"When the U.S. decided to take action against the Taliban in Afghanistan, Canberra’s response was to send in the cream of Australia’s military, the SAS. Modeled on the British SAS and feared by potential enemies, little was known of Australia’s Special Forces, the Australian Government has been secretive of there operations..."
For nearly 100 years, Australia has committed its armed services in every major conflict fought by the United States. Its foreign policy makers and its people have mostly accepted that the U.S. is a force for good; a force that historically we have wanted to be associated with. Beginning in 1908 when Australian Prime Minister Alfred Deakin successfully invited Teddy Roosevelt to send his fleet to visit our shores through to the fighting in WW1. From when John Curtin turned our military operations over to U.S. General Douglas Macarthur during WWII, through to Vietnam and presently, Afghanistan and Iraq - some 50,000 Australians, including ground troops and air force and navy personnel, served in Vietnam.
Under the Anzus Treaty, Americans are committed to respond to an attack on Australia and vice versa. Following 9/11, the Howard Government invoked Anzus under clause iv which states,
“Each party recognizes that an armed attack in the Pacific area on any of the parties would be dangerous to its own peace and safety and declares that it would act to meet the common danger in accordance with its constitutional processes.”It is interesting that the attacks in NYC, Washington DC, and Pennsylvania were outside the Pacific forum however, the wording of Anzus made little difference, there was universal intent for the two allies to assist each other. Hence, Anzus which begun as a regional pact has evolved to a global one.
When the U.S. decided to take action against the Taliban in Afghanistan, Canberra’s response was to send in the cream of Australia’s military, the SAS. Modeled on the British SAS and feared by potential enemies, little was known of Australia’s Special Forces, the Australian Government has been secretive of there operations, the personal and intensive training methods; something that proved valuable in operations.
In relation to matters technology and skill levels, the U.S. views many of its allies as being somewhat backward, the exception being the U.K thus for Australia, the Afghanistan operation, known as Anaconda provided an opportunity to demonstrate the effectiveness of its own special forces, which were up to worlds best practice, highest state of readiness, in possession of there own equipment and superbly trained. Anaconda proved just how enormously capable the Australian SAS is, and represented another defining moment in the history of the U.S. – Australia alliance; in that single operation the SAS saved the U.S. a significant loss of troops. Former U.S. Secretary of State and Special Forces officer himself, Richard Armitage and former Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Barak, also a decorated former soldier noted that the regiment is as good as any such formations the world, said Armitage,
“The Australian SAS are shit-hot and our people love to work with them.”Added Lieutenant-General Frank Hagenbeck in a television interview “The Australian SAS are shit-hot and our people love to work with them.” Added Lieutenant-General Frank Hagenbeck in a television interview,
“The Australian SAS displayed those kinds of things that make them elite, in my view, of small-unit infantrymen throughout the world … that’s autonomy, independence, tenacity that they will never be defeated.”The Australian SAS is a somewhat diverse soldier to that of a U.S. Special Forces unit member. Being trained for a more traditional role of patrol and long-range reconnaissance with an emphasis on independence and endurance together with core tasks including recovery, counterterrorism, and offensive operations making them highly capable when infiltrating behind enemy lines and/or to undertake covert operations for extended periods. The typical Australian SAS is a leaner mass than his American equal and is trained to endure on little for very long periods. The other notable difference relates to technology. Whilst the Australians both possess and value both Hi-tech tools and support systems, the focus is more so on the soldier, not the gear – as we shall see, this factor weighed heavily during Anaconda. It is not suggested that this makes them better, just different.
The operation took place in February 2002 and involved some two-thousand coalition soldiers. It was designed to crush the enemy, (in this case Taliban elements and al-Qaeda fighters) between converging coalition forces in Shahikot Valley. At one stage, it went horribly wrong, in order to illustrate the role of the SAS, the following description represents the basic sum and substance of the operation.
