Wartime Issue 22 - War without boundaries

By Peter Londey

The idea of terrorism is very old. The terrorist seeks to use violence not to achieve calculated objectives, but to create terror, to alter the state of mind of his or her enemies. It has existed in the Middle East at least since the Jewish sicarii – “dagger men” – plotted a campaign of assassination against their Roman rulers in the 1st century AD. Today the fear is that terrorists will soon wield much more than daggers: not only guns and bombs, but chemical, biological, or even nuclear weapons. Or, as the hijackers of 11 September 2001 showed, weapons as humble as daggers – in their case, craft knives – can be used to turn the complex infrastructure of civilised society against itself: a civilian airliner can also be a devastating weapon of destruction.

But wars have changed, and so has terrorism. War in the past 50 years has rarely been the neat affair of one nation against another envisaged in the United Nations Charter. And al Qaeda, the organisation which plotted the September 2001 attacks, has transported the modern trend of globalisation to the world of terror. Al Qaeda’s objectives are grandiose: ideally, to sweep away the largely Western-created nation states of the Middle East and replace them with a single Islamic state under religious leadership; at very least, to defend Muslims in areas of conflict (the Balkans, Palestine, Chechnya, Kashmir and so on) and to rid the Islamic world of Western influence.

A boy on a donkey rides past a Russian tank in a valley 80 km north of Kabul, capital of Afghanistan. Photo: George Gittoes.

A boy on a donkey rides past a Russian tank in a valley 80 km north of Kabul, capital of Afghanistan. Photo: George Gittoes. P03957.012

Ironically, both sides in the Cold War contributed to the creation of al Qaeda. The Soviet Union, by invading Afghanistan in 1979 and then occupying the country (under a puppet government) for a decade, sparked a determined resistance by Afghan and other Muslim mujahideen; and a whole group of countries, including the United States, Britain, China, Pakistan and Saudi Arabia, actively supported the Afghan resistance. About 1988, shortly before the Soviet withdrawal from Afghanistan, a Palestinian Jordanian, Dr Abdullah Azzam, drew up plans to convert the mujahideen into an organisation to fight for Muslims anywhere in the world. The following year his deputy, Saudi Arabian Osama bin Laden, having apparently acquiesced in Azzam’s assassination, took over al Qaeda and pushed it in the direction of radical terrorism. Today al Qaeda sits at the centre of a network of radical and terrorist organisations in many countries, using training bases in places such as Afghanistan, but operating on a global scale.

The West was aware of the threat some years before September 2001. American President Bill Clinton authorised the CIA to kill Osama, but attempts to do so were unsuccessful. However, the attacks on the World Trade Centre and the Pentagon transformed the political landscape: like Pearl Harbor, perhaps, a Pyrrhic victory. Suddenly the United States was determined to fight back, and other countries were willing to support it. Australia was one of the first: three days after the attacks, Prime Minister John Howard (who happened to be in Washington at the time) invoked the mutual-defence clauses of the ANZUS treaty for the first time in the 50 years since it was signed. Australia would support the United States, and the American-led International Coalition against Terrorism (ICAT), in the war against al Qaeda. The only problem was how to fight a “war” against a target as diffuse as al Qaeda.

Afghanistan was ruled by the Islamic fundamentalist Taliban, another product of the resistance to Soviet occupation. The Taliban, with close ties to and ideologically sympathetic with al Qaeda, refused to expel Osama and his confederates. The coalition decided to attack al Qaeda on the ground in Afghanistan, and along the way overthrew the Taliban. The attack began with missiles and bombing on 7 October; within a couple of weeks American forces were operating on the ground. On 12 November the capital, Kabul, fell to the coalition’s Afghan allies, the Northern Alliance.

In November 2001 Australian SAS troops joined the war in Afghanistan. This was not the first time Australian soldiers had served in the area. Only 10 years before, Australian army de-miners with the United Nations Mine Clearance Training Team had worked with Afghan refugees in Pakistan and later in Afghanistan itself, teaching the refugees how to be aware of the danger of landmines and training them in mine clearance. Indeed, Australians have a long history of involvement in the Middle East and western Asia generally, as peacekeepers. Our military observers have served along Israel’s borders ever since 1956, and Australians have also served in places such as Yemen, the Sinai, Iran and Kashmir.

