Australian troops near Tarin Kowt in Afghanistan on May 07, 2008. An inquiry has uncovered unlawful killings by the SAS and other troops based in the area at the time. Photo: AFP/Corporal Neil Ruskin/Australian Defence Force

Sydney – In a country where memorials to its war dead are sacred sites and a mythology of military prowess, suffering and decency is central to national identity, revelations of atrocities in Afghanistan by its most elite forces have come as a hammer-blow.

Released two weeks ago in partly redacted form, a four-year inquiry by a senior judge and Army Reserve Major-General Paul Brereton has found “credible information” that Australian troops unlawfully killed 39 Afghans and “cruelly treated” two others.

He identified 25 perpetrators either as principals or witnesses and recommended 19 be referred to prosecutors for war crimes. 

“None of these are incidents of disputable decisions made under pressure in the heat of battle,” Brereton said. “The cases in which it has been found that there is credible information of a war crime are ones in which it was or should have been plain that the person killed was a non-combatant, or hors-de-combat.”

The soldiers implicated come from the Australian army’s most elite and revered units, the Special Air Services Regiment (SAS) and the two commando regiments, who served in the Special Operations Task Group operating out of the Australian base at Tarin Kowt across Uruzgan province from 2005-2013.

“The affair has torn at the heart of Australia’s military reputation,” wrote Michelle Grattan, an eminent veteran of Canberra’s press corps. “It has not destroyed that reputation, but the repair effort must be comprehensive and, above all, transparent.”

That effort has been promised by Prime Minister Scott Morrison, with the public warned beforehand of “gut-wrenching” findings, and the chief of the defense force, Lieutenant-General Angus Campbell, has pledged to fully implement Brereton’s recommendations.

Chief of the Australian Defence Force General Angus Campbell delivers the findings from the Inspector-General of the Australian Defence Force Afghanistan Inquiry in Canberra on November 19, 2020. Photo: AFP/Mick Tasikas

Morrison announced that a special prosecutor working with a team of federal police would work on turning the judge’s material into evidence that can be presented to a court. That some of his information came after promises of immunity may complicate the process.

Lieutenant-General Campbell has given 13 of the accused who are still serving a two-week show-cause notice why they should not be dismissed. He also disbanded one of the four SAS squadrons. 

Yet already Morrison is back-peddling or going slow on some of Brereton’s recommendations. Notably, he has rescinded Lieutenant-General Campbell’s implementation of one – that a unit citation for meritorious conduct be removed from some 3,000 soldiers who served in the special operations group.

A campaign by aggrieved veterans through tabloid newspapers and Sydney radio shock-jock Alan Jones convinced Morrison this was unfair collective punishment for the actions of a few.

Perhaps predictable snipes by the Chinese and Russian foreign ministries that the revealed war crimes show Australia’s hypocrisy on human rights this week had Morrison rising to the bait. He demanded an apology from Beijing for a foreign ministry official’s tweet using a photo-montage of an Australian about to cut the throat of an Afghan child.

This “false image” was deeply offensive to “every Australian who has served in that uniform,” Morrison said. His demand was of course refused.

Pushed aside in this rush of indignation on behalf of Australian veterans have been the families of the Afghan victims. Justice Brereton recommended that where there was credible information of an identified or identifiable Afghan national having been unlawfully killed, Australia should compensate that person’s family, without waiting for criminal liability to be established.

He pointed out that such legal proceedings could take several years more, on top of eight or more years for the alleged killings to come to light.

“If Afghans have been unlawfully killed by Australian soldiers ostensibly acting in the name and on behalf of Australia, then Australia should compensate their families,” he said.

“Doing so will contribute to the maintenance of goodwill between the nations, and do something to restore Australia’s standing, both with the villagers concerned, and at the national level. But quite aside from that, it is simply the morally right thing to do.” 

Morrison has said compensation would be paid to bereaved Afghan families, but this was “not currently being considered” by the government. A wave of indignation by human rights groups in Afghanistan and among Afghan settlers in Australia has not yet stirred action.

Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison has said compensation would be paid, but that it was ‘not currently being considered’ by his government. Photo: AFP/Mark Graham

A further contradiction is that Morrison’s government is now prosecuting a former military lawyer, Major William McBride, for disclosing certain war crimes to the Australian Broadcasting Corporation three years ago after failing to get his reports acted upon within the military and Defence Department.

He faces potentially a long jail term for revealing official secrets.

Brereton was assigned his task in 2016 after the then commander of Australia’s special forces had asked an Australian National University sociologist, Samantha Crompvoets, to look into rumors and media reports about wrong-doings in the field.

She reported accounts of casual killings of non-combatants, including so-called “squirters” or civilians running away when special forces helicoptered in.

“Dr Crompvoets was told that, after squirters were ‘dealt’ with, Special Forces would then cordon off a whole village, taking men and boys to guesthouses, which are typically on the edge of a village,” Brereton said.

“There they would be tied up and tortured by Special Forces, sometimes for days. When the Special Forces left, the men and boys would be found dead: shot in the head or blindfolded and with throats slit.”

One specific incident described to Crompvoets involved an incident where SAS solders were driving along a road and saw two 14-year-old boys whom they decided might be Taliban sympathizers.

“They stopped, searched the boys and slit their throats. The rest of the troop then had to ‘clean up the mess,’ which involved bagging the bodies and throwing them into a nearby river. Dr Crompvoets says she was told this was not an isolated incident.”

Brereton’s report is redacted about such specific incidents, to avoid contaminating evidence for future prosecutions. However, this specific one is thought to be behind his unredacted remark that “what is described in this chapter is possibly the most disgraceful episode in Australia’s military history, and the commanders at troop, squadron and task group level bear moral command responsibility for what happened under their command, regardless of personal fault.”

