With a federal court judge finding Ben Roberts-Smith – the country’s most decorated soldier – either murdered or was complicit in and responsible for the murder of unarmed civilians while serving in the Australian military in Afghanistan, Australia must now turn its attention to the real victims of this conflict.
While the publication of the full judgment has been delayed, the judge in Roberts-Smith’s failed defamation case found that, on the balance of probabilities, the newspapers he was suing had proven in their defence that Roberts-Smith kicked a handcuffed prisoner off a cliff in Uruzgan province in 2012 before ordering a subordinate Australian soldier to shoot the injured man dead.
The dusty Afghan province of Uruzgan where Australian armed forces served for more than a decade is one of the poorest in the war-ravaged country. Life in the province is so hard that children have died falling in deep dry wells amid water shortages. The battle locals faced during all those years of bloodshed is the same one they face now – a battle against poverty and injustice. And now we have more confirmation that it also bears the scars of one of the darkest chapters in Australian military history.
Throughout the lengthy coverage of the Roberts-Smith defamation case, the Afghan perspective has often been obscured. After all of this, will Australians remember the names of those Afghans whose deaths sat at the centre of much of the testimony? Among them was a handcuffed farmer and also a disabled and captured fighter.
The case has been a reminder of the failures of foreign forces in Afghanistan, the country I was born in, and the country I was forced to flee as a reporter in Kabul in 2021, leaving my wife and children behind.
It has also been a reminder of how disengaged and indifferent Australians can be towards events that happen in the rest of the world – especially in a poor mountainous country in central Asia.
The villagers of Uruzgan and the surrounding areas in Afghanistan where Roberts-Smith and his peers served were caught between the Taliban insurgents and Nato forces for 20 years. After the chaotic fall of Kabul and the devastating withdrawal of foreign forces from Afghanistan they continue to live a miserable life under the Taliban, which is peddling a gender-apartheid policy against women and girls. But the scars of the war inflicted by an “invading army” are, for many, much deeper than those created by the oppressive regime.
How will Australians be remembered in Afghanistan? Did the Australian deployment help, or did it make the lives of Afghans worse? What did Australia achieve during those two decades? Why couldn’t it have left behind a legacy of support and justice rather than one tainted by allegations of atrocities?
Afghans of my generation knew Australia for its fabulous cricketers like Shane Warne, Steve Waugh and Adam Gilchrist. Will the younger generation remember it for the soldiers who came in the name of war? Where war crimes are proven, will the victims get any compensation? How can you compensate someone for the brutal killing of their loved one?
The strong testimonies by both Australian and Afghan individuals standing for justice in Roberts-Smith’s defamation trial are worthy of acknowledgment. Sadly, Afghans in that distant land will probably never get to hear those voices, and would probably not believe that people spoke up on their behalf through fearless journalism in Australia. I wish they could get to see the regard for human dignity that these individuals and journalists have shown. It’s a dignity that wasn’t shown by Roberts Smith, who – a court has now determined – couldn’t distinguish between unarmed local villagers and armed insurgents.
Shadi Khan Saif is a Melbourne-based journalist and former Pakistan and Afghanistan news correspondent