a minimum. But, once again, the al-Qaeda leadership had escaped the Allies’ clutches. The battered rangers were finally withdrawn at midnight, with the two embedded Australians among the last to leave. The SAS radio operator, Jock Wallace, would later receive the Medal for Gallantry.

The US Air Force then pounded the area with 2,000-pound (roughly 900-kilograms) bombs and mini-gun shells. Nev Bonner’s patrol remained on watch from their mountain fastness. ‘Some of the biggest shells hit just over the edge of our mountain top hideout and we felt the shockwave, saw the massive flash and heard the hot metal rip the air overhead,’ he says. ‘As dawn approached we could see the remains of at least two [American] helicopters that had been destroyed. We occasionally caught sight of scurrying Taliban fighters moving between small mud buildings.’

The Americans regrouped and pounded the target area mercilessly. ‘The sky overhead was alive with aircraft all hours of the day and night,’ Bonner says. ‘One minute it was a predator droning slowly around 3,000 feet above; next we’d see a stream of B-52s fly in from thousands of kilometres away. Then it was Warthogs farting their deadly hail of 30-mm cannon fire down on to the rocks and ridges below. F-15s circled higher still and occasionally screamed down below the safe threshold to deliver a JDAM [joint direct attack munition] and then screamed upward again, sometimes followed by the snake trail of a surface-to-air anti-aircraft missile.’ When the pilots detected the incoming missiles, they deployed magnesium decoy flares to divert their heat-seeking instruments. ‘It was a fantastic, terrifying and awe-inspiring display,’ he says.

Over the next two weeks the US forces mounted a further series of well-planned assaults on the training facilities and the caves that had sheltered the insurgents. While none of the leaders was captured, the area was effectively nullified as an enemy encampment. The Americans called it a ‘victory’ and the Australians then resumed their patrols.

‘Over the next weeks and months,’ Bonner says, ‘we conducted many tasks searching for Taliban strongholds and training facilities. We had limited success, and some of the boys felt that the targets we were given were less than priority jobs. Whether or not this was the case, the lads were doing their best to perform well in difficult circumstances.’

Towards the end of his tour, Bonner’s patrol was sent to establish an OP close to the tripartite borders of Afghanistan, Pakistan and Iran. It was a classic SAS long-range-surveillance operation. ‘From there we could watch the activities of the Pakistanis on the high mountain range to our south and simultaneously the Iranian border stretching along a series of fences to our west,’ he says. They could see Taliban supply trucks travelling back and across the borders. ‘The intel gathered showed just how porous the borders really were, and how anything could be moved in and out of Afghanistan from any neighbour.’

Even in these isolated areas, American technology made its presence felt. ‘When I tried to sleep I could hear the ever-present threat of the drones overhead watching us and searching the surrounds,’ he says. ‘It was supposed to be reassuring to have their extra eyes providing overwatch, but it put our nerves on edge.’

When the squadron returned home in April 2002, they were given a month’s leave before resuming training at their Swanbourne HQ. They were replaced by 2 Squadron, who stayed until August. Then 3 Squadron took over until the Afghan deployment was terminated in November 2002.

By then events in Washington and at the United Nations had conspired to open a new front in the Middle East, this time centred on Iraq and the catastrophic quest for a chimera: Saddam Hussein’s weapons of mass destruction (WMDs). And while the opprobrium of history has fallen squarely on the political shoulders of President George W. Bush and his hawkish vice-president Dick Cheney, Britain’s Tony Blair and Australia’s John Howard were equally enthusiastic members of the so-called ‘Coalition of the Willing’.

Australia’s political parties were divided on invading Iraq, but then on 12 October 2002 the country experienced its own tragic attack at the hands of Islamist terrorists. In the Balinese tourist district of Kuta, inside Paddy’s Bar that evening, a member of the Jemaah Islamiyah (JI) group detonated a bomb in his backpack. Some nightclubbers were fatally wounded; others fled into the street, where, 20 seconds later, they became the victims of a second and much more powerful bomb hidden inside a parked van. The explosions killed 202 people, 88 of them Australians. The second bomb left a crater a metre deep in the roadside. An audio cassette was quickly discovered with a message from Osama bin Laden that the bombings were a direct retaliation for Australia’s support of the US ‘war on terror’ and Australia’s role in Timor.

The incident was a serious blow to Australia’s intelligence agencies, particularly ASIS. A 2004 inquiry conducted by the former head of the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade (DFAT) Philip Flood found that intelligence on JI was inadequate. ‘[I]n fact,’ he wrote, ‘little was known of Jemaah Islamiyah under that name … Australia and regional countries should have known, by the end of 2001, much more about Jemaah Islamiyah, its development of terrorist capabilities and its intentions towards Western targets.’ Moreover, while ONA assessments ‘reflected an increasingly deep understanding of the JI threat, [the] Defence Intelligence Organisation continued to assess that regional extremist groups were domestically focused and had little intent or capability to target foreigners or launch mass-scale terrorist attacks’.

