A number of war crimes allegedly perpetrated by ADF personnel in Afghanistan have been deemed “credible” in an independent report released by Defence.
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Chief of the Defence Force Angus Campbell has released findings from the Inspector-General of the Australian Defence Force’s (IGADF) Afghanistan Inquiry report, which relate to alleged misconduct by Australian Special Forces on operations in Afghanistan between 2005 and 2016.
The inquiry has found there is “credible information” of 25 incidents in which one or more non-combatants or persons hors-de-combat were “unlawfully killed” or mistreated by or at the direction of members of the Special Operations Task Group.
These incidents have been reported to have involved:
- a total of 39 individuals killed, and a further two cruelly treated; and
- a total of 25 current or former Australian Defence Force personnel who were perpetrators, either as principals or accessories, some of them on a single occasion and a few on multiple occasions.
The report states that none of the incidents involved disputable decisions made under pressure or in the heat of battle.
“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 reported noted.
“While a few of these are cases of Afghan local nationals encountered during an operation who were on no reasonable view participating in hostilities, the vast majority are cases where the persons were killed when hors-de-combat because they had been captured and were persons under control, and as such were protected under international law, breach of which was a crime.”
The inquiry also found that there is “credible information” that some members of the Special Operations Task Group planted “throwdowns” — foreign weapons or equipment — on the bodies of ‘enemy killed in action’ to portray the deceased as a legitimate target.
“This practice probably originated for the less egregious though still dishonest purpose of avoiding scrutiny where a person who was legitimately engaged turned out not to be armed. But it evolved to be used for the purpose of concealing deliberate unlawful killings,” the Inspector-General’s report stated.
Additionally, the inquiry found “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’.
“This would happen after the target compound had been secured, and local nationals had been secured as ‘persons under control’,” the report stated.
‘Throwdowns’ were also allegedly placed with the body, with a cover story created to “deflect scrutiny”.
“This was reinforced with a code of silence,” the report added.
In light of the findings, the inquiry has recommended that the Chief of the Defence Force refer 36 matters — relating to 23 incidents and involving a total of 19 individuals — to the Australian Federal Police for criminal investigation.
Minister for Defence Linda Reynolds acknowledged the findings, stressing that accountability would be the cornerstone of Defence’s response to the inquiry.
“This is crucial to maintaining the highest standards Australians expect of our military, reassuring confidence and trust, and learning from grave failings,” Minister Reynolds said.
Defence has established an Afghanistan Inquiry Implementation Oversight Panel, which will report directly and regularly to the Defence Minister to inform the response.
Minister Reynolds stressed that the findings of the report should not undermine the positive contributions of the majority of ADF personnel, particularly those who served in Afghanistan.
“I remain proud of the men and women of the ADF who have served our nation on operations at home and around the world, and have done so with distinction,” the minister said.
“The findings announced by the Chief of the Defence Force today should not cast a shadow on the vast majority whose contributions to the mission in Afghanistan were carried out to the highest standards demanded of them.”
Meanwhile, independent senator Rex Patrick has called for ADF commanders to take personal responsibility for the command failures, which he has claimed allowed war crimes to be committed by ADF personnel in Afghanistan.
The senator has also called on the Australian Parliament, which "endorsed and supported" Australia’s military engagement in Afghanistan, to make a formal apology to the people of Afghanistan.
“The report of the inquiry by Justice Paul Brereton into war crimes in Afghanistan tells a very disturbing and deeply shameful story,” Senator Patrick said.
“As a former member of the Australian Defence Force, I am absolutely appalled by the revelations of at least 39 unlawful killings by ADF personnel. This is a very grim day for the standing of the ADF.
“While Prime Minister Scott Morrison has called Afghanistan’s President Ashraf Ghan, and Defence Force Chief General Angus Campbell today apologised on behalf of the ADF, the Australian Parliament should support a national apology to the people of Afghanistan. This is a grave matter that must be addressed at the centre of Australia’s democracy.
“The Parliament should also endorse efforts wherever possible to provide support to the families of the victims.”
He continued: “While the necessary legal processes relating to individuals must run their course, it is clear that ADF personnel have murdered captured enemy combatants and civilians. Our troops unlawfully killed the very people that they were sent to Afghanistan to help protect.
“The individuals responsible for these atrocities must be fully held to account. So too must those in the ADF chain of command who were responsible for the units and operations in question. There appears to have been a totally unacceptable breakdown of oversight, control and discipline.”
Senator Patrick called on past and present unit and taskforce commanders to "step up and take personal responsibility" for the actions of their personnel, adding that they should not await "potentially protracted disciplinary and administrative processes of further investigation".
"They should fall on their swords," he added.
The senator has also urged the Commonwealth Director of Public Prosecutions to drop the prosecution of whistleblower David McBride.
"If the CDDP fails to do so, in exercising his ultimate responsibility to the Parliament for Commonwealth prosecutions, the Attorney-General should order the discontinuance of the prosecution under powers afforded him by section 71(1) of the Judiciary Act," he said.
Minister Reynolds has acknowledged that the investigative process could be challenging and distressing for many individuals and families impacted by the inquiry, adding that Defence would support those in need of assistance.
“This is the government’s highest priority,” Minister Reynolds said.
“I strongly encourage current and former serving ADF members and their families to reach out and seek the help they need.”
Minister for Veterans' Affairs and Defence Personnel Darren Chester revealed that Witness Liaison Officers employed by the IGADF would be integrated into Defence to provide continuity of support to personnel.
"[I] encourage anyone affected by this inquiry to access the welfare and support services made available by both the Departments of Defence and Veterans’ Affairs," Minister Chester said.
ADF members and their families can contract the Defence All-hours Support Line, a confidential telephone service available 24 hours a day, seven days a week, by calling 1800 628 036. Defence families can also contact the Defence Family Helpline on 1800 624 608.
Safe Zone Support (1800 142 072) is also available as a free and anonymous counselling line for current and former ADF personnel and their families. The service is available 24/7 and provides access to specialised counsellors with an understanding of military culture and experience.
Defence personnel, veterans and their families can also access free and confidential counselling 24/7 through Open Arms – Veterans & Families Counselling Service (1800 011 046) or online at www.openarms.gov.au.