Australia’s top general said Thursday there was credible evidence that his special forces unlawfully killed 39 unarmed civilians and prisoners during the war in Afghanistan, referring the matter to a special war crimes prosecutor.
Receiving damning findings of a years-long investigation into military misconduct in Afghanistan between 2005 and 2016, Chief of the Defence Force Angus Campbell said a “destructive” culture of impunity among elite troops led to a string of alleged murders and cover-ups spanning almost a decade.
“Some patrols took the law into their own hands, rules were broken, stories concocted, lies told and prisoners killed,” Campbell said, apologizing “sincerely and unreservedly” to the people of Afghanistan.
“This shameful record includes alleged instances in which new patrol members were coerced to shoot a prisoner in order to achieve that soldier’s first kill, in an appalling practice known as ‘blooding’.”
The accused junior soldiers would then stage a skirmish to account for the incident, the report found.
The military’s own inspector general on Thursday produced a harrowing – and heavily redacted – 465-page official inquiry that detailed dozens of killings “outside the heat of battle.”
It recommended 19 individuals be referred to Australian Federal Police and compensation be paid to the victims’ families.
Campbell went a step further, saying those involved in the alleged unlawful killing of 39 people had brought a “stain” on their regiment, on the armed forces and on Australia and would be referred to the office of the special investigator for war crimes.
Campbell also moved to revoke some distinguished service medals awarded to special operations forces who served in Afghanistan between 2007 and 2013.
After the September 11, 2001, attacks, more than 26,000 Australian uniformed personnel were sent to Afghanistan to fight alongside US and allied forces against the Taliban, Al-Qaeda and other Islamist groups.
Australian combat troops officially left the country in 2013, but since then a series of often-brutal accounts have emerged about the conduct of elite special forces units.
They range from reports of troops killing a six-year-old child in a house raid to a prisoner being shot dead to save space in a helicopter.
Australia’s government attempted to cushion the blow of the report, with Prime Minister Scott Morrison telling Australians last week to brace for the “honest and brutal truths” contained within the redacted document.
Morrison also called his Afghan counterpart Wednesday to foreshadow “some disturbing allegations” that the government was taking “very seriously.”
The office of President Ashraf Ghani had a different interpretation of the conversation – saying in a series of tweets that Morrison had “expressed his deepest sorrow over the misconduct” – a characterization that was strongly disputed by Australian officials.
Last week, Morrison announced the appointment of a special investigator to prosecute the alleged war crimes, a move aimed at forestalling any prosecution at the International Criminal Court.
An independent panel was also set up to drive cultural and leadership changes within the armed forces.
The revelations are a serious blow to the prestige of the country’s military, which is widely revered by Australians.
Its historic campaigns – from Gallipoli in World War I to Kokoda in Papua during World War II – have played a crucial role in fostering the country’s identity, independent of colonial power Britain.
Australia’s government had previously spent years trying to suppress whistleblower reports of the alleged wrongdoing, with police even investigating reporters involved in bringing those accounts to light.
The matter first came to public attention in 2017 when national broadcaster ABC published the so-called Afghan files, which alleged Australian troops had killed unarmed men and children in Afghanistan.
In response, Australian police launched an investigation into two ABC reporters for obtaining classified information – even raiding the broadcaster’s Sydney headquarters last year, before dropping the case.