What’s Australia’s real role in pursuing “war on terror” in Muslim world?

Back in November I broke a story that detailed covert Australian missions across the Middle East, mostly off the books and often skirting legality.

Today’s piece in the Sydney Morning Herald by Rafael Epstein appears to add important points to the role Australia is playing alongside the US and Britain in these war zones but so many questions remain, not least the actual tasks of counter-insurgency that often merely inflame anti-Western hatred. There’s much more on this story to come:

Australian special forces soldiers have been serving in highly secretive US and British hit squads in Afghanistan, and some have served with the US unit whose men killed Osama bin Laden in Pakistan this week.

The Herald has confirmed that, since 2001, Australians from the SAS and Commando regiments have successfully served on “third country deployments” alongside some of the most highly classified, best-trained and well-resourced combat groups in Afghanistan. Crucially, the Australians have been refused permission to participate in cross-border raids into Pakistan.

The so-called ”capture-or-kill” squads ramped up their pursuit of senior insurgent leaders under the Obama administration, especially after US General David Petraeus took command in Afghanistan last year. They do not operate under NATO’s protocols and rules of engagement, but fight under the banner of the US-led Operation Enduring Freedom, which gives them ”greater freedom of action”, an Australian source said.

Dozens of Australian soldiers have served in Afghanistan with America’s Taskforce 373, and the British-led Taskforce 42, designations detailed last year in cables released by WikiLeaks.

These units have been rebadged, but sources have requested their new number designations not be disclosed, due to the secret nature of their work.

The Herald has confirmed that repeated requests from senior special forces officers were refused when they asked for small numbers of Australian personnel to serve in operations crossing into Pakistan.

One source said the requests were ”beyond the risk profile considered acceptable”, following internal legal advice.

Military sources insist the US- and British-led squads aim to capture, rather than kill, their targets, but with many insurgent leaders regarded as experienced fighters, efforts to arrest are often regarded as a more dangerous option. Another Australian source said the squads “don’t take many prisoners”.

Australian soldiers deployed with these teams go through a legal process allowing them to operate under another country’s flag while ensuring their status as members of the Australian Defence Force. However they are not allowed to participate in many anti-narcotics missions and are barred from deploying inside Pakistan because “if the Aussies breach the rules and they’re found out, it’s over”, one source said.

As many as six Australians at any one time are stationed with elite units such as the British Special Air Service and Special Boat Service, the US 75th Ranger Regiment, and ”Tier One” units, the Combat Application Group or Delta Force and the Navy SEALs Special Warfare Development Group. It was this last group that raided bin Laden’s compound.

The Australians and their counterparts are specially trained and equipped, have priority over almost all other military activity in Afghanistan and have access to many more remote-control drones, helicopters and observation satellites than the special forces that serve under the NATO banner.

Most Australian special forces are deployed with the ADF’s Special Operations Task Group in Oruzgan, and operate under rules and regulations set by NATO, after agreement with the President of Afghanistan, Hamid Karzai.

They operate with significant numbers of Afghan soldiers and abide by rules of engagement governing the International Security Assistance Force.

The British and American-led teams – often including an Australian member – follow a different set of rules and regulations, and have been criticised by human rights groups and some of the newspapers that first detailed their existence.

However Australian sources have told the Herald that the secret squads are subject to even greater scrutiny than NATO combat groups and have to explain and justify the precise detail of almost every operation, often personally reporting to the staff of General Petraeus.

The US Taskforce 373 is split into four groups, allowing it to operate all over Afghanistan, with some of its soldiers based at Bagram airbase outside Kabul and others at the Kandahar airbase, near the country’s second biggest city.

The taskforce consists of soldiers trained to target insurgent leaders. There is also other specialised training including targeting moving vehicles.

Overall in Afghanistan allied special operations forces have mounted more than 1600 missions in the first three months of this year, an average of 18 a night. They have captured or killed close to 3000 insurgents, General Petraeus has told US newspapers.