Once again Australian special forces are being investigated for war crimes. This time it’s for said to have occurred in Afghanistan in 2012 and 2013 involving the deaths of two children.
The first involves the alleged unlawful killing of the 14- or 15-year-old Afghan boy Khan Mohammed in Kandahar province.
The second centres on the circumstances surrounding the killing of a reported Taliban sympathiser Bismillah Azadi and his son Sadiqullah in an Australian raid in Uruzgan province in September 2013.
Both are under investigation by the New South Wales supreme court judge Paul Brereton for the office of the inspector general of the .
Questions about Australian special forces and war crimes are not new, with investigations in conflicts leading back to in 1999 and over the last 15 years.
A key facet of this inquiry will be the culture of these forces. In recent reports that a culture of recklessness, indiscriminate killing and an indifference to Afghan life had developed among a minority of influential special operations task group personnel.
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Much happens in the fog of war that is not always predictable or explainable. Yet the latest allegations to be investigated raise questions about the competency of special forces personnel’s combat judgment, or their inclination to operate executively resulting in reckless and unavoidable deaths. And these allegations illuminate a code of secrecy, and practices of cover-up and deceit in the theatre of war.
This secrecy itself is not new. In 2003 an inquiry was held into the brutal defacement of the corpse of a Timor-Leste militia by a special forces soldier in 1999. After the initial reports were made, the investigation hit a brick wall. Even the complainants, three New Zealand special forces soldiers, their statements
A further 19 allegations of misconduct were made against Australian troops. After a three-year closed-door investigation, which included the exhumation of two militiamen’s corpses from a mass grave outside Dili, none of the allegations resulted in charges. Except the kicking claim. It was a case .
In 2006 special forces soldiers were involved in the indiscriminate shooting of an . The case was marked by divergent accounts by the then chief of defence, Air Marshall Angus Houston, and local investigators. The then Greens leader, Bob Brown, called on the ADF to launch an independent inquiry, claiming a cover-up.
Then a unit of special forces soldiers were investigated for cutting off the hands of dead insurgents after a battle in southern Afghanistan, allegedly to facilitate their biometric identification.
So why has this culture developed? There are at least three key influences on the special forces combat practices.
The first influence is the generalised culture of the military, and in particular that of elite and combat forces. Team cohesion in elite groups of men can often lead to closed and exclusive groups, who operate with the belief that they are above the law.
This violent elitism has been heavily scrutinised by the ADF through the lens of institutional abuse within the forces. brought to light the violence and prejudice within the ranks, as well as the culture of cover-up and deflection across the chain of command. The ADF has recognised the need and risks of maintaining military effectiveness. It frames this challenge in terms of male tribalism, which can build unit cohesion but can also be a source of intense prejudice and indiscriminate violence.
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The second influence is the strategic context. The notorious but highly secretive “kill-capture” strategy of the Afghanistan war has resulted in reckless and avoidable deaths. Kill-capture is characterised by the identification of strategic targets and the formation of raid teams that descend on villages and houses, raiding, capturing and killing its occupants.In 2011 the exposed the fact that the Australian military kept a secret “target list”, known as the joint priority effects list.
Examples of this include a 2009 night raid when a were killed by Australian special service soldiersin the town of Sork Morghab. Locals said the raid for the Taliban leader, Mullah Noorullah, was conducted in the wrong town, and the soldiers had lied about firing at a suspected insurgent. Charges were brought against three SAS personnel, although they were later dropped.
The final context is legal and political. In 2009 an Australian commando, on an authorised night raid, and under threat, The grenade killed a number of children. Two soldiers were charged by the ADF military prosecutor, although these charges were also later dropped.
Although the ADF’s military prosecutor brought the prosecution under domestic law (manslaughter by negligence) which meant the soldier would not face the prosecution of a war crime, the case angered many members of the ADF. This case of prosecuting the “good guys” contributed to a culture of protectionism, which has evolved into One of the alleged strategies for covering up reckless kills is carrying “drop weapons”. By placing weapons like knives or guns on those killed, the innocent were made to look like insurgents.
There have also been claims of of prisoners of war.
The defence force and the special forces command have been in this executive form of warfare by the former Afghan president Hamid Karzai and other Afghan leaders. But they have persisted.
This culture is having a significant and unwelcome effect, for example the signature night raid has been said to be a major influence on Afghans
These indiscriminate attacks also contributed to a profound sense of insecurity and the consequent displacement of Afghans seeking to avoid the kill-capture squads. In 2009 the Uruzgan governor Abdul Hakim Munib fuelled hostility toward the occupying forces, undermining the humanitarian and development elements of the Afghanistan campaign.
Furthermore the ADF for incorrectly killed and injured Afghan civilians during 2009-11, according to an Amsterdam International Law Clinic report.
Back in Australia, the defence force has. Abuse, traditions of hazing and bastardisation and unit expressions of deep prejudice and discrimination have been revealed. Alongside this, there is a culture of no-reporting, cover-up and deceit marked the defence forces’ responses to issues of military justice. The domestic and operational cannot be separated in this regard.
Undoubtedly the ADF acknowledges the ways that team cohesion and institutional culture go hand-in-hand to generate military and male tribalism. It could be argued that this is necessary to achieve the difficult tasks of the modern soldier.
But it can also be argued that this kind of soldiering has no place in modern warfare, and the profession of arms. It marks a clear line between the soldier and the brigand.