Grattan on Friday: Australia’s war crimes in Afghanistan – how could those up the chain not know?


Michelle Grattan, University of Canberra

When he speaks at functions, Scott Morrison routinely pays tribute to present and past members of the Australian Defence Force.

It seems a very American thing to do.

But he is also putting the military on an extremely high pedestal. When some of those on that pedestal are found to have done appalling things, the shock is doubly great.

For many Australians, looking back on a history of war heroism, it will be hard to take in what the investigation by Justice Paul Brereton has found: 25 current or former soldiers, from the special forces, allegedly perpetrated, as principals or accessories, war crimes in Afghanistan.

A total of 39 people – Afghan non-combatants or prisoners of war – were killed, and another two cruelly treated. Some 19 Australians will be referred on for criminal investigation and likely or possible prosecution.

For the government and the military brass, the Brereton findings are not, or should not be, as surprising as is being claimed.

For a long time, there have been suggestions of bad behaviour by some Australians in Afghanistan.




Read more:
Changing the culture of our SAS forces is no easy fix. Instead, we need to face the true costs of war


Indeed, even when I was there way back in 2002, and Australia had 150 special forces in place, there was chatter among the international media that the Australians were fast and loose.

Before then, there were allegations of brutality by Australian special forces in East Timor in the late 1990s.

The military itself in recent years commissioned inquiries into the culture and operations of the special forces.

In a 2016 report on culture, Samantha Crompvoets wrote, on the basis of the interviews she conducted, of “unverifiable accounts of extremely serious breaches of accountability and trust”.

Most concerning were “allusions to behaviour and practices involving abuse of drugs and alcohol, domestic violence, unsanctioned and illegal application of violence on operations, disregard for human life and dignity, and the perception of a complete lack of accountability at times”.

David McBride, who served in Afghanistan as a military lawyer, blew the whistle on misconduct, and has been prosecuted for his public service.

In some excellent journalism, The Age/Sydney Morning Herald and the ABC extensively documented alleged criminal behaviour.

Even so, Angus Campbell, Chief of the Australian Defence Force, said of the Brereton report: “I was anticipating it wouldn’t be good – but I didn’t realise how bad it would be”.

Brereton documents how a culture of compliance, intimidation and silence in the field hushed up crimes, and he highlights the “warrior culture” of Special Air Service Regiment commanders in Australia.

Patrol commanders on the ground were culpable. “The criminal behaviour in this Report was conceived, committed, continued and concealed at patrol commander level, and it is overwhelmingly at that level that responsibility resides,” Brereton writes. To a junior SASR trooper, “fresh from selection and reinforcement cycle, the patrol commander is a demigod, and one who can make or break a trooper’s career”.

But those up the chain did not know what was going on, Brereton found, although they bore a “moral command responsibility”.




Read more:
Evidence of war crimes found against 25 Australian soldiers in Afghanistan


The key question is, how could this be so? We are talking about multiple crimes of murder and brutality, practices such as “blooding” (patrol commanders requiring a junior soldier to shoot a prisoner to make his first kill), and planting false evidence on victims.

If senior officers did not pick up gossip and whispers, surely they should have been enough aware of the broad special forces culture to know that extensive checks should be in place to guard against the ever-present threat of misconduct.

In 2011, Campbell was appointed Commander Joint Task Force 633, responsible for Australian forces in the Middle East including Afghanistan.

Asked on Thursday for his response to those who might say the report had let people like him “off the hook”, Campbell admitted “I wonder was there something I walked past, was there some indicator I didn’t see?”

Having not done enough many years ago to ensure Australia’s special forces were best prepared to meet proper standards of legal and ethical conduct, the ADF more recently began reform and is now in overdrive to make amends for the atrocities that have been committed.

The government is trying to keep as much at arms length as it can (and remember this inquiry stretches back through Coalition and Labor years, with the worst behaviour concentrated in 2012-13). But it has quickly and properly set up a special investigator’s office that will undertake further work to gather and prepare material for criminal actions.

Campbell has accepted all Brereton’s recommendations. He has made a public apology to the Afghan people. He’s been in contact with the head of the Afghan military. Australia will pay compensation to victims’ families.

In Canada, after a major scandal, the unit concerned was disbanded. That is not happening here, but a SASR sub-unit has got the chop.




Read more:
Politics with Michelle Grattan: Defence expert Allan Behm on the background to the Brereton report


While Thursday’s release of the report was a huge moment, it actually marks the middle of a process.

