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The stories of alleged war crimes by Australian special forces in Afghanistan have led to an inquiry prompted by fellow soldiers. By Karen Middleton.

Special forces expose rogue element

A series of news reports over the past fortnight forms a picture of a reckless, lawless and violent cowboy culture allowed to flourish among some individuals in some corners of Australia’s special forces, especially on operations in Afghanistan.

If proved, several allegations may involve serious breaches of the rules of war – and of criminal law. At the very least, they would show a complete loss of moral compass.

An inquiry established at the highest levels of the Australian Defence Force is closing in on the truth.

But the message in conversations The Saturday Paper has had with serving and former personnel is that this probing has not been imposed from on high: it has come because concerned soldiers wanted it.

“This was generated from the ground up,” one special forces insider said this week. “It’s not the command saying, ‘Oh, let’s bring it out.’ It’s the diggers.”

He said there were “things that happened that shouldn’t have”.

The inquiry is being conducted through the Inspector-General of the Australian Defence Force (IGADF) and led by New South Wales Supreme Court judge and Army Reserve major-general Paul Brereton.

One officer told The Saturday Paper: “I think it will find that bad things happened. Bad things need to be dealt with.”

The allegations range from bullying and harassment and the use of alcohol and drugs, to battlefield recklessness and the unsanctioned and illegal use of force, with an apparent sense of impunity.

They date back over the past decade and beyond.

On Thursday, the ABC published photographs of Australian soldiers flying the Nazi flag on a commando patrol vehicle in Afghanistan in 2007.

A Defence statement said the swastika – flown “briefly” – was “abhorrent” and that the ADF rejects all it represents. Those involved were cautioned and all present undertook further education and training.

The vice-chief of the defence force, Vice-Admiral Ray Griggs, said the situation had been dealt with “very quickly” in 2007 and, when the patrol returned to base, the flag was destroyed.

Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull called the flag-flying incident “completely and utterly unacceptable” and “absolutely wrong”.

More serious allegations relate to events between 2009 and 2013, when fighting in Afghanistan was at its peak.

They include:

• The alleged killing of a young shepherd and wounding of his brother in Uruzgan province, when personnel on a helicopter said they mistook the boys’ sticks for radio antennae.

• A Special Air Service soldier’s alleged machinegunning of an unarmed elderly man who had a prosthetic leg in April 2009. Colleagues allegedly pressured the soldier to shoot, in a “blooding” ritual. Although a suspected Taliban member, the man allegedly posed no immediate threat. Soldiers are said to have souvenired the leg for use in drinking games.

• The alleged 2011 killing of a local businessman, Hayat Ustad, in the Uruzgan capital, Tarin Kowt, during an Afghan-government-authorised mission. The ADF found Ustad had drawn a pistol but locals told the ABC’s Four Corners program in 2011 that he was unarmed and a business rival had falsely told coalition forces he had insurgent links.

• The 2012 close-range shooting by an SAS soldier of detainee Ali Jan in the northern Uruzgan village of Darwan at the urging of colleagues, one of whom had allegedly kicked the handcuffed and defenceless man over a small cliff. 

• A 2013 mission in Uruzgan in which a father and son were shot dead sleeping side by side in a compound. Soldiers said the man drew a pistol and they were unaware the child was there.

It is the second-last allegation that has received most media attention this week, after journalists Chris Masters and Nick McKenzie detailed the alleged incident in Fairfax newspapers and the ABC’s Dan Oakes broadcast interviews with men described as Ali Jan’s relatives.

The reports by McKenzie and Masters allege that one soldier they are calling “Leonidas”, who allegedly kicked the man off a cliff in Darwan, is the same person who shot and killed the elderly one-legged man three years earlier on his first deployment.

The Saturday Paper understands Defence chiefs are taking the allegations extremely seriously and are determined to take all necessary action. This includes military prosecution for any implicated serving personnel or criminal charges in the civilian system for those now outside the ADF.

The Australia Defence Association’s executive director, Neil James, is unequivocal about what should occur if the allegations have substance.

“Certainly for the alleged incidents that are public, you would expect criminal charges,” James says.

“It’s very hard to judge split-second battlefield decisions later on in an armchair in Australia and on most occasions you should not do it,” he told The Saturday Paper.

“But these allegations indicate premeditated behaviour and at least low-level condoning of it. That’s a completely different situation legally, morally, operationally … You’re not judging a split-second decision. You’re judging something that someone … chose to do before they did it.”

Former SAS captain and now federal Liberal MP Andrew Hastie is among those urging a thorough investigation and prosecution if necessary.

The IGADF began its investigation two years ago, after rumours of the incidents and other inappropriate behaviour began swirling up through the ranks.

As one senior insider puts it, the gossip and chatter became “like a boiling pot”.

