Australian Soldiers Are Being Investigated For War Crimes, So What Happens Next?

Prosecuting the Australian soldiers who allegedly committed war crimes in Afghanistan could take years

In news I’m sure you’ve heard by now, Australian troops stationed in Afghanistan have been implicated in horrific war crimes.

Some of our most elite soldiers stand accused of murdering 39 people. A classified report four years in the making details stories of “blood lust”, “competition killing”, “glorifying” crimes, “inhumane” treatment of prisoners, codes of silence, and deliberate cover ups of unlawful killings “and other atrocities”.

It also said the vast majority of killings were seen as justified by the ‘fog of war’.

The report is a confronting read, with ADF chief General Angus Campbell calling the findings “shameful” and “deeply disturbing”.

So where does that leave Australia — and what happens next?

What Were The Key Findings?

Many specific details have been redacted, but there is still plenty of sickening information in there to make your skin crawl.

The report found there was “credible information” that 39 Afghans were allegedly murdered by Australian special forces, and another two people were treated “cruelly”.

None of these people were combatants. None of the killings took place in the heat of battle. The vast majority were killed after being detained, or under the control of Australian forces, which should have given them protection under international law.

Maj Gen Justice Paul Brereton, who spent four years investigating, said each instance would constitute a war crime if the circumstances were accepted by a jury — a process that could take years.

The inquiry recommends that 23 incidents — involving 19 Australian service personnel — be referred to the AFP for criminal investigation.

The report also detailed an initiation process they called “blooding” — where young special forces soldiers were instructed by their patrol commander to execute a detainee so they could register their first kill. The body was then staged with weapons or radios to cover up the murder.

These patrol commanders were described in the report as being “hero worshipped and unstoppable”.

In another horrific example, one interviewee described SAS members slitting the throats of two 14-year-old boys who they decided might be Taliban sympathisers. They also detailed how special forces soldiers would open fire when landing in a village via helicopter, killing people as they ran away.

The redacted report is available online here.

It’s highly critical of the culture of secrecy that exists within the special forces, accusing soldiers of covering up horrific crimes.

How Did This Come To Light?

The report released yesterday is based on hundreds of interviews with soldiers and officers from the SAS and Commandos, Afghan villagers, special forces interpreters and other support staff.

Australians have been stationed in Afghanistan since 2001, when then-PM John Howard sent troops overseas to support the US after the 9/11 terror attacks. Since then 39,000 Australians have been deployed there, with 3,000 in the Special Forces.

Over the years local Afghans and human rights groups made complaints about Australian soldiers — these were ignored and said to be Taliban propaganda, or attempts to get compensation.

But rumours of war crimes continued to circulate. In 2016 General Campbell commissioned Justice Paul Brereton to investigate these rumours, which culminated in the report released yesterday.

Allegations of war crimes hit Australia’s public consciousness 2017 when two ABC journalists published The Afghan Files — a series of stories based on leaked classified defence documents, which detailed accounts of soldiers killing unarmed men and children.

In response Australian police spent years investigating the journalists who broke the story, which culminated in last year’s federal police raid on their Sydney office. One of those journalists even faced possible jail time, until last month when prosecutors decided charges would not be in the public interest.

What Happens Now?

General Campbell has accepted all 143 recommendations from the inquiry, which includes referring soldiers for criminal investigation.

But prosecuting these alleged war crimes is expected to take years.

A new investigative agency is being set up to build criminal cases against the implicated troops, whose names were redacted in the report. Prime Minister Scott Morrison said the new agency was needed because the workload would “seriously overwhelm” existing police resources.

In the meantime, the Regiment’s  2 Squadron — where Ben Roberts-Smith, Australia’s most highly decorated armed service member, served — has been abolished after the report made clear it was a “nexus of alleged serious criminal activities“. Roberts-Smith has denied any misconduct.

General Campbell also announced all special forces soldiers will in future have to wear body cameras on deployment.

All troops who were awarded a Meritorious Unit Citation for serving in Afghanistan between 2007 and 2013 will also be stripped of their medal.

Defence Minister Still “Proud” Of ADF

Yesterday Defence Minister Linda Reynolds released a statement which tiptoed around the phrase “war crime” — instead referring to “alleged misconduct” and “very serious matters”.

“Accountability will be the cornerstone of Defence’s response to the Inquiry report,” the statement said.

“This is crucial to maintaining the highest standards Australians, reassuring confidence and trust, and learning from grave failings.

“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.”

In contrast, ADF chief Angus Campbell yesterday described “a toxic competitiveness” and “a self-centred warrior culture” with a misplaced focus on power.

“Not correcting this culture, as it developed, was a failure of both unit and higher command,” he said.

“It would have devastated the lives of Afghan families and communities, causing them immeasurable pain and suffering.”

Feature Image: Wikimedia Commons