Conflict Alerts

Conflict Alerts # 194, 26 November 2020

Afghanistan: Australian Defence chief apologizes for war crimes in Afghanistan
Abigail Miriam Fernandez

In the news
On 19 November, the Australian defence force chief, General Angus Campbell released a long-awaited report into alleged war crimes committed in Afghanistan. The inquiry which was conducted by Maj Gen Justice Paul Brereton interviewed 423 witnesses, while investigators produced over 20,000 documents and 25,000 images as part of the probe, investigating conduct between 2005 and 2016. Detailing the findings, Gen Campbell said that the inquiry "found there to be credible information to substantiate 23 incidents of alleged unlawful killing of 39 people by 25 Australian special forces personnel predominantly from the Special Air Service Regiment." Further, the report also found that weapons had been planted on some of the victims, while junior soldiers were sometimes forced to shoot prisoners for a "first kill" as part of an initiative known as "blooding."

While terming the report as "deeply disturbing," Gen Campbell offered an unreserved apology to the Afghan people for "any wrongdoing by Australian soldiers." Further, the Inspector-General of the Australian Defence Force (IGADF) called it "possibly the most disgraceful episode in Australia's military history."

Issues at large
First, the issue of "warrior culture." The Brereton Report documents how a culture of compliance, intimidation, toxic competition and silence in the field hushed up crimes and the "warrior culture" of the Special Air Service Regiment commanders. Units became consumed with preparing for and fighting the war, with cutting corners, bending and ignoring rules becoming the new norm. Not correcting this culture, as it developed, was a failure of both unit and higher command.

Second, the report is helpful to Afghan victims, but it is just a first step. For many Afghan survivors and others harmed by these abuses, the consequences have been devastating. However, in most cases, those who sought justice for these crimes were turned away or threatened. Thus, the larger issues here would be protecting these people from any risks for potential witnesses to crimes.

Third, investigating historic crimes in another country is a difficult, complex, and costly exercise. The special investigator's office should have adequate resources and staff, including relevant experts, analysts, and translators to ensure investigations are handled effectively and efficiently. Thus, following through post, the probe poses as a challenge.

Fourth, the delayed response from countries and institutions. If Australia has woken up to the issue late, the US and the UK have still not done anything yet. Both countries have investigated military personnel for war crimes in Afghanistan and found evidence of abuses, but no one has been held accountable. This shows the lack of initiative not just from countries but the lack of action and ineffectiveness from the International Criminal Court (ICC) to launch its own investigation into the countries' activities in Afghanistan.

In perspective
First, it shows that the military can be as imperfect as any other group in society. However, although Australia may be seen as the front-runner to address this issue, it is going to be a difficult and tedious process given that the report is not a brief of evidence. Further, it goes to show that there is must need comprehensiveness and transparent while investigating war crime to ensure justice.

Second, the findings reflect the painful legacy of a wrenching 19-year conflict. As violence continues to go unabated across Afghanistan, defying a resolution more uncertainty garners with negotiations stalled between the Afghan government and the Taliban, and the country's fate with President Trump's order to reduce American troops from the region further.

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