As Afghan civilians make sense of the Brereton inquiry, one family details how an Australian raid killed three of their relatives – including a 14-year-old boy. By Andrew Quilty.

The impact of Australian war crimes on Afghans

Afghan men having tea at dusk on the rooftop of a restaurant in Tarin Kowt.
Afghan men having tea at dusk on the rooftop of a restaurant in Tarin Kowt.
Credit: Andrew Quilty

Malik Abdul Wakil says he heard the news of the Brereton report on the BBC. Speaking on the phone from Tarin Kowt, the capital of the Afghan province of Uruzgan, he talks about what he knows of the four-year investigation, which found that 39 civilians and captives were unlawfully killed in Afghanistan by 19 members of Australia’s special forces, most between 2009 and 2013. It was during this period, a decade ago, when Abdul Wakil lost an uncle and two cousins, one of whom was a 14-year-old boy. They were killed during an Australian raid in the village of Gurmaw Tangi in Uruzgan.

A small, poor province, Uruzgan has been racked by violence since the early days of the 2001 invasion of Afghanistan. Civilian deaths have been ever-present. While some have made international headlines – such as in July 2002 when 40 civilians were killed at a wedding because an American aircraft crew mistook celebratory gunfire for hostility and bombed it – many deaths have gone unacknowledged, the families left without hope of justice or compensation.

“Beforehand, we didn’t think about justice,” says Abdul Wakil. “But now, since hearing about this report, according to our religion, the perpetrators should be captured and killed.”

Abdul Wakil’s uncle, Ali Mohammad, was about 60 at the time of his death. He had slowed down in his older years, spending most of his time looking after his family’s affairs and designating work on the few acres of land where he grew fruit trees and wheat with his sons.

Early on a summer morning, he was sitting on a wall by the small village mosque in Gurmaw Tangi with his son-in-law, Abdul Karim, when helicopters landed nearby. According to Abdul Karim, he and Ali Mohammad hurried back to their homes, which stood side by side, separated by a common wall. The “foreign forces”, as most Uruzganis referred to them, had a fearsome reputation. “All we were thinking was that they’d want to kill us,” Abdul Karim tells The Saturday Paper.

The team of foreign forces, who were identified to locals as Australians, arrived with an Afghan National Army (ANA) special forces unit. The first house they entered was Abdul Karim’s. They patted him down, searched his building and left. He and his wife, Bibi Khadija, were still inside when, seconds later, the sound of gunfire rang out from the direction of Ali Mohammad’s house. Bibi Khadija said to Abdul Karim, “I think they’ve killed my father.” He tried to reassure her: Ali Mohammad was an old man; he posed no threat. The soldiers must have been firing into the mountains.

But Bibi Khadija ran to her father’s home, where she saw her younger brother, Noor Agha, who was only 14, lying in the yard where he’d been tending the family’s sheep and goats. He was dead. Ali Mohammad lay crumpled and bleeding inside the front door. He, too, was dead.

While it appeared to Abdul Karim that the Australians were leading the mission, neither he nor Bibi Khadija saw whether it was Australian or Afghan soldiers who fired the deadly bursts.

Abdul Karim soon joined the surviving family members, including Ali Mohammad’s wife, several grandchildren and other relatives gathered around the bodies. Then, a small number of soldiers returned. Abdul Karim says the Australians “placed a Kalashnikov and a radio beside Ali Mohammad, took photos and videos and left”.

Another son, Shah Mahmoud, 25, whose wife and four children were in Ali Mohammad’s house, had run for the hills – a “squirter”, as they were known by foreign forces. He was shot and killed by the crew in a circling helicopter.

Despite the fact Shah Mahmoud ran, both Abdul Wakil and Abdul Karim say he wasn’t with the Taliban. “Like many young men,” says Abdul Karim, “before foreign forces reached the area, he would go to the mountains to hide. Many like him were afraid … [that soldiers would] capture them, kill them, saying they were Taliban.”

After the raid, Abdul Wakil, Abdul Karim, other relatives and village elders approached government authorities in Tarin Kowt. This included Matiullah Khan, the provincial police chief whose reputation was such that Dutch forces operating in Uruzgan refused to work with him. The Australians, however, believed his involvement was critical to the success of their mission. Government officials confirmed to the family that Australians had been responsible for the mission in their village but Matiullah Khan told the family he was not responsible for what they did.

Another official, the then deputy of Uruzgan’s provincial council, Mohammad Karim Karimi, confirmed to The Saturday Paper that members of Ali Mohammad’s family had brought allegations to the government at the time and demanded answers as to why “Australian forces had killed innocent people”. Karimi said it was most likely that, because of the critical security situation and the chaotic state of the government in Uruzgan, their claims weren’t formally addressed.

