Harare – Could Australia be planning some sort of military action in Africa, specifically Zimbabwe, Kenya and Nigeria?
Absurd as such a question would have sounded just a fortnight ago, the possibility now seems real.
Australian media this past week claimed Canberra had deployed special forces to the three African countries on “intelligence-gathering missions”.
The New Age newspaper said the soldiers were, among other things, assessing border controls, exploring landing sites for possible military interventions and possible escape routes for the evacuation of Australian nationals and military assessments of local politics and security.
Soldiers are not normally deployed as spies.
Further fuelling speculation that Australia did indeed deploy– despite the official denials – are indications that a“Western” or “Arab” spy, believed to belong to elite-trained special forces, was arrested in Harare in the past month.
Intelligence gathered by the Australians is believed to flow into databases used by the US and its allies in Africa.
Officials from both Zimbabwe and Australia have not been keen to comment on this.
A few weeks ago, police arrested an Australian couple purporting to be tourists on charges of spying.
The duo was deported.
However, Australia’s Ambassador in Harare, Matthew Neuhaus, told The Southern Times, “I can confirm that there is no Australian SAS or defence operation in Africa.
“I can categorically say there (are) none in Zimbabwe.”
He said issues like evacuation of Australian citizens were dealt with on a “case-by-case” basis.
Neuhaus added that Australia operated within the confines of international law, and its naval assets were part of an operation to hunt down pirates along Africa’s East Coast.
SAS 4 Squadron
According to the New Age newspaper, Australia’s covert unit,the SAS 4 Squadron, which was established by the John Howard government in 2005, has been in Africa since at least last year.
However, its existence has never been acknowledged.
The squadron has been operating in three African countries with which Australia is not officially at war.
Authorisation for deployment came from Defence Minister Stephen Smith in late 2010. Smith is believed to have also permitted the transformation of the military unit into one that also dabbles in intelligence gathering.
They are not uniformed and are not accompanied by personnel from the Australian Secret Intelligence Service, with whom undercover SAS force sare conventionally deployed.
In essence, they have no legal right to be in Africa and if captured can be treated as spies.
Australian National University’s Professor Hugh White, a former Deputy Secretary of Defence, has been quoted saying, ‘’Such an operation deprives the soldier of a whole lot of protections, including their legal status and, in a sense, their identity as a soldier.”
The New Age said Australia’s close links with the US might have influenced its decision to create SAS 4 Squadron and dispatch troops to Zimbabwe, Nigeria and Kenya.
It is believed Australia is following the US model of training and deploying “soldier-spies”.
These have both a military and intelligence-gathering background.
Acting like terrorists
Defence and security expert, Retired Colonel Panganai Kahuni, told this paper that if Australia had deployed in Zimbabwe that would be a violation of international law.
“In the first place, Zimbabwe is a peaceful country with no terrorism activities at all.
“Zimbabwe has no defence and security pact with Australia; hence if such operations are happening they are violating international law and immigration law.
“Those involved could easily be regarded as terrorists sincethey are operating covertly without the consent of Zimbabwe’s authorities.
“If arrested they could easily be charged under treason laws of Zimbabwe.
“They also can be charged for violating our immigration laws.
“However, these terroristic activities demand that our security institutions become more vigilant and alert.”
The chair of the Institute of Peace and Conflict Management (IPCM), Chakanyuka Karase, said such activities should be looked at within the wider and deeper context of increased Western military involvement in Africa’s affairs.
“The IPCM implores African governments and populations to be vigilant against these foreign machinations.
“The IPCM also implores the international community to discard interventionist doctrines camouflaged under the cloak of ‘protecting civilians’ to promote the interests of certain states by effecting regime change.
“The role of the special forces of Western countries in the destruction of Libya is gradually being exposed and revealed to the world.
“The international community in the interests of peace and security has a duty to guard against a repeat of what transpired in Libya,” he told The Southern Times.
Prof Ben Saul of the University of Sydney was quoted in the media adding, “If Australian forces are present in other countries, in circumstances where Australia is not fighting lawfully in an armed conflict but they are just picked up as spies on the ground that then exposes them to the full force and penalty of the local domestic law.
“In many countries espionage is an incredibly serious political offence, which can carry the death penalty.”
In recent years, several Western powers have not hidden their desire to intervene militarily in Africa to further their own ends.
The US is keen to establish a military base, the Africa Command (AFRICOM).
In 2011, the US sent special forces to “assist” Uganda rebel Lord’s Resistance Army rebels in Uganda and used AFRICOM to launch the war on Libya.
The Israelis have agreements with Kenya, the Western-backed Somali government and Tanzania on various “military co-operation” deals to curb Islamic militants in the Horn of Africa.
France has deployed militarily in Libya and Cote d’Ivoire in the past year alone, and is understood to be meddling in Madagascar’s political crisis.
An alliance between Australia’s SAS and the US would be natural in the geo-political order of things.
A British paper recently stated that Australia’s SAS played a key role in the potentially illegal detention of prisoners of war at a secret Iraqi prison.
The Guardian said documents showed an SAS squadron of 150 men was integral to the operation of a secret detention facility, known as H1.
A blog called American Interests expounds on the US-Australia military relationship.
It says, “For nearly 100 years, Australia has committed its armed services in every major conflict fought by the United States.
“Its foreign policymakers and its people have mostly accepted that the US is a force for good; a force that historically we have wanted to be associated with.
“Beginning in 1908 when Australian Prime Minister Alfred Deakin successfully invited Teddy Roosevelt to send his fleet to visit our shores through to the fighting in WWI.
“From when John Curtin turned our military operations over to US General Douglas MacArthur during WWII, through to Vietnam and presently,Afghanistan and Iraq - some 50 000 Australians, including ground troops and air force and navy personnel, served in Vietnam.”
The SAS, according to the blog, is the “cream” of Australia’s military and is moulded along the same lines of the British special forces of the same name.
Canberra has always been secretive about its existence and activities.