Members of the Australian Army Special Forces have killed 39 Afghan civilians and prisoners while serving in Uruzgan Province. That is the conclusion of the Brereton study, a summary of which was made public today. Some incidents took place in 2009 and 2010, but the majority took place between 2012 and 2013.
In some cases, prisoners of war have been executed by young military personnel as a hazing ritual, the report says. The military devised an alibi in advance and placed weapons on the bodies of already deceased victims to justify their actions, according to the investigation.
The report investigated 23 incidents. The recommendation is to criminally prosecute 19 members of the special forces for being responsible for the executions, according to the report. Some of them are still in the service of the Australian Army (ADF).
The report explicitly states that the 39 Afghan victims did not die in the heat of the battle. “These murders would be labeled as war crimes by a jury if they were brought to trial,” writes investigating judge Paul Brereton. “In none of the cases was the intention of the opponent unclear or confusing. Most of the opponents had already been imprisoned, the situation under control. This means that prisoners of war are under the protection of international law.”
The cause of the alleged war crimes begins with the culture in which this could take place, said defense chief Campbell during the press conference in which the report was discussed last night (Dutch time). He said there was “a misguided emphasis on prestige, status and power”. “An attitude that does not match the military excellence of the special forces. The report speaks of a self-centered martial culture.”
This disturbed culture was allowed and even reinforced by experienced, influential and charismatic NCOs and their protégés, the report describes. As a result, disciplined military life disappeared and rule-breaking became normalized.
“A toxic rival culture had developed within the special forces. The consequences were destructive to confidence, cohesion and the mission,” Campbell quoted from the report. “It is a mistake of the senior military that they have not acted against this.”
Discouraged and intimidated
Those within the special forces who tried to oppose the mainstream culture were discouraged, intimidated and discredited, the investigating judge describes. That way the culture could survive.
Prime Minister Morrison last week announced a criminal investigation into the alleged war crimes by a new team at the national police. That team investigates the allegations, collects evidence and notifies law enforcement of the findings.
Defense chief Angus Campbell has made apologies to relatives of the victims, the Afghan community, coalition partners in Afghanistan and Australian civilians. Prime Minister Scott Morrison and the Secretary of State offered their apologies to the Prime Minister of Afghanistan earlier today.
Both the Prime Minister and the Chief of Defense acknowledge the seriousness of the situation, but also expressed their appreciation for the military who did adhere to ethical codes of conduct during their missions.