Initially, the then Special Operations Commander, Major-General Jeff Sengelman, commissioned a review of command and culture, backed by Chief of Army Lieutenant General Angus Campbell, who will become the next chief of the Defence Force on July 6.

Sociologist and Defence consultant Dr Samantha Crompvoets, an expert in producing and analysing strategic research into behaviour and organisational culture, conducted the review.

Her findings, made in February 2016, prompted Sengelman to ask soldiers to write to him directly with information. Campbell then ordered the IGADF investigation.

First reported in Fairfax newspapers last week, the Crompvoets report, seen by The Saturday Paper, makes disturbing reading. Its author described such a stream of “sotto voce” comments in her interviews that she said they warranted further detailed examination.

Interviewees provided “accounts of extremely serious breaches of accountability and trust” which Crompvoets could not verify. Some related to policy, process and governance – such as losing weapons, poor health and safety practices, wasted resources and opaque acquisition processes.

“Even more concerning were allusions to behaviour and practices involving abuse of drugs and alcohol, domestic violence, unsanctioned and illegal application of violence on operations, disregard for human life and dignity and the perception of a complete lack of accountability at times,” the Crompvoets report said.

“These were acknowledged to be enormous and difficult challenges, not simple to remedy. It was clear that they went well beyond ‘blowing off steam’ and that there are problems deeply embedded in the culture.”

Crompvoets identified issues with the nature of special forces’ selection processes, in which the regiment chose its own candidates for promotion and which tended to favour “type-A personalities” who would “push and push and push”.

She detailed tensions between the SAS, based in Perth, and their eastern counterparts, the commandos, suggesting some of the former sneered at the latter because their selection process was seen as less rigorous, fuelling a popular SAS view that many who had failed at SAS selection had become commandos instead.

Crompvoets reported that the regiments had become insular and secretive, often not sharing developments in training or equipment, leading to unnecessary double-ups in process and expenditure.

Other Defence insiders told The Saturday Paper that the SAS’s mode of operation, in small five-member patrols, contributes to an inflated sense of “specialness” and self-protection, bestowing power and authority on men of relatively low rank, some of whom abused it.

Crompvoets suggested pay and “brand” disparity – the special forces receive extra allowances – discouraged SAS members from leaving the regiment to gain experience elsewhere in the army.

This week, Foreign Minister Julie Bishop – whose Perth electorate covers the SAS’s Campbell Barracks – defended the SAS’s reputation and calibre.

Perth-based former Labor MP Graham Edwards, a Vietnam veteran, defended “the vast majority” of “really good, dedicated soldiers”.

“If there are cowboy elements in there, they need to be identified and dealt with appropriately,” Edwards told The Saturday Paper. “But there are too many inquiries. Enough is enough.”

He criticised political leaders who have not spoken out in support.

“It’s interesting to me that members of governments fall over themselves to be photographed with the men and women of the special forces, but it seems like they’re missing in action at the moment and quite prepared to leave them hanging out to dry.”

Incoming Defence chief Angus Campbell has already taken controversial steps to curtail some other behaviour across the army.

Earlier this year, he enraged some soldiers by issuing an edict banning the use of “death” symbols. It touched on the kinds of moral and ethical questions now in sharp focus. Campbell’s directive acknowledged the display of such insignia was not meant to be harmful and reflected popular culture.

“But,” he wrote, “it is always ill-considered and implicitly encourages the inclusion of an arrogant hubris and general disregard for the most serious responsibility of our profession: the legitimate and discriminate taking of life.”

Along with the specific allegations of misconduct, the IGADF is examining those cultural issues that may have contributed to offences occurring unsanctioned.

Justice Brereton’s report, expected late this year, is likely to contain two volumes: the first dealing with the specific allegations and the second with any contributing past cultural, structural or governance problems.

This week, Defence appointed former intelligence chief David Irvine to conduct a third inquiry, examining the special forces’ current culture.

Senior sources insist much has changed since Crompvoets’ 2015 review, including the breaking down of hostilities between the SAS and commandos by engaging them in more joint operations.

After the Nazi flag photograph emerged, a former soldier turned writer and commentator, C. August Elliott, observed on social media: “Disband or complete restructure. One or the other. Either way there are some Diggers who need to start shaving and spending more time on the drill square.”

The Saturday Paper understands the ADF is unlikely to disband the regiments, believing that the disbanding and rebuilding of Canada’s special forces after incidents in Somalia in 1993 ended up being counterproductive.

But there will almost certainly be more changes. Beyond those, there may well be war crimes prosecutions that could shake the Australian military to its foundations.

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Jun 16, 2018 as "Special forces expose rogue element". Subscribe here.

Karen Middleton
is The Saturday Paper’s chief political correspondent.