WILLIAM WEST / AFP
A landmark war crimes inquiry into the activity of Australian special forces soldiers in Afghanistan has rocked the nation’s military, exposing a "warrior-hero" culture that facilitated criminal conduct and unlawful killings.
The Brereton report, released on Thursday, recommended that 19 current and former Australian soldiers be investigated by police over the alleged murders of 39 Afghan civilians. The report was commissioned by the Australian Defence Force (ADF) following allegations of war crimes carried out by the Special Operations Task Group in Afghanistan between 2005 and 2016.
Most of the alleged incidents involved soldiers killing prisoners who had been captured or subdued, including detainees who were handcuffed. Non-commissioned officers of the SAS—the most elite force in the Australian military—allegedly demanded that junior soldiers “blood” themselves by executing the unarmed prisoners in order to achieve their first kill, before planting weapons and falsifying reports to cover up the crimes.
The majority of the killings took place between 2012 and 2013, and were allegedly committed by soldiers from the Perth-based SAS. None of them took place in the heat of battle, the report said, and none of the victims were combatants. In “credible” cases where soldiers committed war crimes, the report said, it “was or should have been plain that the person killed was a non-combatant”.
“None were alleged to have occurred in circumstances in which the intent of the perpetrator was unclear, confused or mistaken,” said Australian defence chief Angus Campbell. “And every person spoken to by the inquiry thoroughly understood the law of armed conflict and the rules of engagement under which they operated.”
While the specific details of the incidents are heavily redacted in the Brereton report, one is described as “possibly the most disgraceful episode in Australia’s military history”.
The report also found a prevailing cover-up culture among the special forces, stating that “operation summaries … frequently did not truly and accurately report the facts of engagements … but were routinely embellished … to demonstrate apparent compliance with rules of engagement, and to minimise the risk of attracting the interest of higher headquarters.”
It further stated that the “criminal behaviour was conceived, committed, continued, and concealed”, and suggested that younger soldiers viewed their patrol commanders as “demi-gods” who could not be disobeyed.
The Australian government will compensate the Afghan families whose loved ones were allegedly murdered by Australian soldiers.
While many Afghan and Australian human rights organisations have welcomed the release of the Brereton report, many are now reiterating how important it is that justice be served swiftly and decisively. They demand that those found guilty be held to account, and that the families of the victims be adequately compensated and cared for.
“Although the release of the report and commencement of investigations will mark the beginning of a process of closure, nothing other than bringing to justice those responsible for unlawful killings and unlawful treatment can better heal the open wounds of the families of the victims,” Hadi Marifat, Executive Director at the Afghanistan Human Rights and Democracy Organization, said in a statement.
“The Australian Government must consider providing meaningful and adequate counselling and reparations to the victims and their families, including through the establishment of a redress compensation scheme. Afghan victims must be consulted.”
The Australian Defence Force is currently exploring how it can make compensation payments to the families of the victims. When asked what he would say to these families, Campbell told reporters, “I am sincerely sorry for their loss and I can imagine the pain, the suffering and the uncertainty that that loss has caused.”
Hussain Sadat, a Kabul-based journalist, said Australia is the first country that apologized for war crimes committed by its soldiers in Afghanistan.
“Most of the people have been consoled by this act and expect other foreign countries who were involved in the 20-year-long war of Afghanistan to do the same,” he told VICE World News.
Campbell said he would accept all 134 recommendations of the inspector general, and indicated that changes would be made to the army’s organizational structure—although he has so far stopped short of committing to disbanding the SAS.
He did declare that the SAS's second squadron would be struck off the army's order of battle, and that it would be reformed and renamed, "not because it was the only squadron involved in these issues, but because it was at a time one of the squadrons". Doing so would produce a "permanent record" of that squadron’s shame, he said.
The Chief of Army, Lieutenant General Rick Burr, said in a statement that future generations would be "reminded of this moment in our military history from the gap in our squadron numbering system", and promised that justice would be served to those found guilty of war crimes.
"As I continue to analyse the extensive findings, be assured that where there is evidence of misconduct, individuals will be held to account,” he said. “This may be through disciplinary or administrative action."
The Brereton report is the result of an extensive, years-long inquiry into allegations of misconduct within the Australian military, and is based on more than 20,000 documents, 25,000 images and 423 interviews with soldiers and officers from the military, Afghan villagers, special forces interpreters and support staff.
Over the past few years, however, there have also been numerous media reports of alleged war crimes carried out by troops in Afghanistan—as well as troubling efforts by Australian authorities to suppress the information and censure whistleblowers.
Last year, Australian Federal Police (AFP) raided the offices of the Australian Broadcasting Corporation (ABC) over a series of 2017 stories, known as The Afghan Files, that were based on secret defence force documents leaked to the broadcaster and revealed detailed cases of “possible unlawful killings”—included alleged incidents of Australian troops killing unarmed men and children.
One of the journalists who broke the story, Dan Oakes, was facing three potential charges linked to obtaining classified information. Last month, the AFP finally announced that they had decided not to prosecute—but the case stirred up significant misgivings about the tolerance for public interest journalism in Australia.
Keren Adams, Legal Director at the Human Rights Law Centre, noted that beyond the disturbing findings of violence, cover-ups and murder contained within the Brereton report, efforts to crack down on whistleblowers and reporters are an additional cause for concern.
“The alleged atrocities and the cavalier disregard for the lives of Afghan civilians and prisoners detailed in this report are profoundly confronting and a moment of national shame,” Adams said in a statement. “One of the most disturbing aspects of this case is just how long it has taken for these crimes to come to light and the many attempts to intimidate and prosecute those who have spoken out about them.
“No whistleblower should face prison for exposing potential war crimes and no journalist should ever fear prosecution for doing their job.”
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