The military is some way down the track in dealing with its consequences, and the preparations for the prosecution process are advancing. The government is particularly anxious to be seen to be pursuing wrongdoers vigorously: it wants them to be brought to justice under Australian law, not to go to international justice.

The Meritorious Unit Citation that was awarded to the Special Operations Task Group will be revoked – which is appropriate though it will be hard on soldiers who performed commendably and bravely and without fault – and meritorious awards won by individuals will be reviewed.

The redacted report does not name those it says should be referred for criminal investigation; hopefully they’ll be successfully bought to justice but it will be a difficult, long road, given the report is not a brief of evidence and much work will have to be redone.

With so much redaction, there is still a good deal we don’t know about these events. When the official history of the time is written some years on, it will include the unredacted material.

The affair has torn at the heart of Australia’s military reputation. It has not destroyed that reputation, but the repair effort must be comprehensive and, above all, transparent.

And it should always be remembered that the military can be as fallible as any other group in society, and a small minority of individuals as reprehensible as other criminals, and to assume otherwise is to be blind in the name of false patriotism.The Conversation

Michelle Grattan, Professorial Fellow, University of Canberra

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

Evidence of war crimes found against 25 Australian soldiers in Afghanistan



AAP/Defence handout/Cpl Raymond Vance

Michelle Grattan, University of Canberra

The inquiry into Australian Special Forces’ misconduct in Afghanistan has found evidence of war crimes involving 25 current or former Australian Defence Force personnel.

The inquiry found “credible information” of 23 incidents in which one or more non-combatants or prisoners of war “were unlawfully killed by or at the direction of members of the Special Operations Task Group, in circumstances which, if accepted by a jury, would be the war crime of murder”.

In a further two incidents, a non-combatant or prisoner was mistreated in a way that would be “the war crime of cruel treatment”.

Some incidents involved one victim, and in some there were multiple victims.

The inquiry found a total of 39 individuals were killed, and a further two cruelly treated.

The 25 current or former ADF personnel were perpetrators “either as principals or accessories” some of them on a single occasion and a few on multiple occasions.

None of the alleged crimes involved decisions made “under pressure, in the heat of battle”.

The inquiry has recommended the Chief of the Defence Force refer 36 matters to the Australian Federal Police for criminal investigation, relating to 23 incidents, and involving 19 individuals.

The inquiry, which examined conduct by the Special Forces between 2005 and 2016 was conducted by Justice Paul Brereton. Prime Minister Scott Morrison last week announced the establishment of a special investigator’s office to prepare material for the Commonwealth Director of Public Prosecutions.

While the report is damning specifically for the special forces operation in the prolonged Afghanistan war, it will cast a pall over the Australian military more generally.

It recommends Australia immediately compensate families of Afghan nationals unlawfully killed, without waiting for criminal liability to be established.

“This will be an important step in rehabilitating Australia’s national reputation, in particular with Afghanistan, and it is simply the right thing to do,” the report says.

It says although many members of the Special Operations Task Group showed great courage and commitment, and the group had considerable achievements, “what is now known must disentitle the unit as a whole to eligibility for recognition for sustained outstanding service.”

“It has to be said that what this Report discloses is disgraceful and a profound betrayal of the Australian Defence Forces’ professional standards and expectations.”

The inquiry has recommended revoking the award of the Meritorious Unit Citation, “as an effective demonstration of the collective responsibility and accountability” of the group as a whole.

The investigation found that while commanders on the ground were involved, those higher up the chain did not know of the war crimes being perpetrated.

Among the evidence, the inquiry found credible information that “junior soldiers were required by their patrol commanders to shoot a prisoner, in order to achieve the sliders first kill, in a practice that was known as ‘blooding’”.

It also found “throwdowns” (weapons and radios) would be placed with the body as a “cover story” for operational reporting and to deflect scrutiny.

“This was reinforced with a cone of silence.”

The report laid blame on culture, condemning the “warrior culture” of some SAS commanders in Australia.

The Chief of the ADF, Angus Campbell said at a news conference he “sincerely and unreservedly apologised” to the people of Afghanistan for any wrongdoing by Australian soldiers.

Campbell said he had accepted all 143 Brereton recommendations, dealing with culture, governance, and accountability.The Conversation

Michelle Grattan, Professorial Fellow, University of Canberra

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

Changing the culture of our SAS forces is no easy fix. Instead, we need to face the true costs of war


AAP Image/Australian Department of Defence

Damian Powell, University of Melbourne

Australians will be disheartened by the inspector-general of the Australian Defence Force’s report on war crimes committed by our special forces soldiers in Afghanistan. But they should not be surprised.

