On 20 November 2002, Australian Prime Minister John Howard said that Australia would begin withdrawing its 150 commandos from Afghanistan later that month.
The Australian contribution to the war in Afghanistan has been known as Operation Slipper (2001–2014) and Operation Highroad (2015-2021).
Australian Defence Force (ADF) operations and the size of the forces deployed have varied and ADF involvement has included two major areas of activity: Afghanistan and the Persian Gulf.
These activities have seen the deployment of naval, air and land forces that have taken part in combat and combat support operations as part of the International Security Assistance Force (ISAF).
In mid-2014, the naval and logistic support operations in the Persian Gulf were re-designated as Operation Manitou and Operation Accordion respectively.
Operation Slipper began in late 2001 and ended on 31 December 2014.
During the first phase of Operation Slipper, the Australian Defence Force (ADF) commitment to Afghanistan consisted of a Special Forces Task Group and two Royal Australian Air Force (RAAF) Boeing 707 air-to-air refuelling aircraft from No. 33 Squadron.
These aircraft and associated support personnel operated from Manas Air Base in Kyrgyzstan and provided support to coalition aircraft operating in Afghan airspace. Two RAAF AP-3C Orion aircraft flew maritime patrol missions in support of maritime interdiction operations in the Persian Gulf. These aircraft were temporarily retasked to Operations Falconer and Catalyst in 2003.
RAAF C-130 Hercules transport aircraft were also involved in providing logistic support for deployed forces. The Special Forces were involved with the establishment of the US-led coalition’s first Forward Operating Base (Camp Rhino) southwest of Kandahar in November 2001, followed by the capture of Kandahar International Airport in December 2001.
The initial ADF commitment in Afghanistan concluded in December 2002 when the Special Air Service Task Group was withdrawn. Following this date until 2005 Australia’s total contribution to efforts in Afghanistan were two officers attached to the United Nations and the Coalition land mine clearing force.
All three squadrons of the Australian Special Air Service Regiment (SASR) were deployed to Afghanistan in 2001 and 2002. The dates of these deployments were:
- 1 Squadron Group, SASR: (October 2001 – April 2002)
- 3 Squadron Group, SASR: (April 2002 – August 2002)
- 2 Squadron Group, SASR: (August 2002 – November 2002)
An Australian Special Forces Task Group was re-deployed to Afghanistan in August or September 2005. This Task Group consisted of elements from the SASR, 4th Battalion, Royal Australian Regiment (Commando), the Incident Response Regiment and logistic support personnel.
As well as heavily modified Land Rovers, the Special Forces Task Group was also equipped with some Bushmaster infantry mobility vehicles. A detachment of two CH-47 Chinook helicopters from the 5th Aviation Regiment was deployed to Afghanistan in March 2006 to support the Special Forces Task Group.
The Australian Special Forces Task Group was withdrawn from Afghanistan in September 2006 and the helicopter detachment returned to Australia in April 2007.
A Reconstruction Taskforce-based around the 1st Combat Engineer Regiment with protective elements from the 5th/7th Battalion, Royal Australian Regiment, 6th Battalion, Royal Australian Regiment and 2nd Cavalry Regiment began arriving in Uruzgan Province in southern Afghanistan in early September 2006.
The Australian Reconstruction Taskforce formed part of a Dutch-led Provincial Reconstruction Team, operating as part of the Dutch-led Task Force Uruzgan and based at Forward Operating Base Ripley, outside of Tarin Kowt.
A 300-strong Special Operations Task Group was deployed to support the Reconstruction Taskforce in April 2007, including a Commando company-group, elements of the SASR, and an integral combat service support team.
In addition to radar crews, logistics and intelligence officers, and security personnel, this brought the number of Australian personnel in Afghanistan to 950 by mid-2007, with further small increases to 1,000 in mid-2008, 1,100 in early 2009 and 1,550 in mid-2009.
These increases occurred in spite of opinion polls indicating that public support for the deployment was decreasing, with a poll released in September 2008 finding that a majority of those surveyed were opposed to Australia’s continued military involvement in the country.
In early 2009, a number of Operational Mentoring and Liaison Teams (OMLTs) were embedded into the Afghan National Army battalions serving in the 4th (ANA) Brigade, 205th Hero Corps, in Uruzgan as part of the Australian mission to mentor and partner the ANA within the province. Consequently, the RTF was renamed the Mentoring and Reconstruction Task Force.
On 16 January 2009, Trooper Mark Donaldson, a member of the SASR, was awarded Australia’s highest gallantry medal, the Victoria Cross for Australia. Donaldson was awarded the medal for exposing himself to enemy fire to protect injured Australian troops and then rescuing an Afghan interpreter under heavy enemy fire during a contact on 2 September 2008.
A modest Australian force remained in Afghanistan over this period and was involved in counter-insurgency operations in Uruzgan province in conjunction with Dutch, US and other coalition forces. MRTF was again renamed to the Mentoring Task Force in early 2010.
Based around a combined arms battalion-sized battle group, it consisted of motorised infantry and cavalry force elements supported by engineers, as well as coalition enablers including artillery and aviation assets.
The Rotary Wing Group flying CH-47D Chinooks, the Force Logistics Asset and an RAAF air surveillance radar unit were also based in Kandahar. A further 800 Australian logistic personnel were also based outside of Afghanistan, in locations in the Middle East.
Meanwhile, detachments of maritime patrol and transport aircraft continued to support operations in Iraq and Afghanistan, based out of Al Minhad Air Base in the United Arab Emirates.
War crimes inquiry
In May 2016 the Inspector-General of the Australian Defence Force, Major General Paul Brereton, launched an inquiry into allegations that some Australian special forces personnel committed war crimes in Afghanistan between 2005 and 2016.
In February 2020 it was announced that 55 incidents were being investigated and, in November 2020, the inspector-general concluded that 36 incidents ought to be referred to the Australian Federal Police for criminal investigation and possible prosecution by the Department of Home Affairs’ Office of the Special Investigator and Commonwealth Director of Public Prosecutions.
According to Brereton’s report, there is credible information that 25 Australian Defence Force personnel were involved in serious crimes in Afghanistan. Of the soldiers, 19 were directly implicated in the murder of 39 prisoners and civilians, and cruel treatment of 2 others, while the other military personnel were believed to be accessories to the incidents.
Brereton noted that some of the soldiers were ordered by their patrol commanders to kill prisoners. Some soldiers are also believed to have planted evidence next to civilian corpses to imply that the civilians were armed, and thus could be classified as legitimate targets in post-incident investigations.
The report describes a 2012 incident as having been “possibly the most disgraceful episode in Australia’s military history”, but the specifics were redacted in the version released to the public.
Upon the report’s release, Chief of the Australian Defence Force, General Angus Campbell, apologised for “any wrongdoing by Australian soldiers”. He announced that the 2nd Squadron of the Special Air Service Regiment (SASR) would be disbanded as a result of the investigation, citing a “distorted culture” that undermined the moral authority of the Australian Defence Force, through all three SASR squadrons were implicated in poor conduct.)
According to one reporter’s correspondence with a former patrol commander, “EVERYONE KNEW [emphasis in the original]” that war crimes had been committed, but when it was reported regiment leadership decided to handle the matter internally.
General Campbell also explained that he and the Chief of Army, Lieutenant General Rick Burr, would take further action with respect to the commanders of units apparently involved in war crimes.
Journalist Mark Willacy estimates that prosecutions related to these findings may not be concluded until approximately the year 2030.