Australian special forces soldiers executed 39 prisoners, farmers, adolescents and other civilians during the war in Afghanistan and tried to cover it up, the Australian military revealed in a lengthy report Thursday.
The inspector general of the Australian Defense Force found that a “warrior culture” within two elite units — the Special Air Service Regiment and the Second Commando Regiment — enabled criminal conduct to flourish and led to the killings outside of battle.
Commanders ordered junior soldiers to shoot prisoners to record their first kill, a practice known as “blooding,” and were never questioned by their subordinates since they were viewed as “demigod[s]” who could make or break a soldier's military career.
Those findings and more were included in a heavily redacted battlefield misconduct report released by the Australian military in the first major public admission of wrongdoing by its troops involved in the U.S.-led coalition in Afghanistan.
The report, the result of a four-year investigation into abuses between 2006 and 2013, implicates 25 Australian soldiers in unlawful killings of Afghans and calls for the criminal investigation of 19 soldiers.
The inquiry does not label the killings as war crimes but notes that "if accepted by a jury," 23 of the incidents “would be the war crime of murder.”
The report calls the actions “possibly the most disgraceful episode in Australia’s military history.”
Australia, a close military ally of the United States for more than 100 years, quickly joined the U.S.-led campaign in Afghanistan after the 9/11 terrorist attacks against the United States.
More than 26,000 Australians have since deployed to the country, with the last combat troops leaving in late 2013. Several hundred support personnel stayed behind.
The Australian military in 2015 began investigating allegations of extrajudicial killings after a special forces commander, Jeff Sengelman, started a review as he “was so concerned about what he saw as the ‘serious endemic problems’ ” affecting special operations command.
That prompted the Army chief in 2016 to request the inspector general conduct a formal inquiry.
Investigators found that 39 individuals were killed, with another two “cruelly treated,” at the hands of 25 current or former Australian Defense Force personnel who were perpetrators, either as principals or accessories.
None of the incidents took place during military confrontations, and victims’ bodies were later planted with weapons and radios in order to make it look like they were legitimate targets.
The report notes that the practice “probably originated for the less egregious though still dishonest purpose of avoiding scrutiny” when a person legitimately engaged in combat but turned out not to be armed, but it later evolved “to be used for the purpose of concealing deliberate unlawful killings.”
Subordinates complied for several reasons, including fear of jeopardizing their career and a mindset that when in a foreign environment, “something that happened outside the wire [is] to stay outside the wire,” the report said.
“In that context, some individuals who would have believed themselves incapable of such behavior were influenced to commit egregious crimes. It is clear to the Inquiry that at least some of them have regretted it, and have been struggling with the concomitant moral injury, ever since.”
Those who objected to the actions were intimidated into silence, according to the report.
Australia’s military chief Gen. Angus Campbell said he accepted the “deeply disturbing" findings and would eliminate the 2nd squadron of the Special Air Service, the most prestigious unit of the Australian Army — the equivalent of the U.S. military eliminating its SEAL Team 6.
In addition, the Australian government will compensate the families of Afghan victims and have set up a special unit to gather evidence to prosecute the soldiers accused of the crimes.
“Today, the Australian Defense Force is rightly held to account for allegations of grave misconduct,” Campbell said in a news conference announcing the report’s findings. “We are a nation that stands up when something goes wrong and deals with it, and that’s what I intend to be part of.”
Ahead of the report’s release, Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison called Afghan President Ashraf Ghani to express “regret over the war crimes committed by a number of Australian soldiers in Afghanistan” and to promise justice, the presidential office said on Twitter.
Australia’s Foreign Ministry also sent a letter apologizing for the actions of its soldiers and vowing that those who committed crimes would face legal action.
It’s rare that a major Western nation has admitted to egregious wrongdoing in battle.
President TrumpDonald TrumpTrump defends indicted GOP congressman House to vote Thursday on holding Bannon in contempt Youngkin calls for investigation into Loudoun County School Board amid sexual assault allegations MORE in November 2019 pardoned three service members for war crimes despite senior Pentagon officials raising concerns about his intervention in the military justice system.
The Trump administration has also attempted to hinder international investigators from looking into allegations of war crimes against U.S. service members.
Australian investigators note in their report that it may be difficult to prosecute the soldiers, citing similar problems in other nations involved in the war.
“Even where the evidence is apparently strong and clear, pitfalls have been encountered, both political and popular. It is predictable that Australian prosecutions could encounter similar obstacles.”