Failures of Command
The death of Private Robert Poate
Sydney: NewSouth Publishing, 2021
Paperback 368pp RRP $34.99
Reviewer: Neville Taylor, March 2022
When his son was killed in an insider attack in Afghanistan on 29th August 2012, Hugh Poate was in disbelief that such an event could occur. With the next-of-kin of the other two killed, Poate commenced a personal crusade to establish
In contact with commanders at every level there emerged a litany of cover-ups, excuses, half-truths, denials, incompetence, negligence, orders not followed, and historical lessons not learnt. At every turn it was the reputation of the Australian Defence Force (ADF) that was being protected; and its fallen and injured soldiers and their next of kin were not even on the ADF’s radar.
On 17th April 2013 Corporal Daniel Keighran VC read Robbie Poate’s story at the first Last Post Ceremony held at the Australian War Memorial, Canberra.
The next-of-kin were denied the terms of refence to the ADF’s enquiry, and Poate rightfully assumed many of his own concerns would not be addressed – the Army was investigating the Army. An Inquiry Officer’s Report provided to the families three months after its completion was intentionally redacted (using ‘contrived secrecy’ as justification) to render it incomprehensible. Administrative action recommended by the Report was totally ignored as the Force commander, the company and patrol commanders were all promoted within a year of the tragedy. The Chief of the Defence Force recommended to the Defence Minister that no Commission of Inquiry be held.
Comments made on their return to Australia by the Task Force soldiers about the standard of leadership and the lack of it shown by their commanders added to Poate’s determination to uncover any cover up and to find the truth. As the three soldiers were from a Queensland-based unit, he made a submission to the Queensland Coroner’s Office requesting an inquest into the three deaths. The Deputy State Coroner, on 16th February 2014, agreed to preside over the first-ever inquest into deaths in the ADF’s 120-year history, and it would commence on 30 Jun.
At all five pre-inquest conferences, members of the ADF did not convey any condolences and avoided eye contact - the victims and their next of kin were regarded as persona non grata. Despite it being a public inquest, the ADF wanted everything on their terms – even denying the families legal representation. A letter to the Australian Prime Minister promptly gained the next-of-kin paid legal representatives of their choice. By 24th June in excess of 4000 pages of interview transcripts, briefs of evidence and other classified documents were finally made available. [900+ pages of electronic evidence had the ‘Find’ feature intentionally removed!] The families gained a postponement until 13th October 2014.
On Day 2 of the inquest, the ADF had the court seating altered so they could have people sitting immediately behind the families, rendering them unable to confidentially converse with each other. The ADF collected mobile phones during closed sessions, but their men were ‘sprung’ opening up a phone connected to a computer outside the court in the second week of the inquest. One key witness (a major) was unable to give evidence as he ‘was suffering from PTSD’, but he was able take up a prestigious position at RMC soon after inquest finished.
The Coroner delivered his findings on 22nd September 2015. The deaths were due to:
The recent escalation in insider attacks
The failure to implement an order issued sixteen days before the fatal attack by the Supreme Commander of the International Security Assistance Force – namely, to increase planning to risk minimising insider attacks
Inadequate preparation for the mission involved in the insider attack
Post reports of previous ADF visits to the location not found
Flawed risk assessments
The Coroner noted Counsel Assisting identified a sixth systemic deficiency – there had been inadequate training to deal with insider attacks.
On the final day of the Inquest the families were summoned to a room by a key ADF member (with no indication of any reason) and were illegally intimidated and harassed by him. The Coroner considered the action as ‘most inappropriate’, and an official complaint was made to the Chief of the Defence Force (CDF). The six people who were present were interviewed by the Assistant Inspector-General of the ADF (IGADF) as were ten others ADF personnel who were not present. The CDF indicated that the IGADF had found no unacceptable behaviour by the Brigadier concerned.
Post-inquest, those senior ADF personnel who had worked with the families, knew them well and mixed with them on military occasions, immediately ‘cut them dead’.
Closure was not to come to the families of the deceased. Thirteen months after his deadly attack, the killer (Hekmatullah) was captured in Pakistan. He was found by using standard intelligence techniques, the same that should have been in operation during the ill-fated mission, and would have exposed his attack plan and escape. Pleading guilty in the Supreme Court of Afghanistan, he was sentenced to death in December 2013. His execution was supposed to take place on 3rd June 2017, but it was postponed. Without consultation with the Afghan Government or any of the 50 nations who fought the Taliban, on 29th February 2020 the Trump administration announced 5000 Taliban prisoners would be swapped for 1000 Afghan National Army prisoners. Hekmatullah walked away a free man!
Hugh Poate has studied the ADF, its personnel, its mode of operating and its culture in considerable detail prior to going to print. He expresses grave reservations about the current roles and the legislation that encompass all military investigators and investigations. His final five chapters examine the failure of those being responsible to act independently, the failures in leadership, the lack of respect and recognition of those at the ‘bottom of the food chain’, and finally, the lessons to be learnt.
This is a genuine work of intense dedication and unapologetic lifting and peering under every stone. In the current ADF climate, this is a publication Defence Recruiting wishes had never seen the light of day.
The RUSI – Vic Library thanks the publisher for making this book available for review.