After a four-year-long investigation into allegation that members of Australian special forces committed war crimes in Afghanistan, 25 soldiers stand accused of murdering 39 unarmed Afghan civilians or prisoners and cruelly treating two others.
Some of the soldiers are still serving in the Australian Defence Force.
The inquiry led by New South Wales Supreme Court judge Paul Brereton, a major general in the Army Reserve, found credible information about 23 incidents in which one or more non-combatants or prisoners were unlawfully killed by or at the direction of Australian soldiers in circumstances which, if accepted by a jury, would be the war crime of murder.
Some of these incidents involved a single victim, and some multiple victims.
The report, released by the chief of the ADF, General Angus Campbell, said a total of 25 current or former Australian Defence Force personnel were perpetrators, either as principals or accessories, some of them on a single occasion and a few on multiple occasions.
None of these incidents occurred under pressure in the heat of battle, the report said.
Campbell said the ADF was rightly held to account for allegations of grave misconduct by some members of its special forces community during operations in Afghanistan and the report detailed credible information regarding deeply disturbing allegations of unlawful killings by some.
‘To the people of Afghanistan, on behalf of the Australian Defence Force, I sincerely and unreservedly apologise for any wrongdoing by Australian soldiers. I have spoken directly to my Afghan counterpart, General Zia, to convey this message.’
Brereton’s report said that overwhelmingly, the special forces soldiers performed skilfully, effectively and courageously. Because of their role, they formed a disproportionately high percentage of ADF members killed or wounded in action in Afghanistan, and there is a long tail of consequential mental health issues which continue to emerge.
But in 2014, a number of issues emerged in Special Operations Command, including rumours that war crimes had been committed by some members of the Special Operations Task Group (SOTG).
In March 2016, Campbell, then chief of the army, asked the inspector-general of the ADF to inquire into ‘“unsubstantiated stories” of possible crimes (illegal killings and inhumane and unlawful treatment of detainees) over a lengthy period of time in the course of the Special Operations Task Group deployments in Afghanistan; the cultural normalisation of deviance from professional standards within Special Operations Command, including intentional inaccuracy in operational reporting related to possible crimes; a culture of silence within Special Operations Command; the deliberate undermining, isolation and removal from Special Operations Command units of some individuals who tried to address this rumoured conduct and culture; and a systemic failure, including of commanders and legal officers at multiple levels within the command, to report or investigate the stories as required by Defence policies’.
These issues were raised with Campbell by the then chief of Special Operations Command, Major General Jeff Sengelman, and civilian sociologist Dr Samantha Crompvoets.
This investigation was not a criminal trial and it could not find guilt in any individual case. But Brereton said in his report that if what the inquiry has found was taken collectively, the answer to the question of whether there was substance to rumours of war crimes by some special forces soldiers ‘must sadly be yes, there is’.
In a report that will be deeply troubling to the ADF, the army and the nation, some sections are profoundly chilling.
The inquiry found credible information that some patrol commanders ‘blooded’ junior soldiers by ordering them to achieve their first kill by shooting a prisoner.
This would happen after a target compound had been secured, and local people were ‘under control’. ‘Typically, the patrol commander would take a person under control and the junior member, who would then be directed to kill the person under control’, the report said.
That was combined with a practice adopted by some soldiers of carrying ‘throwdowns’—easily concealable foreign weapons or equipment such as pistols, small handheld radios, weapon magazines and grenades—which would be placed with the body when the person killed was found to be unarmed.
Then a cover story was created for operational reporting and to deflect scrutiny. ‘This was reinforced with a code of silence’, the report said. That meant the dead person could be identified as an ‘enemy killed in action’ and therefore a legitimate target.
In some cases, that practice also served to enable a unit to outscore other patrols in numbers of ‘enemy’ killed in action. The report says it ‘probably originated for the less egregious though still dishonest purpose of avoiding scrutiny where a person who was legitimately engaged turned out not to be armed. But it evolved to be used for the purpose of concealing deliberate unlawful killings.’
Subordinates complied for a number of reasons. To a junior SAS trooper, the patrol commander is a ‘demigod’, who can make or break their career. The trooper is trained to obey and to implement their commander’s intent. ‘To such a trooper, who has invested a great deal in gaining entry into the SASR, the prospect of being characterised as a “lemon” and not doing what was expected of them was a terrible one, which could jeopardise everything for which they had worked.’
Further, the report said, these men were in a foreign environment, far from the influence of the norms of ordinary Australian society, where the incident could be compartmentalised as something that happened outside the wire to stay outside the wire.
‘In that context, some individuals who would have believed themselves incapable of such behaviour were influenced to commit egregious crimes. It is clear to the Inquiry that at least some of them have regretted it, and have been struggling with the concomitant moral injury, ever since.’
On the issue of who knew about these atrocities, the report says: ‘There is no credible information that troop, squadron and task group commanders either knew or suspected that these things were happening, and that they did not fail to take reasonable steps which could have prevented or discovered them. However, what is described in this chapter is possibly the most disgraceful episode in Australia’s military history, and the commanders at troop, squadron and task group level bear moral command responsibility for what happened under their command, regardless of personal fault.’
The report said it was in soldiers’ parent units and subunits that the cultures and attitudes that enabled misconduct were bred, ‘and it is with the commanders of the domestic units who enabled that, rather than with the SOTG commanders, that greater responsibility rests’.
Of all the armed conflicts in which Australia has been involved, the war in Afghanistan was the longest.
The report said the position of the SASR troop commanders called for some sympathy as it was a difficult one.
‘Invariably, they were on their first SOTG deployment. They were in an environment in which the non-commissioned officers had achieved ascendancy, just as they had from their role as gatekeepers to SAS selection, and their extended role when new officers were “under training” and thus regularly subordinate to them. They were not well-mentored, but were rather left to swim or sink. Those who did try to wrestle back some control were ostracised, and often did not receive the support of superior officers.’
The report says a substantial indirect responsibility falls upon those in the SAS who embraced or fostered a ‘warrior culture’ and the clique of non-commissioned officers who propagated it.
‘Some domestic commanders of SASR bear significant responsibility for contributing to the environment in which war crimes were committed, most notably those who embraced or fostered the warrior culture and empowered, or did not restrain, the clique of non-commissioned officers who propagated it.
‘That responsibility is to some extent shared by those who, in misconceived loyalty to their Regiment, or their mates, have not been prepared to “call out” criminal conduct or, even to this day, decline to accept that it occurred in the face of incontrovertible evidence, or seek to offer obscure and unconvincing justifications and mitigations for it.’
Brereton has recommended that a significant number of cases be referred to the Australian Federal Police for formal investigation.
That has been accepted by General Campbell.