Link to report updated at 12:41pm 19/11/2020
This morning the government presented a main summary of the findings of the Brereton inquiry, a long-running investigation into alleged war crimes committed by Australian special forces in Afghanistan. The publicly available version of the report will be published here.
Rumours of unlawful conduct have been circulating for years, with varying levels of detail reported by the ABC’s Afghan Files and others. These have led to numerous subsequent media investigations alongside the four-year long inquiry.
The probe was originally sparked by a report authored by Dr Samantha Crompvoets in 2016, originally commissioned by then Chief of Army and now Chief of the Defence Force General Angus Campbell to look into the uneasy relationship between the two arms of the Special Forces; the SASR and Commandos.
Instead, according to remarks in Nine newspapers, Dr Crompvoets found that the men she interviewed wanted to talk about something else: horrific war crimes committed by select groups of soldiers in those units and a ‘bystander culture’ within the chain of command.
GEN Campbell encouraged her to find the truth, which eventually snowballed into the Brereton inquiry and a major reckoning for the Special Forces.
As the report notes, ‘the short and sad answer to that question is that there is substance to these rumours.’
“Cutting corners, ignoring and bending rules was normalised,” GEN Campbell said at the report’s release. “What emerged was a toxic competitiveness between the SASR and Commando regiments.”
ADM is not the place to find detailed coverage of this inquiry’s findings. Our motto is ‘Serving the Business of Defence’; we write about the people and businesses working to provide Australian soldiers, sailors and airmen and airwomen with the equipment and platforms they need to keep this country safe.
However, as a military-focused magazine, we can’t ignore a difficult truth. The report concludes that there were 39 individuals killed, a further two cruelly treated, and a total of 25 current or former ADF personnel who were perpetrators either as principals or accessories, on either single or multiple occasions. This information is affecting everyone in the military community whether they wear a uniform or not.
It is also important not to understate the truth. Some have suggested that these crimes were committed in the ‘fog of war’ or in the heat of battle, and that the behaviour can’t or shouldn’t be judged by those who weren’t there. But as the CDF said today, this is not the case.
“None of the incidents occurred in the heat of battle,” GEN Campbell said. “The unlawful killing of civilians and prisoners is never acceptable. It’s my duty and that of fellow chiefs to set things right. Accountability rests with those who allegedly broke the law and the chain of command. Rules were broken, stories concocted, lies told and prisoners killed. Once that rule was broken so too for some was any further restraint. Those who wished to speak up were discouraged, ignored or discredited.”
The report clearly states that the 28 examined events were not in the heat of battle, and that 23 incidents involving 25 people merit legal follow up.
The four-year effort saw in excess of 20,000 documents and 25,000 images sourced and reviewed a well as 510 interviews of 423 witnesses.
A review into the leadership ethics of Special Operations Command (SOCOMD) carried out by Professor David Whetham of King’s College London, Assistant Inspector-General of the ADF concluded that ‘SOCOMD personnel during the period 2007 to 2014 draws a picture of gradual erosion of standards over time resulting a in a culture within which, ultimately, war crimes were tolerated.’ The entirety of Annex A of the report details the ‘slippery slope’ that SOCOMD travelled to get to this point, with their legal support teams watering down reports to avoid further scrutiny.
“This was not all of SOCOMD,” GEN Campbell said. “Task group commanders bear responsibility for what happened under their command.”
The report recommends that 36 matters be referred to the Australian Federal Police with others to be dealt with through internal administrative action.
The report is also uses strong language to confirm that just because there is ‘credible information’ in certain circumstances, this does not mean the matter will be pursued legally; the IGADF inquiry has similar powers to compel witnesses to that of a Royal Commission.
The report also says that some awards and honours should also be reviewed. The CDF will follow this recommendation by asking the Governor General to revoke a number of unit citations from the period, including those of Special Operations Command.
Most importantly, we cannot ignore the victims of the crimes that Australian forces committed in Afghanistan.
The first are the people killed unlawfully. There are families senselessly ripped apart and they deserve justice. They also deserve support, in the same way we offer support to veterans traumatised by the exact same events.
Prime Minister Scott Morrison contacted the Afghan president on the morning the report was released to communicate this sentiment, with the CDF also doing the same to his counterpart.
The second are the ADF members who courageously came forward to expose the lawlessness within their own ranks. In too many cases, the things they saw - the evidence they gave to the inquiry - have since cost them their lives. They too deserve justice.
There have been complaints that the process took a long time. Given the nature of the events, time was needed to confirm details and make a thorough investigation, and an uncomfortable future now awaits a number of current and former ADF personnel.
There are some small positives. The fact that this inquiry happened at all is a testament to the bravery of the soldiers who spoke out and to the ADF’s willingness to let them speak. It is also a testament to a culture of integrity in the ADF that runs deeper than the disastrous failings that allowed these crimes to happen.
It is also somewhat comforting to note that a five year comprehensive reform program within SOCOMD is ongoing and will continue.
As the consequences of this inquiry now play out, ADM’s thoughts are with those affected, whether Afghan or Australian, military or civilian, serving member or veteran. Support services are listed on the Defence website at: https://www.defence.gov.au/mjs/welfare-support-services.asp.