Flood barely touched upon one of the continuing weaknesses of the intelligence and defence agencies: the inherent racism that has meant only a tiny proportion of operatives either come from a non-English speaking background or are fluent in a relevant language. And at the top executive level they are practically non-existent. The situation would improve slightly from initiatives in the relatively brief Rudd administration, but it remains a serious shortcoming.

Paradoxically, the Bali tragedy had the remarkably beneficial effect of transforming – at least for a time – the truculent relationship between Australia and Indonesia, particularly within the intelligence and security community. The AFP, ASIO and ASIS provided an unprecedented measure of cooperation with the Indonesian police and security forces in seeking out the culprits. At one stage the highly respected Australian ambassador to Indonesia, Ric Smith, was host to more than 100 federal and state police, DFAT and ASIS operatives.

Smith’s presence was itself a happy chance. Born in Western Australia in 1944, he had risen through the ranks at DFAT and was acting secretary of the department in 1993. Prior to his Jakarta posting he had been ambassador to China from 1996 and would later become secretary of the Defence Department. His close links with key Indonesian Government figures would be a great asset in the early stages of the investigation.

The Indonesians responded, and Bali’s police chief, I Made Pastika, developed a very close working relationship with AFP chief Mick Keelty. ‘Pastika was a very good man,’ Ric Smith says. ‘He had been Chief of Police of West Papua where he did a very good job; and of course now he’s the Governor of Bali.’ Indeed, the sense of partnership against a common foe was reflected at all intergovernmental levels.

It was an extraordinarily successful operation. On 30 April 2003, the first charges were laid against one of the bombers, and by September three of the perpetrators had been found guilty and sentenced to death. A fourth was given life imprisonment. The executions would be carried out on 9 November 2008. Philip Flood called it ‘outstanding work’ between the two countries’ police forces. In fact, it owed much to the work of DSD in tracking the bombers electronically and passing their information secretly to AFP officer Michael Kelsey. ‘JI’s rise,’ Flood said, ‘demonstrates the crucial importance of Australian agencies being alert to shifts in the regional security environment and the emergence of new threats.’

The plight of the victims’ families in the aftermath of the bombings had resonated within the Australian community, so when the first publicly acknowledged military contingent departed for Iraq to fight in ‘the war on terror’ in 2003, both the prime minister and the opposition leader, Simon Crean, were on hand to wish them godspeed.

In fact, planning at Special Operations HQ in Canberra had been underway since May 2002. Whether this was an initiative of the special operations leadership or on orders from the prime minister is open to question. Howard consistently claimed that no decision to join the invasion was taken until the last moment. But in Canberra’s labyrinthine corridors of power, signals come in many forms, most of them politically deniable. The likelihood is that Howard’s security adviser quietly passed the word to trigger the military response. But signals were also, no doubt, semaphored from US intelligence sources to their Australian counterparts.

The SAS aspect of the operation was top secret, since it involved the clandestine cooperation of a supposedly neutral country – the Kingdom of Jordan – which was desperate not to be seen publicly as a cooperative American ally. Once again, 1 Squadron was chosen as the spearhead of the Australian force. Just before Christmas 2002, the OC, ‘Paul’, assembled his men at Swanbourne’s Campbell Barracks and gave them a ‘heads up’ on the deployment. Soon afterwards a command group headed out to the Jordanian capital, Amman, to set up a base and begin battle planning.

On arrival, they were whisked by bus to Al Jaffa, a remote military facility in the north-east, where the Americans had already established a Special Forces encampment. British SAS soldiers were also embedded, and patrol commander Nev Bonner was among the Australian command group. ‘No one told the others what we were doing,’ he says, ‘but it was generally friendly and the tucker was plentiful.’

By the time the rest of the squadron arrived, the command group had developed a plan to insert a troop by helicopter into their AO deep in the Iraqi Western Desert prior to the invasion. They would observe and report on the main access routes when the ‘shock and awe’ bombardment of Baghdad began. The rest of the squadron would lead a combined Allied force in their LRPVs with the task of controlling the two principal roads east–west out of Iraq: Route 10 and Highway 1.

By now Australia’s Special Forces had access to the most detailed satellite imagery in planning their route across the desert. ‘Our biggest difficulty,’ Bonner says, ‘was avoiding all the military establishments and armoured units of the Iraqi Army. Once we agreed on the route, we decided that near our AO my patrol would split from the squadron and establish a food and water cache that could be a means of survival should any of our blokes become separated during the coming battles. After that, we would rejoin the squadron and be prepared for further tasks as they developed.’

With the squadron lined up in their LRPVs on the border early in the morning of 19 March 2003 the OC made a final check with HQ and then broke radio silence with a single order: ‘Go!’ The vehicles roared into life. ‘Away we went to invade Iraq,’ Bonner says. ‘There were a few US soldiers around and some of them saluted. I was worried about the risk of landmines, but we got through without incident.’

