Australians are hearing about many incidents that took place in Afghanistan that their government is classifying as possible war crimes. There are currently five unlawful killings under investigation, all of them committed by members of the elite Special Operations Task Group.
A spate of current war crime allegations are indeed centered on a country a long way from Australia – in Afghanistan – but it is Australia’s most elite troops who are accused of crimes in the 13-year Afghan war in which at least 41 Australians have been killed.
In one reported incident, an Australian soldier allegedly kicked an unarmed and bound Afghan man off a cliff near the village of Darwan before he was shot and executed.
In another report, a soldier on his first tour of Afghanistan was pressured to kill an elderly and unarmed detainee by higher ranking soldiers in what was an apparent initiation ritual.
Then there is the case of an Afghan man with a prosthetic limb who was killed by machinegun fire, with the artificial leg sent to regimental headquarters in Perth where it became a ceremonial drinking vessel.
These reported incidents are the subject of a two-year investigation by a Supreme Court Judge and high-ranking Army Reserve officer Major Paul Brereton.
Brereton’s review was sparked by an internal review by consultant Samantha Crompvoets, which claimed that Australian soldiers in Afghanistan carried out “unsanctioned and illegal application of violence on operations which included disregard for human life and dignity.”
Last week another review was announced, to be headed by David Irvine, the former head of the Australian Security Intelligence Organization (ASIO) spy agency.
The terms of Irvine’s independent review are more centered on the culture of the Special Air Service Regiment (SAS), and he has a brief to determine “the effectiveness of reform initiatives” with culture at the heart of the issue.
Beyond unlawful killing, it is claimed that Australia soldiers took illegal drugs, drank alcohol to excess and acted in a culture of impunity and concealment, with no proper accountability to the rules of engagement.
Soldiers allegedly planted weapons on unarmed corpses on the battlefield to justify their killing, while some SAS teams were focused on “competition killing” which focused on kill counts instead of their true mission, which was counterinsurgency aimed at winning over the local population’s hearts and minds.
One team reportedly posted a “kill board” on their barracks door.
“Now many do-gooders and some journalists are falling over themselves to crucify some of our brave lads,” wrote a retired Lieutenant Colonel to the Canberra Times.
“War is not a Sunday barbecue: it is a down and dirty hard grind where our Diggers look the enemy in the face and try to kill him before they’re killed,” wrote another correspondent.
Meanwhile, military investigators have taken out advertisements in Afghan language publications in Australia, calling for details and additional information about wrongdoing by Australian forces in Afghanistan.
Many Australians are wary of what happened in Canada when members of the Airborne Regiment killed an unarmed Somali teenager in the 1990s, the regiment was disbanded. Australians have been split on whether or not the investigation should go farther.
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