The demands placed upon the Special Air Service Regiment (SASR) and Commando Regiment have stretched our soldiers to the point where some have failed themselves, each other and the Anzac tradition. They may not deserve our sympathy, but we do need to understand what brought them to this point.




Read more:
Evidence of war crimes found against 25 Australian soldiers in Afghanistan


Specifically, we need to consider if these crimes are an aberration or part of a systemic cultural problem in how the Australian Army trains, debriefs, deploys and then redeploys special forces soldiers in war zones.  

Importantly, the SASR badly needs to examine how it relates to the Australian Army, of which it is a part.

Selected for relentless ‘kill and capture’ missions

In Afghanistan, special forces soldiers were fighting a war within a war. Selected through recruitment courses to stand out and stand alone, the SASR distinguished itself – even from the commandos who shared the burden of Australia’s war-fighting missions.

Drawing on a few hundred soldiers and two units from an army of tens of thousands, only a small body of troops was selected for relentless “kill and capture” missions of Taliban militants.

They fought with the constant reality of potential death or maiming through close-quarter combat, IEDs and “green on blue” attacks by Afghan allies. Special forces saw the very worst of their enemy, and eventually of each other.




Read more:
The reputation of Australia’s special forces is beyond repair — it’s time for them to be disbanded


Other Australian service personnel were constrained by strict rules of engagement in projects ranging from school construction to counter-intelligence operations to building trust with local warlords. Meanwhile, SASR and 2 Commando returned again and again to combat. This likely desensitised, then dehumanised, some of the soldiers.

The army command offered too little by way of integration of SASR and 2 Commando with other units. SASR even demarcated its own compound within the confines of the larger Tarin Kowt base.

There was also inadequate rotation away from the battlefield, and no significant or complementary support from other units (such as regular infantry battalions). There was no mandatory rest and renewal for soldiers who might thrive on operational adrenalin, but at a long-term cost to their physical and mental health.

‘Throwdowns’ and ‘blooding’ in a ‘warrior culture’

The redacted findings in Justice Paul Brereton’s report are painful in their detail and damning in their conclusions. It finds special forces personnel unlawfully killed 39 non-combatants – prisoners, farmers, civilians – between 2009 and 2013. The report also recommends 36 matters to the AFP for criminal investigation.

The report found “credible information” about two practices that make for particularly distressing reading. The first is a “throwdown”, which involved soldiers planting equipment on bodies. The report says:

This practice probably originated for the less egregious though still dishonest purpose of avoiding scrutiny where a person who was legitimately engaged turned out not to be armed. But it evolved to be used for the purpose of concealing deliberate unlawful killings.

Second, is the practice of “blooding”, where unit commanders encouraged junior soldiers to execute unarmed prisoners as 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. “Throwdowns” would be placed with the body, and a “cover story” was created for the purposes of operational reporting and to deflect scrutiny. This was reinforced with a code of silence.

Chief of Defence Force General Angus Campbell accepted all 143 recommendations from the inspector-general’s report. He acknowledged the findings were a “bitter blow” to the morale and prestige of the ADF.

What to make of it all?

Beyond reputational damage, defence needs to undergo a rehabilitation of culture. This includes organisational deficiencies, which Campbell acknowledged extended beyond special forces and into the wider organisation.

Among a toxic competitiveness between SASR and 2 Commando, which he termed a “disgrace”, Campbell acknowledged a “reckless indifference” to the rules of war among junior commanders at unit level, sanitised and misleading reporting, and inadequate oversight from operational command, among a systemic failure of unit and higher command.

In defending the need for special forces capability, he stressed ongoing reform within SASR. This included disbanding an SASR squadron which, he argued, bore “collective responsibility” for unlawful unit culture.

He noted measures to strengthen ethical standards and enhanced levels of oversight and governance across the army.

The winding down of operations in Afghanistan and changes in serving personnel might offer special forces a chance for cultural change.

But long history suggests issues of character and culture are a tough nut to crack.

Perhaps unlike any other institution in contemporary Australian society beyond the priesthood, the military is distinctive in recruiting young, with virtually no external points of entry or cultural comparison until retirement.

Defence assumes, as it must given the reality of constant unit rotation, an equivalence of character and capacity based largely on military rank and duties.

