War crimes report: Lest we forget 39 Afghan civilians murdered by soldiers in Aussie uniforms
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War crimes report: Lest we forget 39 Afghan civilians murdered by soldiers in Aussie uniforms

Originally published in The Australian.

If you had told me when I joined the army that decades later nearly two dozen soldiers would be ­accused of the unauthorised killing of 39 civilians, I would not have believed you.

Like all Australians who have grown up and been taught about their military’s storied exploits or listened to relatives who had served in various wars, I believed our military was always a force for good. And after serving for more than a quarter of a century and four operational tours, I experienced nothing to disavow me of that notion.

I conducted several inquiries in Afghanistan into accusations or incidences of civilian casualties involving both the special forces task group and the mentoring and reconstruction taskforce.

The release of the long-awaited Brereton inquiry into rumours of serious misconduct by members of the special forces has given me and many others pause for thought. While the findings are shocking in their own right and make for very uncomfortable reading, the reality is that even among well-disciplined, professional First World armies, the stressors of operational deployment have shown us time and again that men can be driven to do things they have been taught not to do. Think members of the Parachute Regiment in Derry in 1972, the Canadian Airborne Regiment in Somalia in 1992, or the US 502nd Infantry regiment near Mahmudiyyah in Iraq in 2006. So there is no reason to think the Australian Army should be less prone to individuals going rogue.

What is more concerning about the incidents revealed in the Australian case, though, is not only the nature of some of the allegations — such as forcing junior soldiers to kill unarmed prisoners in a “blooding” ritual — but that the behaviour became systematised over multiple rotations within a small clique of junior and senior non-commissioned officers who became, in the words of the Chief of the Defence Force, “self-centred” and driven by a sense of “prestige, status and entitlement”.

A former commanding officer of the Special Air Service Regiment once told me that commanding the unit was like holding a canary in your hand; squeeze it too tight and you would crush the life out of it, hold it too loosely and it could get away from you.

They proved prescient words as, given the disaggregated nature of special forces operations and the concept of mission command or directive control where patrol commanders are given significant autonomy to plan and execute operations, it appears individuals used this autonomy to disregard the rules of war and abandon any sense of ethical behaviour.

Major-General Paul Brereton laid the blame at the feet of patrol commanders who “conceived, committed, continued and concealed” the alleged crimes.

That points to a failure at the individual level, and the responsibility for what occurred ultimately rests with them.

Only one person made the decision to pull a trigger, or ordered someone to do the same. But as anyone who has ever commanded knows, there is also the concept of command responsibility so that commanders are ultimately responsible for the culture they wittingly or unwittingly tolerated among their charges as well as the actions of the patrol commanders, either while deployed or within parent units back in Australia.

The CDF and the Chief of Army have promised to make commanders accountable on a case-by-case basis, and one of the squadrons within the Special Air Service has been struck off the order of battle as a permanent reminder to the unit of what had been allowed to develop within it.

It is difficult to take many positives away from the release of this report, but it is worth putting a few things in perspective.

First, the report itself was initiated from within the Defence Force. Following concerns regarding the conduct of personnel, the Chief of Defence Force took the matter to the Inspector-General ADF, who appointed a senior jurist and Army Reserve officer to conduct a lengthy inquiry into accusations of unlawful behaviour.

Second, the actions of these few should not besmirch the efforts of their special forces comrades who undertook highly dangerous missions over many years with valour and distinction; nor of the nearly 30,000 ADF personnel who have served in Afghanistan, including the 41 who lost their lives.

The government and Brereton himself have rightfully paid attention to the victims of these actions — the Afghan people. Scott Morrison spoke to his counterpart, as did the CDF in advance of this report; the Defence Minister has written to her counterpart.

The inquiry sought and heard from Afghan witnesses and has recommended compensation be paid to the families of 39 victims in advance of any legal processes ­occurring. This is all as it should be. But while the release of the report has rightfully shocked people because of the conduct of a small number of individuals deployed on operations, the reality is that any justice sought by the victims or their families will take years to be resolved, if ever.

No police investigations have been concluded, nor do any appear likely to be finalised in the ­medium-term future.

So no charges have been laid or court procedures put in place. It is likely that if they do occur, they will be years away. And given that some of these incidents occurred more than a decade ago, even if some do make it to court it could be 15 years or more after the incident occurred.

No Australians are more shocked and disappointed at this news than those who are in, or have served in, the army.

They continue to train in Australia, serve on operations overseas and help the community during fires, floods and pandemics with distinction.

And while cultural and organisational change has already been put in place to try to ensure that something like this can never be allowed to happen again, we should never be allowed to forget those 39 Afghans whose lives were knowingly taken by soldiers wearing an Australian uniform.

Roger Shanahan is a Lowy Institute research fellow and a former army officer who has had operational service with the UN in South Lebanon and Syria.

Areas of expertise: Middle East security issues; Political Islam; Shi’a Islam