In our Defence

The Australians had seven prisoners. Afghans, captured during a drug raid in the country’s war-torn Helmand province; hogtied, hands bound behind their backs. Their mission complete, the soldiers were awaiting a United States aircraft to pick them up.

What happened next remains unproved, but the recollection of one US soldier is chilling. “The pilot said, ‘That’s too many people, we can’t carry that many passengers,’ ” the marine told the ABC this week. “And you just heard this silence and then we heard a pop. And then they said, ‘Okay, we have six passengers.’ ”

It is a shocking allegation – that Australian soldiers killed an unarmed prisoner simply because there was no room on a flight. But it isn’t the first levelled against members of our special forces who served in Afghanistan.

Australian troops stand accused of the killing of dozens of Afghan civilians. Witnesses have detailed brutal murders of men, women and children, and former soldiers have said those they served beside violated the rules of war. It has been alleged Australian soldiers severed the hands of their Taliban enemies and planted weapons on murdered non-combatants.

The picture that has emerged is a twisted dynamic some have called a “culture of impunity”. One former special forces member told the ABC he saw a “decay of moral and ethical values” among some of his fellow soldiers during his time in Afghanistan.

But while journalists have been meticulously documenting this growing list of accusations, another investigation has been going on in the background. For four years, New South Wales Supreme Court judge Paul Brereton, a major-general in the Army Reserve, has been investigating “rumours of breaches of the Law of Armed Conflict in Afghanistan between 2005 and 2016 and associated matters”.

According to the Inspector-General of the Australian Defence Force, the inquiry is examining 55 separate allegations of breaches of the Law of Armed Conflict. “Predominantly unlawful killings of persons who were non-combatants or were no longer combatants, but also ‘cruel treatment’ of such persons.”

There are rumours that the Brereton report is imminent – but nothing has yet been published, not even its terms of reference. The Australian Defence Force is reportedly bracing itself for Brereton to refer war crimes allegations to the Australian Federal Police for prosecution.

The ADF will no doubt say it has reformed in the years since these alleged crimes took place, that the work has been done to heal what was broken in its culture. And this may well be true. But what’s clear is that Australia needs to watch closely the behaviour of its Defence Force.

A culture that has decayed and been revived is not immune to slipping back into darkness. As such, some have suggested the establishment of a permanent war crimes investigation unit in Australia – one with the expertise to police the behaviour of our soldiers beyond our borders.

It is an idea worthy of consideration, one that should be embraced by a Defence Force that truly wants lasting reform.

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on October 24, 2020 as "In our Defence".

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