My story in the Guardian:
We don’t know whether the Australian military has killed or injured civilians in Iraq, and if so, how many. Since Canberra joined the US-led mission against the Islamic State (Isis) on 8 October 2014, the Australian Defence Force (ADF) has provided barely any information about its operations.
So the new report by Airwars, a British organisation comprised of journalists and researchers, is welcome. It aims to demystify the war against Isis and document how many civilians are dying in Iraq and Syria.
Airwars has found at least 459 non-combatant deaths, including 100 children, from 52 airstrikes. Over 5,700 airstrikes have been launched since 2014.
Yet the US military central command cites the deaths of only two civilians. The discrepancy between these figures – two deaths, or 459 – should be startling. The US State Department pledged to “review its findings” after Airwars issued its report, with a spokesman saying “That’s why we’re looking into them and trying to see where the – what the right number is, to be frank.”
Australia’s role in the anti-Isis coalition is shrouded in secrecy. Operation Okra is described as “conducting air combat and support operations in Iraq and is operating within a US-led international coalition assembled to disrupt and degrade ISIL.”
The ADF issues very sparse monthly reports on how it is going about this mission. Australian jets are spending thousands of hours in the air, and have completed over 100 airstrikes, dropping more than 400 bombs and missiles, yet we are told only about the jets’ capabilities, and given pretty pictures of them in action.
I asked the ADF a number of questions, including why the public wasn’t being told more, whether Australia was aware of its actions causing harm or death to civilians, and whether its “rules of engagement” aimed to minimise civilian casualties and damage to infrastructure. My questions were largely ignored. I was told:
For operational security reasons, the ADF will not provide mission-specific details on individual engagements against Daesh. The ADF will not release information that could be distorted and used against Australia in Daesh propaganda. Australia’s Rules of Engagement are designed to avoid civilian casualties and damage to civilian infrastructure.
A spokesperson for the Minister for Defence, Kevin Andrews, added that, “the Abbott government has every confidence in the professionalism of the Australian Defence Force to act in accordance with Australia’s Rules of Engagement, which are designed to avoid civilian casualties and damage to civilian infrastructure”.
When Airwars questioned Australia’s lack of information sharing – unlike, say, Canada, which releases information on a timely basis – it received the same, pro-forma response from the ADF.
Airwars project leader Chris Woods, a British journalist and author of “Sudden Justice: America’s Secret Drone Wars”, told me that Australia’s lack of transparency was worrying.
“Of the 12 nations in the Coalition which have bombed Daesh in Iraq and Syria over the past year, Australia is pretty much near the bottom in terms of transparency and accountability”, he said.
“The Saudis and the Belgians are worse, though not by much. Once a month we get a chart saying how many bombs have been dropped – and that’s it. No details of locations struck. No word of the dates on which strikes occurred.”
Woods condemns Canberra’s reason for secrecy as inappropriate for a democracy.
“The excuse for this paucity of information is that Daesh might use any improved reporting ‘for propaganda purposes’. That’s absurd, of course. Canada, the UK, France and others all report happily on where and when they strike,” he says.
“And transparency really does matter. The Coalition tells us that each member nation is individually liable for the civilians it kills. If Australia refuses to say anything about its strikes, how can there be any justice for those affected on the ground if something goes wrong?”
This ADF obsession with secrecy and obsessively trying to control the message is nothing new. Remember that in 2013, the ADF tried and failed to isolate Fairfax reporters Paul McGeough and Kate Geraghty during their time in Afghanistan. As McGeough put it, they were “effectively denying our right as journalists to cover any of the story”.
Successive Australian governments have long demanded secrecy in matters of war, immigration and trade. It’s an attitude that presumes the public either doesn’t really care about what governments do; or that enough journalists are willing to swallow spin in exchange for access, embeds with Australian troops or spurious “exclusives” with the military and strategists.
Australia’s current war against Isis has continued this tradition of secrecy. As former army intelligence officer James Brown wrote recently in The Saturday Paper, “how much progress is Australia making against Daesh? It’s painfully hard to tell.” Yet there is no demand for the ADF to open up.
Paul Barratt, former secretary of the Department of Defence and president of the campaign for an Iraq War inquiry, says that the Abbott government’s attitude “reflects both its habits of secretiveness and the lack of a coherent strategy – more policy on the run.
“What started out as humanitarian relief using existing assets in the Middle East was rapidly transformed into boots on the ground in a training role, and aircraft both flying combat missions and refuelling other coalition aircraft for combat missions in Syria. There is little sign that this has been thought through or that it is heading in the direction of an achievable goal.”
I’ve long argued that reporters and media organisations should collectively push back against restrictive ADF methods by refusing to be embedded without greater freedom in the field. Apart from visiting the troops for state-managed photo ops, independent reporting of the wars in Iraq or Afghanistan is preferable because it’s civilians who bear the brunt of the conflict.
Journalists should also ignore “exclusives” from the ADF until it recognises it’s creating an unacceptable mystery around actions undertaken with taxpayer dollars. Would the ADF loosen its rules? I’m confident it would, not least of all because it craves publicity.
If it doesn’t, we would at least have the spectacle of the ADF defending its tenuous position on disclosure.