By Kalinga Seneviratne
The release of a report into a landmark four-year investigation into the behaviour of Australians special forces known as the SAS (Special Air Service) in Afghanistan, seem to have shocked the nation, judging from newspaper headlines on November 20. Yet, for many who opposed Australia’s involvement in the Afghanistan war, this is not surprising and such a report came too late. A whistle blower who leaked information to the media in 2018 of these atrocities is facing criminal charges for stealing state secrets.
Pip Hinman, of the Sydney ‘Stop The War Coalition’ is not too surprised by the findings. “The nearly 20-year war has been largely hidden (from the Australia public),” she told IDN.
“The media has not been able to go to Afghanistan unless they were embedded with the Australian Defence Force (ADF). Only a handful of independent journalists have managed to get in, and they too would only want to report on the good soldiers because otherwise they would never get back.”
Hinman added: “The federal government has and is actively trying to stop army whistle blowers. Thanks to those brave people, Australians have been getting a better understanding of the nature of this war and Australia’s role there.”
For the last four years, the Inspector-General of the ADF has been looking into such whistle blowing that Australian elite forces in Afghanistan were committing war crimes. The inquiry has now handed down its final report, completed by New South Wales Justice Paul Brereton, who is also a Major General in the Army Reserve.
The findings reveal that some of Australia’s most elite soldiers in the SAS have been involved in unlawful killing, blood lust, a warrior culture and cover-up of their alleged atrocities. It comes as a surprise to an Australian public, who believe that Australian military engagement in Afghanistan was designed to keep the world safe from terrorists. Australia first committed military personnel to Afghanistan in October 2001 to support US’s ‘war on terror’ campaign.
Alex Bainbridge, of the Socialist Alliance, which is opposed to Australia’s involvement in “imperialist wars” in foreign countries believes that the report could help to debunk a myth. “The government tries to pretend that the Australian military is ‘professional’ and only fights for noble causes, but this is a propaganda myth to win public support for unjust wars,” he told IDN.
The report’s most staggering revelation is that 39 Afghans were allegedly murdered by Australian special forces in 23 incidents. None of the alleged victims were combatants. Brereton said that the circumstances of each, were they to be eventually accepted by a jury, would constitute the war crime of murder.
The report has described a process, where young special forces soldiers would be instructed by their patrol commander to execute a detainee. Weapons or radios, known as “throwdowns”, were placed on the body and a cover story allegedly created to mask the crime and deflect any scrutiny. Operational reports were allegedly sanitized to make it appear as though special forces were complying with the laws of engagement.
Some of these incidents took place in 2009 and 2010, with the majority occurring in 2012 and 2013. ADF Chief General Angus Campbell has expressed shocked by the revelations, saying that it is damaging to the moral authority of the military force. “I would never have conceived an Australian would be doing this in the modern era,” he told a media briefing.
This is not the first time that such activities have come into the public domain. In 2018, David McBride, a former Australian Army lawyer, leaked ADF documents on activities of the SAS in Afghanistan to the Australian Broadcasting Corporation (ABC) which did a series of 7 stories based on these. In response to these stories, Australian Federal Police (AFP) raided the offices of the national broadcaster in Sydney in June 2019 and spent some 8 hours going through computers and confiscating all document related to the matter.
In June 2020, AFP instructed the Office of the Commonwealth Director of Public Prosecutor to lay charges against journalist Dan Oakes. But, last month (October), the office announced that though they may succeed in obtaining a conviction on several charges, they will not proceed with the case.
McBride, who is facing charges on theft of Commonwealth (Government) property, in a tweet on Thursday said “ 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.”
But, despite these mechanisms being put in place, there are still serious questions about how potential criminal prosecutions would work, argues Professor David Letts, director of the Centre for Military and Security Law at the Australian National University.
“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,” he notes in a commentary published by Canberra Times.
He also adds that 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 inquiry report.
Dr Rateb Jneid, President of the Australian Federation of Islamic Councils believes that Australia has made the right decision to investigate these crimes. But, this should be the start of a process where “we make a solemn commitment to stop invading other nations and we must stop supporting invaders and occupiers’ of other nations,” he said in a statement given to IDN.
“We must own up to our crimes and proceed with fair and just persecutions against the perpetrators and those who ordered them to commit such atrocious murders.”
But, the military may see the issue differently. “Our SAS fight against an enemy that wears no uniform and who can easily conceal weapons under the folds of their peasant garbs. Telling friend from foe is nigh impossible and split-second decisions are often needed to counter possible threats,” argues retired Lieutenant Colonel Derek Gogh, in a letter published by Canberra Times on November 20.
“Many of our soldiers have already been murdered by traitorous Afghani soldiers and our SAS troopers also have to cope with frequent roadside bombs and IEDs (improvised explosive devices). They constantly operate under extreme stress, not likely to be appreciated by those who have not walked in their shoes.”
But Bainbridge argues that the need of the hour is a fundamental change in the military thinking to “curtail their capacity to wage wars of aggression abroad”. “The people of Afghanistan have never threatened Australia,” adds Hinman. “They have told us they can handle their own despots and regimes (like Taliban) themselves, but the very presence of occupying Western forces, which helped ferment new terrorist gangs like the IS (Islamic State), made that struggle (to fight terror) even harder.”
Bainbridge believes that every exposure of imperialist war crimes and human rights abuses makes it easier to make an anti-war argument. “A million people protested against the Iraq war in February 2003 and around half the population were opposed to that war,” he points out. “So it is definitely possible to build a strong and successful anti-war movement in this country.”