Thursday, 3 September 2020
Milosevic, Lance Corporal Stjepan ('Rick'), Martin, Sapper James, Poate, Private Robert
Eight years ago, almost to the day, Australian soldiers Lance Corporal Rick Milosevic, Sapper James Martin and Private Robert Poate were on deployment in Afghanistan at Patrol Base Wahab in Uruzgan. After an exhausting day of patrolling in more than 50-degree heat, they returned inside the wire of the base they shared with their Afghan National Army allies. Hekmatullah, an Afghan sergeant, moved about the bands of off-duty Australian soldiers who were playing cards to unwind after a long and trying day. He socialised with Aussies in the gym. He entered the Australian administration area, reconnoitring the area and studying force protection measures. He left because it was his turn to be on guard duty. When Hekmatullah returned with his M16 and a full ammunition clip, he closed in within five metres of the Diggers playing cards and emptied his entire clip into our soldiers, killing three and wounding more. He then escaped the base.
This green-on-blue attack was part of an escalating campaign of Taliban insiders in the Afghan army—the greens—killing international forces—the blues—like our soldiers in this case. It was one of the darkest days of the Australian commitment to the war in Afghanistan. A total of 140 coalition troops, including seven Australians, were killed in 85 such insider attacks.
Initially Hekmatullah was arrested by Pakistan, but then he was passed to the Afghan authorities and sentenced to death. Earlier this month we learned that Hekmatullah, who has shown no remorse in prison and said he would do it again, was to be released by the Afghan government with the approval of the United States as part of a broader peace deal.
The families of the three men killed by Hekmatullah are grief stricken at news of his impending release. Prime Minister Scott Morrison said that foreign minister Marise Payne and defence minister Linda Reynolds have raised Australia's concern with their US counterparts. The Prime Minister has written to both US President Donald Trump and Afghan President Ashraf Ghani about this issue. Ashraf Ghani himself has said that these men are 'a danger to the world'. Labor leader Anthony Albanese and other opposition frontbenchers have called for the government to avoid a complete failure of diplomacy, which Hekmatullah's release would be. Labor continues to call on all parties to reconsider Hekmatullah's inclusion in this deal, in the interests of justice for the three victims and their families.
These events disturb me. Whilst I don't claim to be an Afghan expert, in 2003 I provided security in Kandahar, which is seen as the spiritual home of the Taliban. We were supporting the build-up of Afghan democratic institutions. Working on behalf of the United Nations mission, I saw a democratic process elect elders to go to Kabul to hammer out their constitution. This taught me a few things, one of which is that the Taliban, who are predominantly Pashtun, observe a tribal system of justice called pashtunwali. Hekmatullah is a Pashtun, in which case he must face justice under the principles of pashtunwali. Of course the Taliban have a history of using and abusing pashtunwali as they see fit, but it's worth pointing out that behaviour such as that displayed by Hekmatullah goes against a traditional institution of pashtunwali. Our three soldiers, who had caused no harm to Hekmatullah or others outside the base, were guests in Afghanistan, invited to intervene not only according to international law but under core principles of Pashtun culture.
While the Taliban are majority Pashtun, so are their victims. Pashtun people have been the most devastated by almost 20 years of war. Hekmatullah's murdering of three Aussie soldiers cannot be considered turah, or bravery, in Pashtun culture, in which melmastia—hospitality—and nunawatai—protection—are even granted to your staunchest enemy upon request.
The Afghan government must exclude Hekmatullah from release, on the basis of his actions. He's not an ordinary Afghan who was wrongfully captured and imprisoned. He is one of 400 hardened fighters and he has murdered Australian soldiers, not in battle but in a cold-blooded insider attack. He is guilty beyond doubt, as courts have proved. I've made a commitment to Private Robert Poate's father, Hugh, that I will fight for his son and his mates who never came home.
We always asked ourselves why we were really in Afghanistan. The answer of course is the US alliance. The Prime Minister needs to pick up the telephone to the US President and stop an unrepentant killer of Aussie diggers from walking free.