Australian Chief of the Defence Force Angus Campbell said Thursday (19 November) that a review of Australia’s special operations soldiers showed unlawful killings from 2006 to 2013 were carried out and could amount to war crimes. He said there was “credible information” to substantiate 23 incidents of unlawful killings of 39 people by 25 soldiers and that some new SAS operators were “encouraged to shoot prisoners in incidents that were called ‘blooding’.” Campbell also said special operations soldiers hindered investigations into the killings and often planted weapons on civilians who had been unlawfully killed.
Campbell apologised to the Afghanistan people and to Australian citizens. Campbell said none of the killings were “in the heat of battle” and said unlawful killings of civilians and prisoners is never right. He called the killings the result of a “breakdown in command” and a systemic failure. He said part of the problem was that special operations commanders fostered a “self-centred warrior culture” that focussed on “prestige and power, elitism, ego, and entitlement” and that “good order and discipline fell away” and that soldiers “bent rules” and that competition between special operations units fostered a “toxic competitiveness”. “Not correcting this culture was a failure of unit and higher command,” Campbell said.
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Campbell said he has accepted all of the report’s findings and would implement all 143 recommendations and any additional measures necessary and would report quarterly to the country’s Minister of Defence on the progress made in enforcing the findings.
Media reports in Australia said Prime Minister Scott Morrison called the president of Afghanistan Wednesday night over the alleged misconduct of Australian troops. The call was confirmed on Twitter by the office of the Afghan president. “In this telephone call, the Prime Minister of Australia 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 statement said on Twitter. “Also, Senator the Hon Marise Payne, Minister for Foreign Affairs of Australia in a letter to the Minister of Foreign Affairs of Afghanistan has extended apologies for the misconduct identified by the inquiry, by some Australian military personnel in Afghanistan. The letter reads, ‘The Australian Minister for Defence, Senator the Hon Linda Reynolds CSC and the Chief of the Defence Force, General Angus Campbell AO DSC, are now considering the inquiry’s extensive findings and recommendations and will make public statements subsequently’.”
Australia has been investigating the actions of its special forces in Afghanistan for more than four years. Maj Gen Justice Paul Brereton has investigated allegations that a small group within the elite Special Air Services and commandos regiments unlawfully killed Afghan civilians, in some cases allegedly slitting throats, gloating about their actions, keeping kill counts, and planting phones and weapons on corpses to justify their actions. Brereton describes the special forces’ actions as “disgraceful and a profound betrayal” of the Australian Defence Force.
Australian Minister of Defence Linda Reynolds said in a statement released after Campbell spoke that the Afghanistan inquiry, “established at the request of the Chief of the Defence Force in 2016, has been complex, extensive and lengthy. The Afghanistan Inquiry report contains findings and recommendations about a range of very serious matters that the Chief of the Defence Force must now comprehensively respond to. Accountability will be the cornerstone of Defence’s response to the Inquiry report. This is crucial to maintaining the highest standards Australians expect of our military, reassuring confidence and trust, and learning from grave failings. To ensure thorough oversight of the Defence response to the Inquiry, last week I established the Afghanistan Inquiry Implementation Oversight Panel, which will report directly and regularly to me. This panel, led by former Inspector General of the Intelligence and Security, Dr Vivienne Thom, will provide further assurance to the Government and the Australian people of Defence accountability. I remain proud of the men and women of the ADF who have served our nation on operations at home and around the world, and have done so with distinction.
“The findings announced by the Chief of the Defence Force today should not cast a shadow on the vast majority whose contributions to the mission in Afghanistan were carried out to the highest standards demanded of them,” Reynolds said. “I am profoundly conscious this process continues to be extremely challenging and distressing for many individuals and families impacted by the Inquiry. Defence will keep working hard to make sure people get the right support when they need it. This is the government’s highest priority.”
Richard Marles, the deputy leader of the Australian Labour Party and Mark Dreyfus, the shadow attorney-general, issued a joint statement that said: “The release of today’s report by the Inspector-General of the Australian Defence Force (IGADF) into allegations of war crimes committed by Australian Special Forces in Afghanistan is a difficult moment for the nation. Findings in the report that credible information exists in relation to some members of Australia’s Special Forces having engaged in unlawful killings and cruel treatment while deployed in Afghanistan are appalling.
“This report makes difficult reading. It states that credible evidence exists that members of our most elite armed forces behaved unlawfully, unconscionably and committed war crimes as defined by the Australian criminal justice system. These allegations in respect of a few do not detract from the sacrifice of the many who have served our country, and in particular the thousands of current and former soldiers who served in Afghanistan. It is important the government accepts all recommendations made by Major General Paul Brereton. Major General Brereton has demonstrated the utmost integrity in handling this difficult task and we thank him for his work.
We also acknowledge the courageous leadership within the Australian Defence Force in ordering this investigation and now committing to the next steps. As Chief of the Defence Force, Angus Campbell, said today: ‘It is my duty to set things right.’ Today will be distressing for many who have shown extraordinary bravery in speaking up about what they saw and knew was inappropriate conduct. Giving voice to their concerns would not have been easy. The report highlights the protective culture insulating special forces soldiers was a key factor in creating an environment that allowed unlawful behaviour to fester.”
