The Australian Defence Force has apologised to the Afghan people as it handed down a damning report into allegations 39 Afghan people were “unlawfully killed” at the hands of Australian soldiers.
It follows a lengthy investigation by the Inspector-General of the Australian Defence Force, who looked into 57 allegations of wrongdoing by Australian Special Forces between 2006 and 2013, but almost all of the incidents uncovered occurred between 2009 and 2013.
The report revealed there was “credible information” to substantiate 23 incidents of unlawful killing of 39 people by 25 current or former ADF personnel, predominantly from the Special Air Service Regiment.
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Most of those were Afghan prisoners, farmers and other civilians who did not pose an immediate threat.
“None of these are incidents of disputable decisions made under pressure in the heat of battle,” the report said.
“This shameful record includes alleged instances in which new patrol members were coerced to shoot a prisoner in order to achieve that soldiers first deal in an appalling practice known as “blooding”.
Australian Defence Force Chief General Angus Campbell admitted he was shocked by what he read in the report.
“When the rumours were first raised with me late in 2015, I had the sense that there was something here,” General Campbell told reporters on Thursday.
“But I never expected to read some of the material that I have reviewed over the last two weeks.”
The allegations levelled in the report will now be handed to a special investigator, who is yet to be determined, to pursue possible criminal prosecutions for war crimes.
“I’m leaving all options on the table and I want to work through the issue, case-by-case,” General Campbell said.
“I have accepted the Inspector General’s recommendation and will write to the Governor-General, requesting he revoke the meritorious unit citations for special operations task group who served in Afghanistan between 2007 and 2013.
“I appreciate these latter decisions will be a bitter blow for many.”
General Campbell said there was a chance more allegations could come forward in the future.
“There are some more recent lines of inquiry that the justice could not fully deal with and what we have seen previously when there has been periods of significant media or public attention to the issue is additional people coming forward. Rather than assume, I simply strongly encourage people to do so, if there is anything that they feel they wish to raise with the special investigator.”
He said the Defence Force was committed to fixing the “warrior culture” that had infected its ranks and will adopt all the 143 recommendations handed down in the report.
The report found that some members of the Special Air Service Regiment had a “misplaced focus on prestige, status and power” and 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 said the Defence Force had offered its sincere apologies to the Afghan people and the Australian public.
“To the people of Afghanistan, on behalf of the Australian Defence Force, I sincerely and unreservedly apologise for any wrongdoing by Australian soldiers,” he said.
“Such alleged behaviour profoundly disrespected the trust placed in us by the Afghan people who had asked us to their country to help them.
“It would have devastated the lives of Afghan families and communities, causing immeasurable pain and suffering and it would have put in jeopardy our mission and the safety of our Afghan and coalition partners.
“To the people of Australia, I am sincerely sorry for any wrongdoing by members of the Australian Defence Force.
“You’re right to expect that your defence force will defend your nation and its interest in manner that accords to ours nation’s values and laws.”
It’s expected the families of those killed will be compensated in some way by the Australian government.
“That is going to be something we will work with, both the wider government in Australia, and also the Afghan governments and elements of Afghan community to determine,” General Campbell said.