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Commanders were told about possible war crimes being committed by Australian soldiers but dismissed the warnings as ‘Taliban propaganda’. By Karen Middleton.

How ‘prestige, status and power’ led to Australia’s war crimes

Chief of the Australian Defence Force General Angus Campbell on Thursday.
Credit: AAP Image / Mick Tsikas

Australian military commanders were told some of their soldiers in Afghanistan might be committing war crimes, but because the information came from Afghans they didn’t believe it.

After a four-year investigation, the Inspector-General of the Australian Defence Force (IGADF) has this week confirmed what has long been reported: that between 2005 and 2014, and particularly during 2012, some Australian special forces soldiers murdered and tortured civilians while deployed in Afghanistan.

As part of the inquiry, Professor David Whetham of King’s College London found that complaints of substance were lodged by the International Committee of the Red Cross, the Afghan Independent Human Rights Commission and local Afghan elders, but were brushed off as “Taliban propaganda or motivated by a desire for compensation”.

“It is clear that there were warning signs out there,” Whetham writes. “But nothing happened.”

The IGADF has recommended compensation be paid to the families of Afghan victims without waiting for criminal prosecutions. “It is simply the right thing to do,” it says.

While most of the 3000 Australian special forces who served in Afghanistan did so with distinction, the IGADF inquiry’s main report, written by Justice Paul Brereton, details an appalling litany of offences committed by some in Australia’s name.

The numbers are worse than previously speculated.

Brereton found credible evidence that 39 Afghan civilians and prisoners were murdered and two more were subject to cruel treatment. He found 25 Australian Defence Force personnel were responsible, either as perpetrators or accessories. His report has recommended that 36 alleged war crimes be referred to the Australian Federal Police for investigation, involving 23 incidents and 19 ADF personnel.

Many other allegations were also investigated but could not be substantiated.

The chief of the Australian Defence Force, General Angus Campbell, has apologised to the people of Afghanistan and to Australians.

“Such alleged behaviour profoundly disrespected the trust placed in us by the Afghan people, who had asked us to their country to help them,” Campbell said on Thursday.

Most of the allegations found to be credible involved the Special Air Service regiment. In some cases, SAS commanders ordered junior soldiers to shoot captives in a “blooding” ritual to chalk up a first kill. The inquiry report recommends those who gave the orders be prosecuted before those who pulled the trigger.

Some Afghans were murdered to raise the kill count in a grisly competition between patrols. Weapons and radios, known as “throwdowns”, were planted on the dead to legitimise the killing.

The report describes a self-centred “warrior” culture in the special forces.

“[There was] misplaced focus on prestige, status and power, turning away from the regiment’s heritage of military excellence fused with the quiet humility of service,” General Campbell said.

“… The distorted culture was embraced and amplified by some experienced, charismatic and influential non-commissioned officers and their protégés who sought to fuse military excellence with ego, elitism and entitlement.”

The report found younger troopers complied with death orders because the commander was seen as a “demigod” who controlled their future. The younger troopers did not want to be seen as “a lemon” and being away from the influence of normal Australian society also played a role.

“At least some of them have regretted it and have been struggling with the concomitant moral injury, ever since,” the report says.

None of the incidents occurred in the heat of battle.

Professor Whetham’s review examined why some military personnel committed “clear and unambiguous acts of murder”, which were “apparently reported by no-one” and whether senior commanders could – and should – have known.

Whetham considered the “grey area” argument, that rules of engagement were unclear or did not account for real battle conditions – and rejected it.

“There is a huge and important difference between pulling a trigger and getting it wrong in the heat of the moment despite trying to do the right thing and taking a handcuffed prisoner and executing them in cold blood,” he writes.

That is what the inquiry has found happened in some circumstances.

“Running became a death sentence, even for women and children,” Whetham says. Incident reports would be “massaged” – the main report alleges embellishment and outright fabrication – to portray victims as about to attack.

“It got to the point where the end justified the means.”

Whetham cites two particular killings as having clearly been designed to take a kill tally from 18 to 20. He quotes a witness to similar incidents as saying: “Guys just had this bloodlust. Psychos. Absolute psychos. And we bred them.”

The Brereton report says it would be a “gross distortion” to blame poor leadership for what occurred.

While commanders must bear some responsibility, it said “the criminal behaviour of a few was commenced, committed, continued and concealed at the patrol commander level”, involving corporals and sergeants.

The report found no evidence of any knowledge further up the chain of command.

But it also says not knowing does not relieve commanders of all responsibility.

General Campbell, who served as Middle East commander in 2011, agrees.

The report found some commanders knew in 2012 and 2013 that “throwdown” weapons were being used. It says the practice began out of frustration with the burden of proof required to keep captives imprisoned – what became known as “capture and release”. It says those who knew of the practice being used during capture didn’t know throwdowns were being used to cover up war crimes.

Nevertheless, the report holds them responsible for accepting substandard behaviour, “sanitising or embellishing” reports and not challenging battlefield versions of events.

Prime Minister Scott Morrison established a new war crimes prosecutor’s office to begin criminal investigations into the IGADF’s findings.

The inquiry was able to collect more evidence than would be admissible in a court of law. The evidentiary bar is much higher for criminal prosecution, and the report acknowledges some of what was found may not clear it.

The defence force chiefs have moved swiftly to make changes.

General Campbell is seeking to revoke the meritorious unit citation presented to all members who served in the Special Operations Task Group in Afghanistan.

He and chief of army Lieutenant-General Rick Burr have disbanded the SAS’s 2 squadron, said to be responsible for many of the alleged incidents.

The many Australian special forces personnel who did not commit crimes, especially those in 2 squadron, are struggling with that news.

“Blokes are shattered,” one former special forces soldier told The Saturday Paper on Thursday. “I’m shattered because it casts a shadow of doubt over you … I had to ring my mum and tell her not to watch the news. I said, ‘You raised me better than that. You know I’m not involved in anything like that.’ ”

He believed those who perpetrated the crimes – and he is convinced some were crimes – should face justice.

The IGADF inquiry reveals that the process of change within the special forces has been under way since the investigation began. Eighty per cent of the current special forces did not serve in Afghanistan.

Australia Defence Association director Neil James says Australia deserves credit for investigating its own personnel; it is the first country among its allies to do so.

“They forgot they were soldiers,” he says of the rogue special forces. “It’s the function that’s special, not the people – though they thought they were.”

Retired Admiral Chris Barrie, a former ADF chief, says there may still be a case for a more formal, open inquiry.

“To go to some of the systemic issues that might have allowed this screwed-up culture, we might need a royal commission,” Barrie says.

He says maintaining a moral compass is crucial in Australia’s military service. “I think it’s a critical element that makes us a force for good.”

Barrie also considers the actions of some special forces troops may have contributed to Afghan soldiers’ murder of Australians in so-called green-on-blue incidents, which increased through 2012. “I wouldn’t dismiss it,” he says.

Other senior personnel doubt there is a link.

What is not in question is that unarmed Afghans died at the hands of some Australian soldiers and that, for years, some people knew and did nothing.

And that is all it takes.

For support, veterans can contact Open Arms, 24 hours a day, on 1800 011 046.

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Nov 21, 2020 as "How ‘prestige, status and power’ led to Australia’s war crimes".

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