Australian special forces involved in murder of 39 Afghan civilians, war crimes report alleges

Australian special forces were allegedly involved in the murder of 39 Afghan civilians, in some cases executing prisoners to “blood” junior soldiers before inventing cover stories and planting weapons on corpses, a major report has found.

For more than four years, the Maj Gen Justice Paul Brereton has investigated allegations that a small group within the elite Special Air Services and commandos regiments killed and brutalised Afghan civilians, in some cases allegedly slitting throats, gloating about their actions, keeping kill counts, and photographing bodies with planted phones and weapons to justify their actions.

The findings of Brereton’s report, released on Thursday, are confronting and damning.

Brereton describes the special forces’ actions as “disgraceful and a profound betrayal” of the Australian Defence Force.

The report found

  • Special forces were responsible for dozens of unlawful killings, the vast majority of which involved prisoners, and were deliberately covered up.

  • Thirty-nine Afghans were unlawfully killed in 23 incidents, either by special forces or at the instruction of special forces.

  • None of the killings took place in the heat of battle, and they all occurred in circumstances which, if accepted by a jury, would constitute the war crime of murder.

  • All the victims were either non-combatants or were no longer combatants.

  • A total of 25 perpetrators have been identified either as principals or accessories. Some are still serving in the ADF.

In all cases, the report finds it “was or should have been plain that the person killed was a non-combatant”. The vast majority of victims had been captured and were under control, giving them the protection under international law.

Patricia Gossman, senior researcher in Afghanistan for Human Rights Watch, urged nations whose militaries have served as part of the US-led coalition in Afghanistan — including America and Britain — to follow Australia’s example and probe their own soldiers’ conduct. “It was part of a sick culture that essentially treated Afghans living in these contested areas as if they were all dangerous criminals — even the children — or simply as not human,” she said.

Some of the incidents described in the report are deeply troubling. Evidence suggests junior soldiers were instructed by their superiors to execute prisoners in cold blood as part of a “blooding” process to give them their first kill.

“Typically, the patrol commander would take a person under control and the junior member … would then be directed to kill the person under control,” the report found. “‘Throwdowns’ would be placed with the body and a ‘cover story’ was created for the purposes of operational reporting and to deflect scrutiny.”

The chief of the ADF, General Angus Campbell, promised to act on the Brereton report’s “shameful”, “deeply disturbing” and “appalling” findings about the conduct of Australian special forces.

Campbell said he accepted all 143 recommendations, including referring individuals to the office of the special investigator to consider potential criminal cases, because it was his duty “to set things right”.

He also foreshadowed changes to the army’s organisational structure and a review into honours and awards. In the meantime, the meritorious unit citation awarded to Special Operations Task Group rotations serving in Afghanistan between 2007 and 2013 will be revoked.

“To the people of Afghanistan, on behalf of the Australian Defence Force, I sincerely and unreservedly apologise for any wrongdoing by Australian soldiers,” Campbell said during a press conference in Canberra on Thursday.

“And to the people of Australia, I am sincerely sorry for any wrongdoing by members of the Australian Defence Force,” he said, adding that the majority of special forces “did not choose to take this unlawful path”.

The Brereton report, to a large degree, absolves senior command of having any knowledge that war crimes were being committed.

Instead, it says the criminality was committed and covered up by patrol commanders, usually lower-ranking sergeants or corporals, and involved a “small number of patrol commanders and their protegees”.

“While it would have been much easier to report that it was poor command and leadership that was primarily to blame for the events disclosed in this report, that would be a gross distortion,” the report said.

Patrol commanders, the report found, were viewed by troopers as “demigods”, which made it impossible to speak out about their actions.

“They are hero-worshipped and unstoppable,” one anonymous soldier explained.

The Brereton report canvasses failures in oversight, the problems of a “warrior culture”, and the use of a small pool of SAS soldiers in repeated deployments over a prolonged period.

The SAS were above question, particularly by outsiders, and a culture of secrecy within each patrol kept their actions from others. A separate review conducted by the inspector general of the Australian Defence Force (IGADF) describes a kind of “organisational blindness” to the special forces’ actions.

The collective sacrifices of the special forces in some way “justified certain excesses”, the review said, and more minor deviances from expected behaviour, like drinking heavily on base, were tolerated.

