The ongoing reports of Australian war crimes in Afghanistan are the latest in a long history of terror. Sophie Cotton explores why Australian troops carry out these atrocities
Australia is still reeling from reports of war crimes in Afghanistan, with more information continuing to emerge by the month.
In the “trial of the century”, Australia’s most decorated living soldier, Ben Roberts-Smith, is suing Nine newspapers over allegations he committed a series of war crimes and domestic violence.
Roberts-Smith is alleged to have kicked a handcuffed Afghan soldier off a cliff in 2012.
But calls for cultural reform and for the prosecution of the few “bad apples” fail to address the real cause of the war crimes. Australian troops have been responsible for similar atrocities in every major war they have fought.
The long and brutal history of Australian war crimes are a result of sending soldiers abroad in the service of Australia’s imperialist interests, to invade and bomb other countries in order to secure Australian power and profits.
This was the reason Australian troops went to Afghanistan in the first place. The war itself was a war crime. At least 47,600 civilians have been killed and more than double that number injured in Afghanistan during the 20 years of war.
The war in Afghanistan has long been promoted as a “good war”, promising to defeat the Taliban, and promote “nation building” and women’s rights.
But the war had nothing to do with protecting Afghans.
The Taliban was merely replaced by a corrupt US-backed regime, compared by leading US General David Petraeus to “a crime syndicate”.
The inevitable consequence of the war has been increasing support for the only group seen to be willing to resist Western imperialism, the Taliban.
The US is now finally withdrawing its troops in military defeat. Last month Australia too withdrew its last troops from Uruzgan province where it was focused.
But they leave behind a trail of bodies. Australian soldiers were infamous, “known for their long beards and killing” according to one village elder.
One man, Lailai, describes making tea in his house, before Australian soldiers broke in, shot him, beat him with a rifle, and ravaged him with a dog.
He later told journalist Andrew Quilty, “I’m so grateful to Allah that I survived the attack. Many villagers came to me and said, ‘We can’t believe you’re alive. Because when the Australians capture you, you never come back alive.’”
Australia’s brutal war on civilians
US and Australian troops in Afghanistan became a brutal occupying army imposing control through violence and terror.
Australia was locked in a vicious cycle of increasingly brutalities in Uruzgan province.
Journalist Andrew Quilty describes the way Australia’s Special Operations Task Group (SOTG) became increasingly hated by and distrustful of the civilians caught up in their hunting grounds: “The more special forces killed unlawfully and abused, the more the population feared and reviled them, and the more they became inclined to sympathise with the Taliban, regardless of how they once regarded them. And, hence, the more the SOTG saw the entire population as its enemy.”
Australian soldier Brayden Chapman told Four Corners, “We try and say we’re there to help and the Taliban are bad, but if we go in and we start destroying infrastructure or destroying their private vehicles and burning down their homes, it doesn’t really send the right messages”, particularly while, “the Taliban are not doing that”.
In 2012, soldiers executed Dad Mohammad in a wheat field, an unarmed 25-year-old man who was holding prayer beads.
Following the murder, his brother Jamshid became active in the Taliban, telling journalist Andrew Quilty, “They kill this innocent person with such brutality—what do they expect us to do?”
The cycle bred a repulsive military “warrior cult” culture. One anonymous soldier described an entitlement “to be treated almost as Roman gladiators”.
According to another, “Guys just had this blood lust. Psychos. Absolute Psychos. And we bred them”. The ABC obtained a photo of Australian soldiers flying a Nazi flag in 2007. A public Instagram page operated by current and former SAS soldiers was exposed for mocking war crimes investigations and selling “Make Diggers Violent Again” bumper stickers. Some soldiers used the hashtag #slaycation, and infamously produced a YouTube video set to music.
The practice of killing and cover-up continues to be uncovered by the media.
The latest revelation was the “tractor job”, where Australian soldiers killed as many as 11 civilians in the village of Sara Aw.
This included five civilians sheltering around a tractor transporting onions, one of whom was a young teenager hiding inside the tractor wheel.
According to an anonymous SOTG officer, after one farmer was accidentally shot, soldiers “made the decision that they couldn’t leave anyone behind to tell… So, they decided to kill all of them.”
Soldiers told sociologist Samantha Crompvoets, who the Defence Department commissioned to investigate its internal culture, about one incident where SASR members stopped, searched and slit the throats of two 14-year-old boys who, “they decided might be Taliban sympathisers”. The rest of the troops were charged with “clean[ing] up the mess” by bagging the bodies and throwing them in the river.
