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From Tampa to Afghanistan - how Australia's special forces became

enmeshed in the US kill/capture program


Ben McKelvey

Sydney, NSW: Harper Collins Australia 2022

Paperback   400pp   RRP $34.99


Reviewer: Adrian Catt, December 2022


This no-nonsense book covers in detail the formation, structure, and the political and operational environments in which Australia’s no-nonsense Special Forces (SF) were deployed to the disastrous, lengthy, and ultimately unwinnable war in Afghanistan.

McKelvey lays bare Australian Special Forces involvements from the Tampa crisis, through the Iraqi deployment, and into the war in Afghanistan, by structuring his book logically through three distinct phases of our military and political activities in the ‘War on Terror’: The Opening, The Middlegame and The Endgame.

The formation, structure, capability, and deployment of AUS SF are described clearly and concisely by the author. He also explains the Rules of Engagement for SF and the political rationale for Australia’s involvement: a case of ‘knee-jerk’ reaction to the 9/11 attacks in the USA, which ultimately drew numerous allies into a military coalition based on poorly-defined political objectives, and only on revenge. Over time this failure to clearly define the enemy, objectives and exit strategy for the war, saw the elite SF of Australia turned purely into a ‘killing-machine’, exploited repeatedly by being tasked to undertake the most gruelling of tasks.

The incessant use of Australian SF led to mistakes, deaths, burn-out, PTSD and, allegedly, murder.  The allegation of war crimes involving murder has been levelled at an Australian Victoria Cross winner. These allegations emerge from SF Operators deployed with the accused, but jealousy, fog-of-war and the passage of time may have influenced these claims of atrocities and will ultimately be determined by the judicial process.

The withdrawal of Soviet troops from Afghanistan prior to the ‘War on Terror’ had led to bloody conflict amongst the tribes and families of the war-torn nation, as the Mujahedeen, drug barons and a myriad of murderous and corrupt groups fought it out creating an incubator for the growth of Sharia Law under an emerging, persistent, and ultimately dominant Taliban.

Coalition arrival in-country was initially perceived by some as offering hope and peace to the Afghanis; however the reality was vastly different. The processing of joint prioritised effects lists ‘kill or capture’ missions by SF Task Groups created a burning hatred of these troops amongst the local population, who was continuously on the receiving end of death and destruction ruthlessly dealt out by the mighty Coalition forces of the West. This resentment could not be suppressed, not even by the deployment and good-will of reconstruction forces by both the Australian and Dutch military.

Further, McKelvie highlights that there was no exit strategy planned for Coalition Forces, so when withdrawal finally came, there was little more of Afghanistan remaining than a smoking wreck of a nation.  Unable to win over ‘hearts and minds’, McKelvie contends the war in Afghanistan was an abject failure on all counts: militarily, politically, financially, and especially for Australia’s Special Forces.



The RUSI – Vic Library thanks the publisher for making this work available for review.

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