In Afghanistan, the influence of some warrant and non-commissioned officers over more junior ranks, as well as the (often younger and less experienced) officers who were ostensibly their superiors, promoted a dysfunctional and finally criminal culture that unit or higher command never confronted or challenged. Beyond mere negligence, such an obvious ethical failing in an organisation that relies on an explicit chain of “command and control” is unforgivable.

Improving SAS culture is no quick fix

In the closed culture embraced by the special forces and enabled by army leadership, a lack of objectivity was always at risk: the soldier to your left was at once your therapist, emotional crutch, brother-in-arms and (oftentimes damaged) arbiter of right and wrong.

But this type of role demands a clear, fully formed moral compass and a constant measure of external regulation.




Read more:
It’s time for Australia’s SAS to stop its culture of cover-up and take accountability for possible war crimes


As a series of Department of Defence inquiries over decades make clear, cultural change requires unending toil. The Australian Army is in constant flux; it changes with every intake of young soldiers who will eventually sign on for special forces training.

Good culture requires many things, among them:

  • an unrelenting clarity and consistency of expectation in matters large and small

  • constant internal and external review of practice

  • a willingness to accept that so-called “troublemakers” are often in fact “truth-tellers” who need to be protected, and indeed honoured, as agents of change

  • better training of soldiers in the ethical demands and responsibilities of “lawful violence”

  • counselling and psychological support both during and after operations.

All of this requires more than just recommendations in a report; it requires unbending political and institutional will and close scrutiny of organisational leadership.

Scrutiny of those at the top matters, too

Some army leaders are to be commended for their willingness to drill down into SAS culture with an eye to change. However, it was the courage of Australian journalists and SAS and commando whistle-blowers — not the actions of politicians or army leaders — that pushed these alleged crimes into the national conscience.

If military honours are to be stripped from soldiers, a thorough examination of unit command and delegated authority is vital, extending to the very top. This includes the actions of those highly decorated senior officers who provided command during the Afghanistan campaign.




Read more:
Did the US commit crimes in Afghanistan? International prosecutors want to find out


Over the past few decades, a strong orthodoxy has evolved, wrapped in the mystique of “Anzac” nationalism, that any criticism of the ADF is taboo. This has served as a convenient cloak to obviate harsh public examination of everything from politically driven procurement deals to massive spending overruns.

But, in choosing to investigate and possibly prosecute alleged war crimes, Australia is stepping out onto ground resisted by our “Five Eyes” allies, who have avoided similar interrogation of their own special forces.

T.S. Elliot long ago observed that humanity could not “bear very much reality”. By definition, fighting wars is a murderous business. Beyond apportioning blame, or any new recommendations on how to change the culture of our special forces, we have the chance to reflect on the painful truths of war.

Now is also the time to reflect carefully on what we ask of, and how we best support, those soldiers who serve in our name.The Conversation

Damian Powell, Historian and Principal, Janet Clarke Hall, University of Melbourne

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

Allegations of murder and ‘blooding’ in Brereton report now face many obstacles to prosecution



Australian Department of Defence

David Letts, Australian National University

The long-awaited report into allegations of war crimes by Australia’s special forces in Afghanistan has finally been made public, after months of speculation about the contents.




Read more:
Evidence of war crimes found against 25 Australian soldiers in Afghanistan


As expected, the report by Justice Paul Brereton is highly confronting and deeply concerning. However, despite widespread condemnation of the behaviour identified in the report — from the highest levels of the military and government — the next steps are far from straightforward.

Unlawful killings

The report, from the Inspector-General of the Australian Defence Force (IGADF), found evidence of 23 incidents of alleged unlawful killing of 39 Afghan civilians by Australian special forces personnel. There are a further two incidents of “cruel treatment”.

ADF chief Angus Campbell
ADF chief Angus Campbell condemned the behaviour of Australian soldiers in Afghanistan.
Mick Tsikas/AAP

This involved a total of 25 current or former Australian Defence Force members who were perpetrators, either as principals or accessories.

Some of these incidents took place in 2009 and 2010, with the majority occurring in 2012 and 2013.

ADF Chief General Angus Campbell said he was shocked by the revelations, which he described as “damaging to our moral authority as a military force”.

I would never have conceived an Australian would be doing this in the modern era.

Blooding, throwdowns and executions

The inquiry has found “credible information” that junior soldiers were required by their patrol commanders to shoot a prisoner, in order to achieve the soldier’s first kill, in a practice known as “blooding”.
“Throwdowns” — other weapons or radios — would be planted with the body, and a “cover story” was created.