In one act of intimidation, Australian troops executed a dog after handing it to a child, on a chain.
Following a decade of agitation and reporting by locals, the extent of war crimes was revealed in the unprecedented Brereton Report released last November, which found credible evidence that up to 25 soldiers were complicit in 39 murders of non-combatants.
Now 19 soldiers are facing criminal investigations, an Office of the Special Investigator has been established to investigate the war crimes, and the SASR’s 2 Squadron has been disbanded.
The report is gruesome reading. It describes the way war crimes were tolerated and even encouraged. “Blooding” describes the practice whereby junior soldiers were, “required by their patrol commanders” to shoot a prisoner to achieve their “first kill”.
“Body count” competitions encouraged the same. In one instance, troops executed two prisoners to get a, “tally board total… from 18 to 20”.
Civilian and non-combatant murders were normalised. People running away as a helicopter landed were nicknamed “squirters” and designated legitimate targets. “Running became a death sentence, even for women and children.”
The widespread practice of cover-up helped breed a, “culture within which, ultimately, war crimes were tolerated”. Australian soldiers used “throwdowns” such as radios and weapon to disguise civilian casualties as legitimate targets.
Bradley Chapman said that soldiers, “used to joke about how the same serial number was in every single photo of dead Afghani”, indicating how commonly weapons were planted on bodies.
Another joke was about, “the size of the rug that they’ve swept everything under”.
We still do not know the full extent of the brutalities. One incident in the report was described as, “possibly the most disgraceful episode in Australia’s military history”. This is no throwaway line, following a detailed 60-page summary of Australia’s history of war crimes. However, the entire case was redacted from the report.
New cases are also likely to emerge.
Andrew Quilty has revealed 25 previously unreported deaths. Since the report was released, the Afghan Independent Human Rights Commission in Uruzgan has received reports of Australian atrocities totalling up to 122 deaths.
It takes an orchard to grow bad apples
Investigations have consistently limited the responsibility of higher ups in the military. The report lays criminal responsibility at the “patrol commander level”, saying that more senior army officials were only morally responsible.
But senior command was not blind to the brutalities of the war.
In a secret briefing in 2016, Major General Jeff Sengelman wrote of, “systemic failings across the command, primarily in leadership and oversight at all levels, including the headquarters”.
Joint Operations Command lawyers admitted they were concerned about “sanctioned massacres” and were sceptical that their alteration of legal “rules of engagement” would stop the behaviour, because Special Forces, “just got more creative in how they wrote up incidents”.
The Brereton inquiry found that complaints from the Red Cross or Afghanistan Independent Human Rights Commission were, “routinely passed off as Taliban propaganda or motivated by a desire for compensation” by senior officers.
Instead, Australia relied exclusively on the word of the soldiers, which the report describes as, “routinely embellished, and sometimes outright fabricated”.
The legal focus on individuals has generated dissent amongst SASR troops. One soldier “H” complained that the ADF senior leadership were unaccountable, telling the Courier Mail, “To me, they created the beast… They needed the capacity, they needed us to be the strategic tool for them.”
Soldiers facing war crime charges are believed to have circulated photos of the Command Sergeant Major Warren Letch, “right-hand man” to the head of the Special Forces, drinking beer from the prosthetic leg of a dead Afghani man.
The Australian described it as a, “normalised but inappropriate team-building activity”.
Brigadeer Jono Beesley, the former commander of SAS and then SOTG, has also stepped down from his position for unspecified reasons. He was in the role at the time where an SAS corporal infamously severed the hands of several dead soldiers, purportedly to retrieve “biometric material” in violation of war crimes.
Not only should the individuals who committed the war crimes be held responsible, but so too those who ran the war.
The invasion was supported by Liberal and Labor governments, and it was the top brass who signed off on bombs, drones and the military exercises that produced the war crimes. Responsibility is ultimately in the hands of Australia’s rulers who saw joining the invasion as necessary.
Not the first time
Labor leader Anthony Albanese said of the war crimes in Afghanistan, “this doesn’t represent who Australia is”. But Australia was founded by an equally brutal British invasion. And war crimes have been a constant feature of Australia’s wars, from the Boer war, to the First and Second World Wars, and Vietnam.