‘People involved will be held accountable’
Other Australian politicians also issued statements on the IGADF report and its findings. Darren Chester, the country’s minister for Veterans’ Affairs and minister for Defence Personnel, said “more than 39,000 Australians have deployed to Afghanistan and for the overwhelming majority their service was in keeping with the values we expect as a nation, and the high standards they demand of each other. However, as revealed today by the Chief of the Defence Force (CDF), the findings of the Inspector-General of the Australian Defence Force (IGADF) Afghanistan Inquiry are deeply concerning. The people involved will be held accountable through the independent processes detailed by the CDF but we must not allow the alleged actions of a relatively small number to stain the reputations of the thousands who serve today, and the broader veteran community.
“This inquiry has highlighted key issues that must be addressed, and I would like to acknowledge the courage of those people who have come forward to provide information to the Inquiry and helped us confront these issues,” Chester said. “This has been challenging for some of our veterans and serving ADF personnel who have shared their accounts of events that happened in the theatre of war and my primary concern is the welfare support for those involved, and their families. The government remains committed to ensuring access to the right support, at the right time, is available to veterans, ADF members and their families. This includes counselling, legal, psychological, medical, pastoral and social work support. The IGADF has employed Witness Liaison Officers who have been supporting those involved during the Inquiry. To ensure their privacy, other government departments are not aware of their identities unless they have come forward for assistance. These Witness Liaison Officers will now integrate into Defence to provide a continuity of support and I encourage anyone affected by this Inquiry to access the welfare and support services made available by both the Departments of Defence and Veterans’ Affairs.”
‘They should fall on their swords’
Still others criticised the ADF commanders. Independent Senator Rex Patrick has called for Australian Defence Force commanders to “take personal responsibility for the command failures that allowed war crimes to be committed by ADF personnel in Afghanistan”. He has also called on the Australian Parliament, which endorsed and supported Australia’s military engagement in Afghanistan, to also make a formal apology to the people of Afghanistan.
“The report of the inquiry by Justice Paul Brereton into war crimes in Afghanistan tells a very disturbing and deeply shameful story,” Patrick said. “As a former member of the Australian Defence Force, I am absolutely appalled by the revelations of at least 39 unlawful killings by ADF personnel. This is a very grim day for the standing of the ADF. While Prime Minister Scott Morrison has called Afghanistan’s President Ashraf Ghan, and Defence Force Chief General Angus Campbell today apologised on behalf of the ADF, the Australian Parliament should support a national apology to the people of Afghanistan. This is a grave matter that must be addressed at the centre of Australia’s democracy. The Parliament should also endorse efforts wherever possible to provide support to the families of the victims. While the necessary legal processes relating to individuals must run their course, it is clear that ADF personnel have murdered captured enemy combatants and civilians. Our troops unlawfully killed the very people that they were sent to Afghanistan to help protect.
“The individuals responsible for these atrocities must be fully held to account,” Patrick added. “So too must those in the ADF chain of command who were responsible for the units and operations in question. There appears to have been a totally unacceptable breakdown of oversight, control and discipline…Unit and taskforce commanders, past and present, must step up and take personal responsibility for the actions of their personnel in what were clearly not isolated incidents. They should not await potentially protracted disciplinary and administrative processes of further investigation. Those commanders should step forward now, and publicly accept moral responsibility for their grave failures of command. They should fall on their swords.”
‘No question SAS committed war crimes’
Australian Greens Peace and Disarmament spokesperson Senator Jordon Steele-John said there was no question now that Australian special forces committed war crimes in Afghanistan that are the result of a toxic warrior culture, facilitated by failures within the chain of command. “The crimes outlined in the Brereton report – even in the limited detail we’ve been given so far – are horrendous and shameful,” Steele-John said. “Innocent people, including children, are dead, families have been torn apart and villages have been left in ruin. Compensation must be given to the families and to the communities affected by these disgusting crimes. For their role in these crimes, the perpetrators and their direct chain of command – the officers who sanctioned, and often ordered these unlawful killings – must be held to account. So too must the higher levels of command within the armed forces who served during the Afghanistan War who either failed to act when they should have, or turned a blind eye and allowed the sanitisation of reporting.”
Steele-John said there were significant questions that still remained unanswered after Major General Angus Campbell’s press conference. “Both the Office of the Special Investigator and the Oversight Committee must be independent, without any personal or professional ties to the Australian Defence Force. So far, these assurances have not been given. Major General Campbell stated that the commanders who either didn’t know what was happening on the ground, or turned a blind eye to sanitised reporting, would be disciplined internally and not referred to the Special Investigator. When negligence results in an unlawful killing, there are pathways for prosecuting that as a criminal matter and these must be explored.
“Any deliberations between Major General Campbell, as Chief of the Defence Force, and General Burr, as the Chief of Army, about consequences for commanders who failed to act must be transparent so that the Australian public can be assured that this toxic warrior culture is being properly addressed. And finally, the public have a right to seriously question the involvement of both Major General Campbell and General Burr’s in the implementation of the report’s recommendations and in future disciplinary actions related to this investigation, given both played leadership roles in the Afghanistan War. Major General Campbell was the Commander of Joint Task Force 633 responsible for all Australian forces deployed in the Middle East, including Afghanistan, between January 2011 and January 2012. General Burr was a Commander of SASR on two separate deployments during the Afghanistan War. I and my team will be examining this report and its ramifications in detail, and consulting with experts and stakeholders to provide a more detailed response over the coming days.”