This was reinforced with a code of silence.

The report is damning about a “warrior culture” within the Special Air Service Regiment, as well as a “culture of secrecy”.

The inquiry has recommended the chief of the defence force refer 36 matters to the Australian Federal Police for criminal investigation. Those matters relate to the 23 incidents and involve a total of 19 individuals.

Numerous obstacles to prosecutions

However, last week, in preparation for the report’s release, Prime Minister Scott Morrison announced a “special investigator” would be appointed to further examine any allegations of war crimes.

Campbell confirmed those who are alleged to be involved in unlawful criminal conduct will be referred to the special investigator.

After gathering evidence on specific allegations, the Office of the Special Investigator will refer briefs to the Commonwealth Director of Public Prosecutions. Morrison explained such a task would “significantly overwhelm” the AFP, hence his decision to appoint a special investigator.

Prime Minister Scott Morrison
Prime Minister Scott Morrison warned Australians the report would make tough reading.
Lukas Coch/AAP

Despite these mechanisms being put in place, there are still serious questions about how potential criminal prosecutions would work. 

Investigating and prosecuting alleged crimes of this nature is incredibly difficult due to the passage of time, fading memories and inconsistency of witnesses. There are also practical challenges obtaining evidence in a country with a fragile security situation.




Read more:
It’s time for Australia’s SAS to stop its culture of cover-up and take accountability for possible war crimes


It is also important to note any statement or disclosure made by a witness to the IGADF inquiry cannot be used as evidence against that person in any subsequent civil or criminal trial or court martial.

This means some of the evidence contained in the IGADF inquiry — however compelling it might be — may not be available for a criminal prosecution, as the right to remain silent would be available to a person being interviewed by the Special Investigator.

Also, the standard of proof required to convict an individual “beyond a reasonable doubt” in a criminal trial is quite high, meaning any successful prosecution might require stronger evidence than what has been included in the IGADF inquiry.

Therefore, for any prosecution to proceed, any evidence obtained by the special investigator will need to be evaluated against this higher criminal standard to determine if it is sufficient for a person to stand trial.

It is important to note the same higher standard of proof (beyond reasonable doubt) will need to be met for a successful prosecution, regardless of whether any trial takes place by court martial or in a civilian court.

Public perceptions of war crimes allegations

The reaction of the Australian public to the report will be interesting to observe. As journalists have revealed the shocking details of many of the allegations against SAS soldiers in recent years, some have defended their actions as having taken place in the “fog of war”.

In his comments on Thursday, Campbell spoke plainly about the report’s findings.

None of the alleged unlawful killings were described as being in the heat of battle […] The unlawful killing of citizens and prisoners is never acceptable.

Of course, it is important to recognise Australian soldiers faced significant difficulties in Afghanistan. Most notably, they were dealing with an enemy that was not easily identifiable and did not abide by the laws of war.

For instance, some Afghan civilians directly participated in conflict against Coalition soldiers. The so-called “farmer by day, fighter by night” has been a constant feature of operations in Afghanistan ever since Australians were first deployed there.

If civilians directly participated in hostilities against foreign forces, regardless of whether they were armed or not, they would lose their protected status under the laws of war. The death of any civilian taking direct part in hostilities, therefore, would not necessarily be unlawful under the laws of war and Australian domestic law.




Read more:
Australia is lagging on climate action and inequality, but the pandemic offers a chance to do better


Understanding and applying this aspect of the laws of war is a potential complicating factor for the special investigator.

That said, as Campbell pointed out, the challenging circumstances faced by coalition forces in Afghanistan do not allow soldiers to commit war crimes. The laws of armed conflict are very clear in this regard.

A transparent and open investigation process

There was a clear need for these allegations to be properly investigated in an impartial manner. This has happened with the Brereton inquiry.

In appointing a special investigator, the government has shown it is taking these findings seriously and wants those soldiers who are proven guilty of crimes to be held accountable.




Read more:
Explainer: how Australia’s military justice system works


The ADF must also be open and transparent about the actions it is taking following the completion of the IGADF inquiry.

By doing this, Australia’s military can show that it has learned from this sorry tale and made whatever changes are necessary to ensure compliance with the laws of armed conflict is understood and practised by every member of the ADF — regardless of the difficulty of the operating environment.The Conversation

David Letts, Director, Centre for Military and Security Law; Associate Professor, Australian National University

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.