The famous case of “Breaker Morant” saw two Australian infantry soldiers executed for war crimes in the South African Boer War. After a British officer was killed in action, Morant launched a series of revenge killings. He captured and then executed a wounded prisoner of war, before killing eight civilians including four schoolteachers.
A Lutheran Reverend discovered the crime and attempted to return to his mission station, traveling alongside a white flag. To cover up the war crimes, Morant ordered Handcock to shoot the priest dead.
For decades nationalist mythology has recast them as heroic Australians persecuted as scapegoats for the British. As late as 2010, one Liberal MP argued in parliament that the men should be pardoned, stating, “[w]e certainly need legends in Australian history”.
The First World War brought a fresh round of atrocities, from the rampage of drunken ANZAC soldiers in Cairo burning down houses and brothels and attacking firefighters in 1915, to the race-fuelled 1918 Surafend massacre of up to 137 civilians in the village of Surafand al Amar in Palestine.
In the Second World War, Australians were infamous for killing Japanese prisoners. Historian Mark Johnston writes that it “often proved difficult to prevent” Australian footsoldiers from killing captured Japanese before they could be interrogated, while a soldier Eddie Stanton described the war crime of killing survivors more simply, “Nippo [Japanese] survivors are just so much machine-gun practice”.
Australians massacred 350 shipwreck survivors in 1943.
In the Vietnam war, Australians murdered survivors, civilians and prisoners of war, while the practice of planting weapons on dead bodies was used to cover up the killings.
Imperialist wars, fought to impose foreign power and control, inevitably involve war crimes.
Australia is an imperialist power in its own right, and has supported first British imperialist adventures and more recently US imperialist wars in an effort to secure the support of the dominant imperialist power for its own designs in the local region.
The nature of these wars has pitted Australian troops against local population as part of foreign invading armies, there to impose foreign control.
These wars have frequently required racism to help justify them. The recent US-led wars in the Middle East were justified using racism depicting Muslims as backward, irrational and potential terrorists. This racism served to dehumanise ordinary Afghans and fuel the occupiers’ war crimes and violence.
Reforms, whether through cultural change in the SAS, “integrity training”, or helmet cameras, are unlikely to change anything about the nature of a wars Australia wages. In the long run they are designed to help reinforce the legitimacy of war and ensure Australian troops can be sent to fight in future conflicts.
But even steps like these look unlikely, with senior government politicians opposing even modest “cultural change”.
Defence Minister Peter Dutton told 2GB that he wants to get ADF and SAS soldiers to get, “back to business… not to be distracted by things that have happened in the past”.
The Brereton report argued that the war crimes carried out by Task Force 66 were “disgraceful, not meritorious” and recommended stripping the unit of Meritorious Unit Citation as a, “demonstration of the collective responsibility and accountability of the Special Operations Task Group as a whole for those events”.
Though the recommendation was accepted by the Defence Chief Angus Campbell, Dutton has overturned his decision, meaning the unit will keep its collective honour for “sustained outstanding service”.
Liberal MP Phillip Thompson, a former solider, said the government was committed to, “bringing back our core values—we’ve gone a little bit woke over the past few years and we can’t afford to be doing that”, defending the necessity of, “unapologetic aggression and violence to get the mission done”.
Examples of this “wokeness” include the a directive in 2018 that soldiers should not wear “death symbology” such as skull and cross-bone masks, or the “Punisher” symbol. Thompson previously posted on social media in 2012 implying that he wanted to shoot Muslims.
Liberal MP and ex-SAS officer Andrew Hastie argued in the Australian that, “a positive warrior culture” is “what you need in an elite special operations unit.”
Hastie is right. The Australian SASR was inspired and trained by the British SAS, created by Winston Churchill in 1940 out of the stated need for, “specially trained troops of the hunter class, who can develop a reign of terror down the enemy coast… leaving a trail of German corpses behind them”.
For socialists, war crimes are not simply breaches of wartime discipline but an inevitable product of any imperialist war. They are outgrowths of a system that sends soldiers abroad to invade countries and impose Australian power.
Biden’s withdrawal of troops from Afghanistan is a tactical move designed to prepare the US for future wars.
He has declared that, “Rather than return to war with the Taliban, we have to focus on the challenges that are in front of us. We have to shore up American competitiveness to face the stiff competition from an increasingly assured China.”
As the Australian and US governments begin a new Cold War with China, we will need to campaign against our rulers’ efforts to beat drums of war, before they career us all into more atrocities.