Complaints from locals and human rights groups were dismissed as “Taliban propaganda” or attempts to obtain compensation, the report said.

“It is clear that there were warning signs out there, but nothing happened,” David Wetham, the assistant IGADF wrote.

The prime minister, Scott Morrison, called his counterpart in Afghanistan, President Ashraf Ghani, to apologise before the report’s release on Thursday.

Ghani’s office said, via Twitter, that Morrison had “expressed his deepest sorrow over the misconduct by some Australian troops in Afghanistan and assured the President of the Islamic Republic of Afghanistan of the investigations and to ensuring justice”.

The foreign affairs minister, Marise Payne, separately wrote to Ghani to apologise and assured him that the Australian government was examining the inquiry’s findings and would “make public statements subsequently”.

Former prime minister Kevin Rudd, in office for at least two years of the relevant period, issued a statement saying he was “utterly disgusted” and calling for the perpetrators to be “brought to justice”.

Australia’s governor-general David Hurley, a former defence force chief during the period, offered condolences to the Afghan victims’ families and described the allegations as “unforgivable atrocities” that were committed by “a small number of individuals and deliberately concealed from immediate chains of command”.

“As chief of defence force between July 2011 and June 2014, I am deeply disappointed that the ADF inquiry and investigative processes I commissioned into civilian casualties did not reveal the existence of the alleged offences, a large number of which were hidden as combat casualties in operational reports,” he said.

Brereton has been investigating shocking allegations against elite Australian troops since 2016, when he was tasked with examining dozens of incidents in Afghanistan between 2005 and 2016.

His work involved reviewing 20,000 documents and 25,000 images. His team interviewed 423 witnesses.

“We embarked on this inquiry with the hope that we would be able to report that the rumours of war crimes were without substance. None of us desired the outcome to which we have come,” he said. “We are all diminished by it.”

The inquiry was triggered by work by military sociologist Samantha Crompvoets, who was tasked with examining special forces culture and began to hear disturbing allegations of war crimes.

One soldier told her: “Guys just had this blood lust. Psychos. Absolute psychos. And we bred them.”

She heard one alleged incident in which two 14-year-old boys were stopped by SAS, who decided they might be Taliban sympathisers. Their throats were slit.

“The rest of the troop then had to ‘clean up the mess’ by finding others to help dispose of the bodies,” Crompvoets reported. “In the end, the bodies were bagged and thrown in a nearby river.”

Crompvoets told the Guardian she expected the findings of the Brereton report would force a fundamental rethink of special forces culture.

“They have no choice but to learn from this and to make sure that the reasons it manifested in the first place never occur again,” she said.

Much of the evidence had already been canvassed publicly, through extensive media reporting. The ABC has revealed footage of one SAS member standing over an unarmed civilian, asking his superior “you want me to drop this cunt”, before executing the man as he cowered in a wheat field.

A US marine who worked with Australian troops also alleged a civilian was shot dead because there was not enough room for him on a helicopter.

In a separate alleged incident, an Afghan man was used as “target practice” after running from an SAS patrol, throwing a phone away and then putting his hands up. A signals intelligence officer accompanying the patrol, Braden Chapman, told the ABC he was then shot in cold blood.

“He put his hands up just like that,” Chapman said earlier this year. “And then just stood there. As we got closer to him the soldier then just fired, and hit him twice in the chest and then shot him through the head as he walked past him. And then from there he just moved on.

“I was only five to 10 metres behind him at the time. And at the time I was just like, OK, the visual image to me was the guy had his hands up and then it was almost like target practice for that soldier.”

Prior leaks of internal reviews have suggested that special forces were, prior to 2015 operating with a sense of entitlement, arrogance and elitism, governed only through a weak command culture.

A briefing in 2016 on the culture of special forces found soldiers were motivated by “blood lust” during the torture and execution of Afghan prisoners, according to the Sydney Morning Herald and the Age.

Defence has only released a redacted version of Brereton’s findings, blacking out some sections and suppressing names and identities.

The government has, however, committed to criminal investigations. It is establishing an office of the special investigator, staffed by the Australian federal police and state and territory police forces, which will build briefs of evidence and make referrals to the commonwealth director of public prosecutions.

Brereton has recommended referring 36 matters to the AFP for criminal investigation, which involve 19 individuals.


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