The inability of US soldiers to differentiate between Austria and Australia helped trigger a major investigation by Australian authorities and potentially endangered Australian troops in Afghanistan.

The Australian Defence Force admits to Crikey reports by US troops from the ground in Afghanistan between 2005 and 2008 that some Taliban fighters were armed with Australian weapons “probably mistake Austrian for Australian ordnance”. The reports were part of the approximately 92,000 documents leaked to to WikiLeaks and then released in July 2010 with the Afghan War Diaries collection.

The reports caught the Australian government by surprise, and forced Prime Minister Julia Gillard, Defence Minister John Faulkner and the Australian Defence Force to launch an unprecedented caretaker period investigation during the 2010 federal election to assess the “risks to Australians, our partners, those with whom we work including in the local community, and our ongoing operations”.

At a July 26 press conference, Gillard said:

“This is an issue which does touch upon this country because clearly matters associated with Australian personnel are touched upon in these documents. That is why the department is responding in the way in which it is.”

In the earliest log, from August 2005, infantry from the US’ 82nd Airborne Division, known as Task Force Devil (TF Devil), raided a large cache of weapons “72km North of Camp Echo”. The weapons were found in the desolate hills of Ghazni Province, a Taliban-friendly region described by The New York Times as having “scant American presence since the war began in 2001”. Amongst the land mines, rifles and rockets, the troops reported finding “1 x 82mm Australian mortar”.

In November 2005, TF Devil reported finding “two Australian 82mm mortar rounds” in a weapons cache in the city of Khost, capital of the Khost province that lies along the troubled border with Pakistan. In January 2008, Afghan National Police retrieved the components of an IED, including an Australian hand grenade.

While the Defence task force report has not been released, the ADF has told Crikey the suspected mistaken identity is “due to the high volume of Austrian ordnance in Afghanistan (and limited amount of Australian ordnance)”.

Furthermore, a Defence spokesperson told Crikey that “Australia does not use or manufacture the ordnance natures referred to in the WikiLeaks material”. It was possible, however, that “some Australian mortars have been fired, failed to detonate, and were later recovered by insurgents. This is unavoidable, and occurs in a very low proportion of cases.”

With Afghanistan awash with weapons from Austria, the government in Vienna has been on the defensive. At the time of the WikiLeaks release, the Austrians told reporters that, despite modern Austrian weapons found in Afghanistan, there had been no exports allowed to the region (including Pakistan) for 20 years. Vienna has launched its own investigation into the scandal, the purpose of which is to find “the route that these things travelled”.

Crikey tried contacting the Austrian Foreign Ministry but didn’t get a response.

Like the Iraqi War Logs before it, it appears the Afghan War Diaries have been generally benign for the Australian Defence Force, supporting their claim to being a professional and relatively transparent organisation compared to other military forces.

The logs also show that in a war zone, elementary errors can quickly become regarded as statements of fact.

Peter Fray

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Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey

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