As the public version of the Brereton report is redacted of all identifying information, it is not known whether the killings of Ali Mohammad, Shah Mahmoud or Noor Agha were included in the investigation.

Asked whether their deaths had been canvassed by the inquiry, a spokesperson for the Australian Department of Defence said that “identities of individuals and details of incidents have been redacted from the publicly released version of the Inquiry report for security, privacy and legal reasons”.

The spokesperson referred any individual with information about alleged misconduct by Australian Defence Force personnel on operations in Afghanistan to the Inspector-General of the ADF.

Researcher Rahmatullah Amiri says he has heard stories from across southern Afghanistan that have echoes of the raid on Gurmaw Tangi. Between 2009 and 2011, he conducted research in Uruzgan for international bodies, focusing on the effects of international development, military efforts and civilian casualties from the war. He has interviewed dozens of Afghan survivors of raids by Australian special forces and is blunt in his analysis that the Brereton report’s findings are conservative.

“Thirty-nine [deaths]?” he says. “Let me tell you, there are quite a lot more than that.”

Amiri says Afghan civilians “didn’t know who to approach” to report violent actions by foreign troops. “They tried – they would bring the bodies of victims to the government compound in Tarin Kowt [in demonstration] but there was no one to answer to them, so they lost confidence in the government.”

The Australian special forces were, according to Amiri, infamous among the Afghan public and the Afghan soldiers they served alongside and mentored. “If you ask the ANA, they’d say the Australians were ‘bad-ass’,” he said. Based on his own interviews and observations inside the areas where the incidents occurred across Uruzgan and northern Helmand, Amiri says that on the majority of raids Australians conducted “they were killing innocent people”.

For all the millions of dollars the Australian government spent on development in Uruzgan, Amiri says, for all the schools and health clinics built and wells dug, “just two or three of these raids can undo all that”.

While this was beyond the scope of the Brereton inquiry’s terms of reference, perhaps the most enduring legacy of some Australian Special Operations Task Group units is how their actions drove recruitment for and sympathy towards the Taliban. “One hundred per cent this behaviour drove people to join the Taliban,” says Amiri, “or at the very least to withdraw their support for the government.”

While Abdul Karim says he was not tempted to join the Taliban, he says that “we had hatred for what the foreign forces did to us … We were afraid of the foreign forces.”

In the wake of the Brereton report’s release, Shaharzad Akbar, chairperson of the Afghan Independent Human Rights Commission, is pushing the Australian government to establish a “special unit focused on victims” in order to draw attention to victims as much as the perpetrators.

She says that in Afghanistan “the culture of impunity for war crimes is unfortunately very strong”. Australia’s war crimes inquiry is vital, she says, and hopes “it inspires other countries that had forces in Afghanistan with similar allegations to conduct their own”.

The Brereton report recommends that criminal investigations be undertaken by the Australian Federal Police and that families of victims should be compensated “without awaiting for establishment of criminal liability”. However, Prime Minister Scott Morrison has already thrown cold water on the recommendation, saying it’s not “being considered by the government at this stage”.

“Final decisions related to compensation (including relevant processes and procedures) will be a matter for the Australian government,” a Defence spokesperson told The Saturday Paper.

For most Afghans who have heard of the Brereton report, it has highlighted the shortcomings of their own government in holding to account powerful perpetrators, including foreign forces serving in Afghanistan.

But there is also a sense of apathy, an attitude reflective of a war-weary population that was promised freedom and prosperity after the fall of the Taliban regime but was instead handed a new era of corruption and insecurity.

Rahmatullah Amiri says to the average Afghan, the 39 deaths recorded in the Brereton report represent just a drop in the ocean of suffering they’ve endured, and to which they’ve become accustomed, since 2001.

It’s unlikely this violence will relent any time soon. Despite a wobbly truce for much of this year between the Taliban and the United States, as the latter moves towards full withdrawal by May 2021 the war has resumed a worrying rhythm.

In Uruzgan, according to the Foundation for Defense of Democracies’ Long War Journal, every district is today either controlled or contested by the Taliban. Even Tarin Kowt, the journal says, “has been under direct Taliban threat for several years”.

Abdul Wakil and Abdul Karim still live in Uruzgan today. The Taliban’s tightening grip on the province hasn’t affected their day-to-day lives greatly. The departure of the Australian special forces in 2014 was a blessing, but their shadow will linger over Gurmaw Tangi and Uruzgan for a long time yet. They try not to think too much about the killings of Ali Mohammad, Noor Agha and Shah Mahmoud. “It was a long time ago,” Abdul Wakil says with resignation. “We’ve had so many casualties before and since.”

Zainullah Stanikzai contributed reporting.

For anyone in need of support, contact Lifeline at any time on 13 11 14. Veterans can also 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 December 12, 2020 as "A war of terror".

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