An inquiry has found that there is “credible evidence” that Australian soldiers “unlawfully killed” 39 people during the Afghan war.
The Australian Defence Force (ADF) released findings from a four-year inquiry into misconduct by its forces today. It said 19 current or ex-special forces soldiers should be investigated by police over killings of “prisoners, farmers or civilians” in 2009-13.
The ADF blamed crimes on an unchecked “warrior culture” among some soldiers.
The inquiry also found evidence that:
- Junior soldiers were told to get their first kill by shooting prisoners, in a practice known as “blooding”
- Weapons and other items were planted near Afghan bodies to cover up crimes
- An additional two incidents could constitute a war crime of “cruel treatment”
Australia has had forces in Afghanistan since 2002, following the overthrow of the Taliban as part of a U.S.-led coalition. Initially the international forces’ role was to train Afghan troops but they became increasingly involved in fighting the Afghan resistance.
ADF chief Gen Angus Campbell said none of the incidents could be “described as being in the heat of battle.” “None were alleged to have occurred in circumstances in which the intent of the perpetrator was unclear, confused or mistaken,” he told reporters on Thursday.
Gen Campbell said there was alarming evidence that some Special Air Service (SAS) soldiers had taken “the law into their own hands.”
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“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,” he said.
But the report said it would be a “gross distortion” to blame senior ADF command, saying the crimes were “commenced… and concealed at the patrol commander level”.
The office of Afghanistan’s President Ashraf Ghani said Australian leader Scott Morrison had phoned to express his “deepest sorrow” over the findings. The country’s foreign ministry, quoted by AFP, said the incidents mentioned in the report were “unforgivable” but its publication was “an important step towards justice.”
The Afghanistan Independent Human Rights Commission (AIHRC) welcomed the report but noted it had not established enough evidence to ensure criminal prosecution.
It said it was vital that this be sought and “adequate compensation” provided without delay. “Only through a series of independent inquiries will we uncover the true extent of this disregard for Afghan life, which normalised murder, and resulted in war crimes,” it said.
Last week, Mr Morrison said a special investigator would be appointed to consider prosecutions from information contained in the report. Australian media reported that police investigations would be likely to take years, even before possible criminal trials.
Australia maintains an operation of around 400 soldiers in Afghanistan as part ongoing “peacekeeping efforts” with the U.S. and other allies.