From the onset the enemy area was pounded from the air by U.S. jets, but unknown to coalition forces at the time, this proved largely ineffective due to the many tunnels and caves for the fighters to shelter in. When U.S. helicopter borne troops arrived there was some intense skirmishes, those not killed would escape through the many tracks leading to where Australian troops were waiting. The Afghan vehicles broke down and a convoy became separated, soon the enemy, being more capable and larger than expected attacked hard. A U.S. helicopter sent in to assist had to back off due to intense enemy fire and in doing so; a U.S. soldier fell from it and was immediately shot. More U.S. helicopters arrived on the scene but two were shot down resulting in the deaths of six troops and dozens wounded. A rescue mission was called off as 36 U.S. soldiers found themselves isolated, surrounded and under attack by a powerful Taliban force that greatly outnumbered them. It would not be till nightfall that a new rescue mission would be mounted.
This is where the Australian SAS mission became critical. High in the mountains above, in extremely harsh environmental conditions; conditions that we humans are not supposed to survive in, with frozen water bottles and suffering altitude sickness, the SAS patrols had entrenched themselves long before to gain an overview of the battle. With there instrumentation they could not only see the Americans in the valley, but also the enemy, who were now quickly advancing in for the kill. From there mountaintop hideaway the SAS team reported a looming disaster to the coalition command tent. Fortunately, throughout the many hours that followed the SAS called in very precise and successful American air strikes to engage the enemy thus frustrating their attempts to approach the trapped U.S. soldiers.
The operation demonstrated that technology had limitations, the hostile conditions made it difficult for U.S. spy planes to see the enemy sufficiently well to guide the bombers and the dense fog in the Shah-i-Kot valley rendered the Predator surveillance drones ineffective. That meant an SAS observation team was to play a crucial role in saving a platoon of US Rangers. The incredibly fit and highly trained SAS unit did a remarkable job, accurately directing U.S. firepower and in doing so, a human tragedy was averted.
Indeed, there were other very significant contributions. At the onset of the Iraqi invasion, with there speed, weaponry, mobility, they swept across the desert, identifying targets for the Americans and destroying Saddam’s command and control structure. Significantly, they seized the huge Al Asad airfield, the second largest airbase in Iraq and with it discovered and grounded Fifty-five Soviet built Migs and seized eight million kilogram of explosives. President Bush expressed gratitude to our leaders, as it was learned that the SAS removed the threat of Iraqi strikes on Israel having also knocked out Scud missile launchers in the desert. It is perhaps to this that former Israeli Prime minister Ehud Barak referred to when commenting on the Australian SAS’s successes.
The remarkable feats may have also influenced U.S. defense policy in relation to their own special forces. Said Greg Sheridan,
“The decision announced in the 2006 U.S. Quadrennial Defense Review to vastly increase U.S. Special Forces almost certainly owes something to the example of the Australians, for whom the Americans come to have the highest regard. In terms of the alliance, Iraq drew the Australian and U.S. militaries very much closer together.”The SAS involvement in Iraq and Afghanistan has fundamentally altered the relationship between the two militaries; today American commanders give the Australian contingent great operational priority. As U.S. Marine Corps Brigadier General James Mattis wrote,
“We Marines would happily storm hell itself with your troops on our right flank.”Finally, for those who see the praise as nothing short of apple-polishing, let’s envision the following act. Once again, Greg Sheridan:
“It’s a peaceful image from Afghanistan just after Anaconda. The battle is over … the dead are being mourned. A large group of U.S. soldiers is lined up at the mess for food. It’s a fairly sound rule in life not to get between a soldier and his food but this day some very strange happens. A few Australian SAS men arrive and join the food queue. Suddenly the marines recognize them and the food line breaks up, the Australians are applauded and ushered to the front of the food queue to be served first. In its way, this is as eloquent a testimony as ever you could find.”The total current Australian commitment in Afghanistan is approximately 1000 personnel.
Reference: Sheridan Greg. 2006, 'The Partnership: The inside story of the U.S.-Australian Alliance under Bush and Howard', University of NSW Press Ltd, Sydney, pp. 40-56
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