Australia’s War Crime Shame in Afghanistan

Brereton Report details evidence of war crimes by special forces . . . 

On Thursday, a bombshell was dropped on the Australian Defence Force in the form of a report confirming allegations of unlawful killings of prisoners and civilians by members of the Australian military during that country’s involvement in the post-2001 Afghan War. The report, authored by Justice Paul Brereton, gives credible evidence to support claims that members of the Australian special forces killed 39 Afghan civilians in 23 separate incidents from 2005 to 2016. None of the killings occurred in battle, with the majority taking place when the victims were in Australian custody or control. The heavily-redacted report also contains evidence that those involved attempted to systematically cover up the murders. Justice Brereton is a judge in the Supreme Court in New South Wales and a senior officer in the Australian Army Reserve.

A culture of impunity . . .

Justice Brereton identified a toxic warrior culture in a small group of the Australian Defence Force’s (ADF) elite Special Air Service (SAS) and commando regiments that committed the killings. In several cases, senior patrol commanders instructed junior soldiers to execute Afghan civilians as a way of ‘blooding’ or initiation. Frequently, the soldiers placed guns or phones next to corpses to provide post-facto justification and those involved invented cover stories. Soldiers with knowledge of the incidents who wanted to speak up would be intimidated and discredited. Brereton described the special forces’ actions as a “disgraceful and a profound betrayal” of the ADF.

Where to from here?

While the Brereton Report’s conclusions are devastating, the allegations have been public since 2017, when the Australian Broadcasting Corporation broke the story after receiving leaked military documents. Chief of the Defence Force Angus Campbell has stated efforts to reform the culture that led to the alleged war crimes are already underway, and “all options [are] on the table” for dealing with perpetrators. Those responsible may be prosecuted in the future, but that would not likely happen for some time due to investigation and court procedural complexities. General Campbell has further indicated the SAS squadron at the centre of the allegations will be disbanded and a new one created to replace it. Rebuilding trust in the ADF – both domestically and internationally – will take years.