Australian SAS atrocities in Afghanistan are part of a bigger war crime

Australian troops on patrol in Afghanistan in 2009. Photo: Wikimedia Commons / CC by 2.0

The latest revelation by the ABC of a massacre of up to 11 Afghan civilians by Australian Special Air Services troops in December 2012 adds to a long list of war crimes that the public has only been able to see after years of painstaking research by a special investigation team.

Since the first series of reports were published in 2017 as The Afghan Files by Dan Oakes and Sam Clark, we have heard more and more graphic evidence that Australian special forces have killed or maimed innocent and unarmed civilians (including children and a person with a mental disability), carried out extrajudicial executions, tortured and abused civilians, shot protesters, mutilated bodies, destroyed property and livestock and covered up war crimes by planting weapons on dead bodies.

The evidence of these war crimes — committed between 2009 and 2012 — has been made public in the form of often traumatising to watch body camera footage, leaked official documents, eyewitness accounts by several members of the special forces and testimony from Afghan villagers who survived the atrocities.

On several occasions, conscience-stricken members of the special forces reported the atrocities to their superior officers, but to no avail. Where internal Australian Defence Force (ADF) inquiries were held, the result was almost always that the alleged perpetrators of the war crimes had “acted within the rules of engagement”.

In at least one instance, an SAS unit resisted handing over evidence to a Department of Defence inquiry.

The frustration of those special forces soldiers who spoke up against these crimes drove at least one of them to take his own life. One former special forces medic even made a televised apology to the family of an injured Afghan civilian who had been stomped on until he died.

The ABC had its Sydney office raided by Australian Federal Police in June last year and the attorney general is now deciding whether to prosecute journalist Dan Oakes on the basis of a brief the AFP has since prepared.

On July 2, Oakes tweeted: “Would just like to point out at this moment that whether or not we are ever charged or convicted over our stories, the most important thing is that those who broke our laws and the laws of armed conflict are held to account. Our nation should be better.”

Former military lawyer David McBride is facing multiple charges of theft of Commonwealth property, breaching the Defence Act and unauthorised disclosure of information. McBride, who faces possible life imprisonment if he is convicted of these charges, said he was compelled to make the war crimes public after the ADF and Department of Defence failed to act on his complaints.

Speaking outside the ACT Court where he was charged in June last year, McBride said: “I saw something illegally being done by the government and I did something about it … I’m seeking to have the case looking purely at whether the government broke the law and whether it was my duty as a lawyer to report that fact.”

For the past four years, the Inspector-General of the Australian Defence Force (IGADF), assisted by New South Wales Justice Paul Brereton, has been conducting a secret inquiry into these and other war crimes allegations against Australian special forces operating in Afghanistan. The results of this inquiry are expected within weeks.

The senior officer in charge of Australia’s special forces, Major-General Adam Findlay, admitted in a private briefing in March that “there are guys [in the special forces] who criminally did something” but that ultimately this happened because of “poor moral leadership”.

What the IGADF inquiry will find, and whether any criminal prosecutions will follow remains to be seen.

Those who committed war crimes need to be exposed and prosecuted in open trials. But culpability for the persistent attempts to cover up these war crimes, and the ongoing attempts to persecute and intimidate the truth-tellers, also need to be brought to account.

These war crimes in Afghanistan (like those in the Vietnam War and all other imperial military interventions) are not just the results of the bad behaviour of a few rogue troops enabled by poor moral military leadership. These atrocities are part of the bigger crime of those who make political decisions to join these fundamentally wrong interventions.

Further, the governments that sent Australian troops into Afghanistan and kept them there in the longest Australian military intervention in history are also culpable.

This crime is a bi-partisan one. John Howard’s Coalition government joined the US-led war in 2001 and subsequent Labor governments kept Australian troops in Afghanistan even while criminalising the refugees who have fled, and continue to flee, the war.

That crime still needs to be stopped and acknowledged for what it is by both major parties.

Australia and other countries whose military invaded and brutalised Afghanistan should pay compensation to its people.

[Peter Boyle is a member of the Socialist Alliance.]