Australian SAS commandos attend the launch of the Special Operations Command at the Holsworthy defense facility near Sydney on May 5, 2003. Photo: AFP/Torsten Blackwood

Beyond the specific offenses, Brereton’s report is a case study in how a vicious culture can take root in what is generally regarded as a well-disciplined army. It began when politicians started using special forces as “first resort” to contribute to US-led coalition operations, combining high lethality with low Australian casualties.

As the Afghanistan deployment drifted into Australia’s longest war, SAS troopers went on as many as six deployments of four to six months, with the special operations group taking on the kind of offensive combat normally left to infantry.

The infantry, meanwhile, stayed in a protective role for civil action programs in Uruzgan. The mission blurred, from eliminating al-Qaeda to keeping the Taliban at bay, to rebuilding a nation. Cynicism set in among jaded troops.

The peculiar organization of the SAS gave immense battlefield responsibility to the corporals and sergeants leading small patrols, with the junior officers back in overwatch positions and out of sight. The patrol commander was a “demigod” to his troopers, one who can make or break their careers.

“There is 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 that was known as ‘blooding’,” Brereton said.

“This would happen after the target compound had been secured and local nationals had been secured as ‘persons under control’. Typically, the patrol commander would take a person under control and the junior member, who would then be directed to kill the person under control. ‘Throwdowns’ [weapons, radio sets or grenades] 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.”

Officers were out of the loop. “Invariably, they were on their first Special Operations Task Group deployment. They were in an environment in which the non-commissioned officers had achieved ascendancy, just as they had from their role as gatekeepers to Special Air Service Regiment selection, and their extended role when new officers were ‘under training’ and thus regularly subordinate to them.

“They were not well-mentored but were rather left to swim or sink. Those who did try to wrestle back some control were ostracised, and often did not receive the support of superior officers.”

Then Australian Prime Minister Julia Gillard (C) meets members of the 1st Mentoring Task Force during her visit to the multinational base at Tarin Kot in southern Afghanistan on October 2, 2010. Photo: AFP/Australian Department of Defence

At the Tarin Kowt base, “an aura was attached to the operators who went ‘outside-the-wire,’ and whose lives were in jeopardy,” Brereton said.

“There was a perception – encouraged by them and accepted by others – that it was not for those ‘inside-the-wire’ to question the accounts and explanations provided by those operators.”

However, Brereton attached indirect blame to special forces commanders who allowed a “warrior culture” to develop among a “clique” of non-missioned officers. This was backed by British expert on military ethics David Whetham, whose attached observations found excesses were encouraged by relaxed discipline over dress and drinking on base, “abandoned curiosity” by officers, obfuscation in reports up the line, disbelief in complaints by Afghans, and effective adoption of a body count as a measure of success.

According to military historian Peter Stanley, of the University of New South Wales, it’s the end of a long process starting after the Second World War of professional full-time soldiering, with most personnel living in remote bases. 

“It’s made soldiers separate from the nation, and it’s allowed an insular military culture to develop,” Stanley told me. “Even worse, the decision to create an exclusive SASR and to allow it to develop in isolation not just from Australian civil society but also from the regular army has now been shown to be disastrous.

“The decisions made and reiterated by successive governments and chiefs of defense and army to rely unduly on special forces to prosecute the war in Afghanistan is now proved to be folly – as many people have said for over a decade.”

Professor Stanley also suggested that while Australian society as a whole had become more liberal, tolerant, inclusive and generally ‘softer’ over several decades, the culture of the Australian Defence Force, and especially the SAS, “appears to have become increasingly at variance.” 

Some army chiefs like General David Morrison had addressed this on issues like sexism, but the SAS culture “both in Australia and on operations has remained doggedly so entrenched and insular as to be unquestionable – until now.”

“I think that the ADF needs to learn from armies (such as Germany’s and South Africa’s) which have openly confronted and changed their fundamental cultures through a protracted and painful process of debate and changed policy,” Stanley said.

“Australians have a high opinion of their defense force and have assumed – until now – that it is exemplary.”

Like many Australians – including Brereton in a long section on previous war-crime incidents in Australian and allied history – Stanley wonders at the continuing impact of the 1981 film Breaker Morant, about the celebrated horse-breaker Harry Morant executed in 1901 for shooting prisoners in the Boer War.

“Largely as a result of the 1981 film Breaker Morant there was a change toward regarding Morant as either a victim of imperial injustice or at least a man traumatized in war whose crimes were at least understandable,” Stanley said.

“There was a movement to secure him a pardon which fortunately failed, though on procedural if not moral or substantive grounds. But I wonder whether sympathy for Morant allows (or allowed) Australians to regard crimes like those that Brereton has documented to be the ‘natural consequence’ of ‘what happens in war’.

“They aren’t, of course – war crimes are a product of both the specific conditions of a war, but also of the society that goes to war and sends its citizens to war.

“Armies embody values. It is clear from the reaction to the Brereton report that many Australians consider that members of our army have transgressed values we hold. As I have said, it can never be acceptable for Australian soldiers to deliberately kill civilians, and that seems to be an essential starting point for considering the implications of the Brereton report.”

How far up the chain rests “command responsibility” is now on the desk of defense force chief Lieutenant-General Campbell, who was commander of Australian military operations in the Middle East and Afghanistan in 2011 when some of the alleged crimes were committed.

On releasing the Brereton report, Lieutenant-General Campbell said he was asking himself: “Was there something I walked past, was there some indicator I didn’t see?”