An exhaustive review has identified more than 20 possible war crimes and murders by Australian SAS troops in Afghanistan, recommending dozens of soldiers be referred to police and some medals be revoked.
The Brereton review has also alleged “possibly the most disgraceful episode in Australia’s military history” was committed in 2012 during the conflict. But nearly all details of that incident have been blacked out in the heavily-redacted Inspector-General of the Australian Defence Force report, released Thursday.
The report claims some prisoners were forced to the ground and shot in the head, or subjected to “severe physical pain” then killed while handcuffed.
“Today the Australian Defence Force is rightly held to account,” defence force chief Angus Campbell said in Canberra on Thursday.
He said the report included “deeply disturbing allegations” of “grave misconduct”. General Campbell said it found “credible information” to substantiate 23 incidents of alleged unlawful killing of 39 people by 25 special forces troops, with victims including prisoners, farmers and civilians. Another two claims of the war crime of cruel treatment were found to have credible evidence.
“On behalf of the Australian Defence Force, I sincerely and unreservedly apologise for any wrongdoing of Australian soldiers,” General Campbell said.
The extensive report follow years of investigation by Major-General Paul Brereton, assistant Inspector-General of the ADF.
More than 60 alleged incidents between 2006 and 2013 were investigated, relating to claims of unlawful killing or harming of Afghani nationals who were either unarmed, injured, under control of Australian troops, not posing a direct threat, not actively engaged in hostilities, or some combination of those.
In at least one case, it is alleged that an Australian soldier took an unarmed prisoner to a “remote” part of a compound, forced him to the ground, and shot him in the head.
“None of these are incidents of disputable decisions made under pressure in the heat of battle,” the report stated, calling some conduct a “profound betrayal of Australian Defence Force professional standards”.
General Campbell claimed a “toxic competitiveness” had developed between SAS and commando troops, and that “it is alleged that some patrols took the law into their own hands”.
The report, which simply makes recommendations for further investigation and not criminal findings, states there is “credible evidence” of the war crime of murder in at least 23 incidents that should be referred to the Australian Federal Police.
In a handful of other incidents, despite there being “credible evidence” of an unlawful killing, the IGADF does not recommend AFP referral, citing low success of prosecution due to a lack of witnesses or other factors.
An indetermine amount of “compensation” should be given to the families of some of the dead, the report recommended.
The IGADF has also recommended some medals and citations given to certain troop regiments be revoked or reviewed.
Last week, Prime Minister Scott Morrison warned Australians to prepare for “brutal truths” to be revealed in the report, and the document makes for sobering reading.
It alleged commanders of certain units sometimes failed to stop subordinates from committing war crimes, or even encouraged them to do so.
“This shameful record includes alleged instances in which new
patrol members were coerced to shoot a prisoner to achieve the
soldier’s first kill, in an appalling practice known as ‘blooding’,” General Campbell said.
He said he had called Afghanistan’s army chief of staff to apologise for the conduct detailed in the repot. Mr Morrison has also called the country’s President, Ashraf Ghani, to apologise. The President’s Twitter account reported that the PM “expressed his deepest sorrow over the misconduct by some Australian troops in Afghanistan”.
The report highlights several incidents where Australian soldiers allegedly planted items like weapons or radios on killed non-combatants, allegedly to misrepresent them as active fighters. The exact nature of these items are redacted, but are included among claims of soldiers submitting fraudulent reports about their conduct.
Many of the report’s allegations will now be referred to the AFP, as well as being probed by a special investigator panel, as outlined by Mr Morrison last week.
The report highlights what it deems to be cultural problems within Australia’s Special Air Service (SAS), alleging a culture of covering up such incidents.
“In misconceived loyalty to their regiment or their mates, [they] have not been prepared to call out criminal conduct or, even to this day, decline to accept that it occurred in the face of incontrovertible evidence,” the report said.
The report suggests soldiers should wear body or helmet cameras, like police officers in some states of Australia. The IGADF says such cameras “perhaps more than any other single measure, would be a powerful assurance of the lawful and appropriate use of force on operations”.
There’s one particular allegation investigated here, entirely redacted, described as “possibly the most disgraceful episode in Australia’s military history”. ADF chief Campbell can’t say more about it, but calls the allegation “shameful” https://t.co/HQifzVh2gp pic.twitter.com/7Bb0ybj9qF
— Josh Butler (@JoshButler) November 19, 2020
Despite heavy redactions, almost all allegations investigated in the report are listed with at least basic details. However, a small number are redacted entirely, including one particular incident in 2012.
The IGADF said there was “no credible information” that commanders “knew or suspected that these things were happening” in this mystery incident, but the claim is described dramatically as “possibly the most disgraceful episode in Australia’s military history”.
When asked by The New Daily about this incident, General Campbell declined to provide any further details, simply saying it was “utterly disgraceful”.
“In time, in the time of history to be written, it is shameful,” he said.
-more to come