Shortcuts / 20 November 2020

Alleged War Crimes in Afghanistan

In this episode of Squiz Shortcuts we dive in to the events leading up to the release of the Brereton Report – which looks into allegations that members of our special forces committed war crimes in Afghanistan between 2005 to 2016 – as well as what we know about the report’s findings, and what happens next.

Why are Aussie troops in Afghanistan in the first place?

It’s a chapter in our history that starts with the 9/11 attacks in the US in 2001. Prime Minister at the time John Howard committed Australia to joining the US-led International Coalition against Terrorism by committing military assets and personnel to operations in Afghanistan. Those operations started in October 2001, just a little more than a month after those terror attacks on the US.

The US-led action was known as Operation Enduring Freedom and the first Australian soldiers to engage in that conflict was a contingent of about 200 Special Forces troops who were part of the kick off of what was called Operation Slipper. Operation Slipper was ongoing between 2001 and 2014 and it had several phases to it and changing commitments from the ADF. Ultimately more than 33,000 members of the Defence Force, public service and Federal Police were deployed to Afghanistan and the Middle East to serve in direct and support roles.

During that time, some of Australia’s special forces – and we’re specifically talking about the Special Air Services (SAS) and 2nd Commando regiments – were involved in combat roles in the fight against al-Qaeda and the Taliban. And it was a dangerous mission. During that time 41 ADF personnel were killed and another 261 wounded.

What other missions has Oz been involved in Afghanistan?

Australia has also been involved in other missions around reconstruction and the training of Afghan soldiers. And that continues today. There are currently 80 members of the ADF in Afghanistan participating in Operation Highroad as part of international efforts to assist the Afghan National Defence and Security Forces.

When did investigations into alleged war crimes committed by Australian special forces soldiers in Afghanistan begin?

The timeline for these alleged crimes ranges from 2005 to 2016, but in mid-2015, there was enough concern to warrant special report into the SAS and Commando regiments and that was undertaken by military sociologist Dr Samantha Crompvoets. She’s now spoken about that work for the first time and what she says is what started as an investigation into special forces culture, reputation and trust developed into something else as she began to hear “particularly disturbing” allegations of potential war crimes. She’s said she heard from the soldiers themselves about a fracture in the chain of command, junior soldiers getting too much autonomy and also the ability to conceal their behaviour. And after her 4-month investigation, the commissioning of the Inspector-General’s inquiry was set up.

What did the report find?

The report identified 36 incidents in total and 25 Australian soldiers have been identified as committing offences or being accessories to them. Those Afghan civilians were mostly men and boys, and Chief of Defence Angus Campbell said it’s alleged most of those murders were committed by SAS soldiers. And it happened not in the heat of battle, not when our troops’ lives were at risk, but when the soldiers involved were aware of their legal and moral responsibilities. In other words, no one has any excuses for doing the things it’s claimed they did. The number of those killed could be higher than that, that’s just what they know about now.

What were the cultural problems that were identified?

General Campbell spoke about an environment of “toxic competitiveness” between the SAS and 2nd Commando regiments. And particularly in the SAS he said a ‘self-centred warrior culture’ that focuses on the “power, authority and prestige” of individuals prevailed – which is a million miles away from their historic roots of service, excellence and humility.

Another one of the problems was a culture of secrecy and coverup of these alleged crimes. The report says some soldiers involved took weapons, radios and grenades not issued by the ADF which would be planted next to the bodies of Afghan civilians to suggest they were a threat. And there are also allegations that junior soldiers were required by their patrol commanders to shoot prisoners to get their first kill in a practice known as “blooding”.

And how much the senior levels of the special forces knew is already something that’s in focus. General Campbell said that those involved took significant steps to cover up their actions. But more broadly he said that there were significant issues with command and governance, and that the cultural issues that senior commanders know about weren’t addressed to prevent something like this from happening.

What doesn’t it reveal?

It doesn’t reveal any details like the names of soldiers involved, or any details on the alleged incidents themselves.

What has the response been so far?

Calling the incidents outlined in the report not just a stain on the regiment, but on Australia, General Campbell says he’s accepted 143 recommendations made in that report after it alleged up to 39 prisoners and civilians were murdered by 19 current or former soldiers, and the cruel treatment of two Afghans. And he says there’s other administrative and disciplinary breaches that will be addressed. It’s likely that divisions and individuals will lose their meritorious citations and medals for their part in this.

Prime Minister Scott Morrison has already outlined the framework for taking this forward, establishing the Office of the Special Investigator to further investigate potential criminal conduct raised by Brereton’s report. The office will sit within the Department of Home Affairs so it can call on the powers of the Australian Federal Police. It will also include AFP officers on its staff as well as state and territory police, legal counsel, and support workers. Their job will be to investigate allegations, gather further evidence and where appropriate, refer briefs to the Commonwealth Director of Public Prosecutions for consideration. And the person who will hold the title of Special Investigator is yet to be announced, but it’s likely to be a senior legal eagle like a barrister or retired judge.

And to address the issue of the culture, the government announced it will also set up a separate independent oversight panel that will ensure the ADF drives the changes it needs to make so something like this doesn’t happen again.

What happens to veteran and serving communities during this process? 

There have been services put in place to support the Defence community as it goes through this process. As you might imagine, it has and will continue to raise some dark and troubling issues for those who were there at the time.

What about the Afghan victims?

The Australian government has already been paying small amounts of compensation through what’s called the Tactical Payment Scheme. That scheme allows the government to compensate Afghans – but also civilians from other places where incidents occur during the ADF’s overseas operations – without admitting legal liability. We’re talking about payments in the thousands of dollars – not tens or hundreds of thousands of dollars though.

But Afghan rights groups want Australia to do more. And they’re calling for their citizens who have been affected by these alleged crimes to be included in the Special Investigator’s process. They say that’s absolutely essential for justice to be served.

Squiz recommends:

Defence All-Hours Support Line: 1800 628 036

Open Arms: 1800 011 046

Life on the Line podcast



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