A four-year inquiry into the Australian Special Forces’ SAS Regiment has found that at least 39 Afghan civilians were unlawfully killed by operators in 23 different incidents.

When the Australian SAS withdrew from Uruzgan province in Afghanistan in 2015, reports began filtering out that they had been involved in several shootings of unarmed civilians or farmers. 

General Angus Campbell, the then-chief of the army, requested the inspector general of the Australian Defense Forces (IGADF) to conduct an inquiry into “unsubstantiated stories” of illegal killings, inhumane and unlawful treatment of detainees, and a sense of entitlement developed over a lengthy period of time.

The IGADF then appointed NSW Supreme Court judge and reserve Maj. Gen. Paul Brereton to conduct the inquiry. It was released, although heavily redacted, this week.

Brereton interviewed over 400 witnesses. He found 23 incidents for which there was credible evidence of a crime.

In his report, Brereton said that “a substantial indirect responsibility fell upon those in the Special Air Service regiment who embraced an unchecked ‘warrior culture’ and the clique of noncommissioned officers who propagated it.” Brereton exonerated the commissioned officers but found evidence against numerous troopers and NCOs.

The report found that in an illegal practice of “blooding,” junior operators were instructed to get their first kill by shooting prisoners. Crimes were covered up by planting weapons and other items near Afghan bodies.

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Additionally, the report found that two incidents could constitute “cruel treatment” which is a war crime.

Australian Defense Forces (ADF) chief General Angus Campbell said none of the incidents could be, “described as being in the heat of battle.”

“None were alleged to have occurred in circumstances in which the intent of the perpetrator was unclear, confused, or mistaken,” he said.

Twenty-five special forces soldiers have been revealed to either directly having taken part in unlawful killings or having acted as “accessories.”

However, an ethics review attached to the report indicates that the killings were fueled by factors including “the character and the tempo of deployments […], a lack of clarity about purpose and a gradual loss of confidence about the mission and the higher chain of command.”

Prime Minister Scott Morrison found the reports “disturbing.” Albeit the acts concern only a small percentage of the Australian troops involved in Afghanistan, Morrison expressed his concern over the mental health of other Australian troops involved in the war. 

“Of course, like all other Australians, I found the contents of that report disturbing and distressing,” Morrison said.

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“We need to ensure that the seriousness of the contents of this report [is] dealt with under the Australian justice system by Australians in accordance with our laws.”

“The other element that I have been most anxious about is ensuring that all our serving men and women who pull on a uniform, all those who have served, in no way feel reflected upon by the actions alleged of a number, a small number, within our Defense Force,” he added.

“It’s important that we provide all our men and women in our services, and our veterans, with absolute support. They have earned the respect which we rightly provide to them and should. And our support for veterans is incredibly important at this time.”

However, many members of the Australian Army are frustrated that Brereton’s inquiry exonerated senior Australian military officers for what they say were well-known issues at the time. Veterans say that as far back as 2013, reports, which had reached all the way to the top levels of the ADF, were filtering out about how the forces were treating the locals.

“That responsibility and accountability [do] not extend to higher headquarters, including in particular Headquarters Joint Task Force 633 and Headquarters Joint Operations Command, because they did not have a sufficient degree of command and control to attract the principle of command responsibility, and within the constraints on their authority acted appropriately when relevant information and allegations came to their attention to ascertain the facts,” Brereton’s report concluded regarding senior officers.

Nevertheless, General Campbell stated that while the inquiry found no evidence there was knowledge of the commission of war crimes, on the part of the Troop, Squadron, Task Group, or higher commanders, they bear the responsibility for what transpired under their command. He cited that being unaware of, or even deliberately kept unaware of unlawful actions, does not relieve commanders of moral responsibility.

Official reports were leaked to the press during ABC News’ bombshell investigation conducted from 2013 to 2017.

At the time, the chief of the defense force, General David Hurley had made it clear that Australian soldiers must have a high degree of confidence that a person is directly participating in hostilities in order to be targeted.

“An ADF member is exposed to criminal and disciplinary liability, including potentially the war crime of murder […] for opening fire on a person when there is a substantial risk that the person is not DPH [direct participant in hostilities)],” General Hurley had written.

ABC had reported that Hurley’s directive was prompted after an inquiry officer reported the shooting of two men in a village who local residents insisted were civilians and unarmed.

As a result of the findings, Lt. Gen. Rick Burr announced that Special Air Services Regiment 2 Squadron would be struck from the order of battle and the listing of Australian’s military units, stating that 2 Squadron was “a nexus of alleged serious criminal activities.”

“Future generations will be reminded of this moment in our military history from the gap in our squadron numbering system,” Burr said.

The plan by the Australian government is to first try to compensate the victims’ families. Then charges will be filed against those who allegedly took part in the killings.