General Angus Campbell has on Thursday released a long-awaited report into alleged Australian war crimes in Afghanistan, finding evidence of 23 incidents where 39 Afghan nationals were unlawfully killed.
Australian soldiers stand accused of murdering dozens of people in Afghanistan and treating prisoners with cruelty.
The damning findings are outlined in a major report into alleged Australian war crimes in Afghanistan made public on Thursday.
The inquiry uncovered scores of instances of unlawful killings and inhumane treatment of detainees.
General Campbell believes such behaviour stems from “a self-centred warrior culture” within the Special Air Service Regiment.
“A misplaced focus on prestige, status and power, turning away from the regiment’s heritage of military excellence fused with the quiet humility of service,” he told reporters in Canberra today.
“The report notes that the distorted culture was embraced and amplified by some experienced, charismatic and influential non-commissioned officers and their proteges who sought to fuse military excellence with ego, elitism and entitlement.”
General Campbell has apologised to the Australian public, and to his counterpart, Afghan National Army Chief of General Staff Lieutenant General Yasin Zia.
Since 2016, the Inspector-General of the Australian Defence Force has examined allegations of war crimes by Australian special forces in Afghanistan.
Over four years, Justice Paul Brereton interviewed more than 400 witnesses and examined tens of thousands of documents.
He identified another two instances where prisoners were treated cruelly by elite Australian troops.
A few of the Afghan nationals killed were not participating in hostilities, while the majority were prisoners of war.
Justice Brereton identified 25 current or former ADF personnel accused of perpetrating one or more war crimes.
The report covered the period from 2005 to 2016, but almost all of the incidents uncovered occurred between 2009 and 2013.
“None of these are incidents of disputable decisions made under pressure in the heat of battle,” the report said.
“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.”
Justice Brereton also found there was credible evidence some soldiers carried “throw downs” such as weapons and military equipment to make it appear the person killed was a legitimate target.
As well, there was evidence junior soldiers were required by their patrol commanders to shoot a prisoner in a practice known as “blooding” to achieve their first kill.
General Campbell has accepted the inspector-general’s advice and will write to the governor-general requesting he revoke the meritorious unit citation for Special Operations Task Group who served in Afghanistan between 2007 and 2013.
“It is alleged that some patrols took the law into their own hands, rules were broken, stories conducted, lies told and prisoners killed,” he said.
“The killing, the unlawful killing, of civilians and prisoners is never acceptable. It is my duty and event of my fellow chiefs to set things right.”
Justice Brereton placed the greatest blame on patrol commanders, believing they were most responsible for inciting or directing subordinates to commit war crimes.
“It was at the patrol commander level that the criminal behaviour was conceived, committed, continued, and concealed, and overwhelmingly at that level that responsibility resides,” he said.
Prime Minister Scott Morrison has previously announced a special investigator will pursue possible criminal prosecutions. The position is yet to be filled.
The report recommended administrative action be taken against some serving ADF personnel where there is credible evidence of misconduct, but not enough for a criminal conviction.
It also recommended Australia compensate the families of Afghan people unlawfully killed, without waiting for criminal prosecutions.
“This will be an important step in rehabilitating Australia’s international reputation, in particular with Afghanistan, and it is simply the right thing to do,” it said.
As well, the inquiry recommended various service medals be stripped away from some individuals and groups.
“It has to be said that what this report discloses is disgraceful and a profound betrayal of the Australian Defence Force’s professional standards and expectations,” the report said.
“We embarked on this inquiry with the hope that we would be able to report that the rumours of war crimes were without substance.
“None of us desired the outcome to which we have come. We are all diminished by it.”
The inquiry has recommended 36 matters be referred to Australian Federal Police for criminal investigation.
The army will also change its organisational structure and there will be a greater focus on ethical leadership.
The Special Air Service second squadron has been ordered disbanded following a damning report.
Angus Campbell told reporters the Chief of Army Rick Burr had advised the Special Air Service Regiment on Thursday the second squadron had been “struck off the Army order of battle”.
“Not because it was the only squadron involved in these issues, but because it was at a time one of the squadrons involved in the allegations made,” he said.
The Army chief would “over time” adjust and re-raise a different squadron, which would have a different title, General Campbell said.
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