In 1992 an Afghan child works for a scrap-metal merchant,packing live machine-gun rounds into empty tank shells for transport into Pakistan.

In 1992 an Afghan child works for a scrap-metal merchant,packing live machine-gun rounds into empty tank shells for transport into Pakistan. P01728.022

It is too soon to write the history of the SAS’s war in Afghanistan. Three rotations of 150 troops served, from November 2001 to December 2002. They were based successively at “Rhino”, an airfield in southern Afghanistan; at Kandahar; and at Bagram, an old Soviet airfield north of Kabul. Generally they were engaged in intensive patrolling – their means of transport including helicopters, 6-wheel-drive Land Rovers, and even donkeys – covering large areas of often difficult terrain, conducting reconnaissance and gathering intelligence about enemy movements. There was still fighting to be done in the countryside, where Taliban and al Qaeda forces were at large, often operating in inaccessible mountains or bunkered down in deep cave systems. During Operation Anaconda, near the Pakistan border and not far from where the Australian de-miners had worked, Australian and American soldiers were ambushed by a large enemy force; an Australian signaller was awarded the Medal for Gallantry for his role in calling in air support. Later, during Operation Condor, an Australian patrol and a relief force sent out to help had to fight for several hours to extricate themselves. One Australian was killed in Afghanistan: in February 2002 Sergeant Andrew Russell was killed when a vehicle in which he and four others were travelling hit a landmine. The RAAF was also heavily involved in the war in Afghanistan. C-130 Hercules aircraft provided logistic support to the SAS, while F/A-18 Hornets contributed to air defence at the American Indian Ocean base of Diego Garcia. And from March to September 2002, two RAAF Boeing 707 refuelling aircraft of 84 Wing were based at Manas air base near Bishkek, the capital of Kyrgyzstan in central Asia. They would fly from Manas for an hour south-west over a branch of the Himalayas and into northern Afghanistan. There they would fly around for five hours or so under the direction of American AWACS aircraft, providing refuelling to American and French fighters attacking targets on the ground or maintaining the coalition’s dominance of the skies.

By the end of 2002, Australia’s part in the war in Afghanistan had ended, though other coalition forces continued the so far fruitless hunt for Osama bin Laden. Under United Nations auspices, the huge task of rebuilding Afghanistan began. Meanwhile, as American attention turned to Iraq, Australian ships continued to patrol the Persian Gulf (though the commitment will be reduced from two frigates to one in late April).

An Afghan woman walks along a devastated street in Kabul, in 2002. Photo:George Gittoes.

An Afghan woman walks along a devastated street in Kabul, in 2002. Photo:George Gittoes. P03957.010

Iraqi connections with al Qaeda have never been proven. Rather, American arguments centred on Iraq’s failure to rid itself of so-called “weapons of mass destruction” – nuclear, chemical and biological weapons. Since 1991, Australians have participated in United Nations weapons inspections in Iraq, as part of the United Nations Special Commission (Unscom) and, most recently, the United Nations Monitoring, Verification and Inspection Commission (Unmovic). By early 2003 the United States decided that the weapons inspections were not working, and that nothing short of toppling the Iraqi government of Saddam Hussein would be acceptable. Australia has been one of a small number of countries willing to participate militarily in this action, sending a force of 2,000, including SAS and other ground troops, F/A-18 Hornets, P-3C Orions, C-130 Hercules, clearance divers and the ships in the Persian Gulf.

The invasion of Iraq began on 20 March 2003. Within two weeks, early hopes for a quick, surgical campaign were dashed as it became clear that the coalition’s technological and air-power superiority would not save it from being drawn into long and difficult fighting against both regular and irregular troops. After the war, the process of rebuilding Iraq and reconstructing the global system of alliances promises to be costly and hazardous. As a new chapter of Australian military history is written, the world has become still more fluid and dangerous. National boundaries, and the conventions of warfare, are weaker than ever: we have indeed entered an age of war without boundaries.


Dr Peter Londey is the historical consultant for the War without boundaries exhibition (curated by Memorial curator of art, Claire Baddeley) and the author of a history of Australian peacekeeping, forthcoming from Allen & Unwin.