For the next five weeks the SAS operators swept across the bare Iraqi landscape, patrolled their AO, monitored the escape routes, and took the Al Asad airbase with massive US air assaults and very little resistance. They captured more than 50 MIG fighters dismantled and buried in the sand, together with almost eight million kilograms of explosive.

Bonner says, ‘On Anzac Day 2003, we were still in Al Asad where in typical Aussie fashion we commemorated the anniversary that means so much to Australian soldiers, especially the SASR. The lads all piled up on one of Saddam’s command bunkers near the control tower in a formation reminiscent of that famous photo of the 11th Battalion on the pyramids in 1914 before they left for the Dardanelles.’ Soon afterwards they were told that US forces were on their way to take over. Al Asad would become the biggest American airbase in Iraq. The squadron then left for the return trip to Australia, where they received the Unit Citation for Gallantry – the first time it had been awarded.

For the moment, Australian forces withdrew from the Iraqi battlefield, while the Americans and British conducted their vain search for Saddam’s fabled WMDs. Indeed, Philip Flood’s review of the Australian intelligence agencies’ performance in this area was unequivocal: ‘Australia shared in the Allied intelligence failure on the key question of Iraq WMD stockpiles,’ he said, ‘with ONA more exposed and DIO more cautious on the subject.’

While noting that Saddam retained the ‘ambition and intent’ to have a WMD program, ‘the lack of comprehensive assessment which might have been achieved by production of a National Assessment by ONA or an Intelligence Estimate by DIO to support ADF deployment considerations, was regrettable … Intelligence was thin, ambiguous and incomplete … the Inquiry recommends a number of changes to ONA and DIO processes to improve the robustness of assessments.’

Other conventional forces from the Big Army would later be deployed to provide security for a Japanese reconstruction unit in one of the less fractious provinces of Iraq. It was a clever political move by Prime Minister Howard, as it allowed him to win his spurs as a fighting ally of the United States (whose president would dub him – to his obvious delight – ‘a man of steel’), while ensuring that Australia’s troops were well out of the firing line. In the event, no Australian troops were killed or taken prisoner throughout the entire duration of the war.

Under the public radar, a new element of the Special Forces contingent had its first taste of war in the Middle East when a platoon of 4 RAR Commandos joined the SAS Squadron in Jordan. Their departure had been so hastily arranged that they arrived without adequate cold-weather or sleeping gear and they had to ‘borrow’ it from the SAS. They, together with the Incident Response Regiment support, joined them in the attack on Al Asad. They also returned to Australia when the SAS withdrew.

By now the commando unit had made good progress towards establishing itself as a viable commando force within Special Operations Command (SOCOMD). But the pace of Special Forces activities in the Middle East and the region meant that responsibility for the military response to counterterrorism remained with the SAS. It also meant that the professional cadre of the reserve 1 Commando Regiment was pressed into service, providing support to Special Forces operations in Qatar and subsequently in Bougainville, the Solomon Islands and other regional trouble spots.

In September 2003, 1 Commando commemorated the 60th anniversary of the Jaywick raid on Singapore Harbour when it hosted the newly appointed CDF, General Peter Cosgrove, at a ceremony with the remaining members of the team – Moss Berryman and Horrie Young – at the National Maritime Museum. Also attending was the newly appointed Special Forces commander, Major General Duncan Lewis. Under General Lewis, the 126 Signals Squadron was transferred to provide communications for 4 RAR (Commando) and a new Signals Squadron 301 would eventually be raised to support the reserve unit.

The following year, the regiment’s outgoing CO, Lieutenant Colonel Anthony John, said, ‘As we reach the end of 2004, reserve members of the unit are in operations in Iraq, East Timor and preparing to deploy on Operation Relex in the Northern Australian waters as boarding parties. We are reinforcing a 4 RAR (Commando) rotation to Malaysia and on standby to provide support in responding to terrorist incidents in Australia. This displays a very high level of flexibility.’

The regiment’s historian Peter Collins looked forward to an era of ‘closer integration and co-dependence’ of regular and reserve Special Forces. ‘1 Commando Regiment gives us a glimpse into the future,’ he said. ‘This is not simply a Special Forces structure but potentially the whole structure of the Australian Army.

‘After the two world wars of the twentieth century, the prospect of global conflict has, mercifully, receded but in its place has been a never ending series of regional conflicts … if [this] trend continues then the demand for more highly trained and mobile forces will also continue. This translates to a probable demand for more Special Forces.’

In 2005 Duncan Lewis transferred from the command of Special Forces to a new position in the Department of PM&C to become the government’s top civilian adviser on counterterrorism. He was replaced by a former SAS commander, Major General Mike Hindmarsh.


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