Horrific details emerge of abuses carried out by members of Australia’s special forces in Afghanistan.
There is growing outrage in Australia and across the world after the publication of the Bereton inquiry, detailing war crimes committed by the country’s special forces soldiers in Afghanistan.
Troops belonging to the Australian Special Air Service murdered 39 Afghans, including children, in cold blood.
Atrocities included the murder of two 14-year-old boys, who had their throats slit by Australian troops and subsequently had their bodies bagged up and dumped in a river.
The report further describes a ‘cover-up’ culture, in which allegations of atrocities were routinely ignored by higher-ups.
Australian media outlets learnt of the abuses when an army lawyer, David McBride, leaked details of murders committed by 25 Australian soldiers to the media. McBridge had tried to flag up the war crimes to the military hierarchy to no avail before going public.
However, for all his efforts in bringing the case to light, McBridge faces a lengthy jail term for charges, including ‘unauthorised disclosure of material’ to journalists.
Rights groups, such as Human Rights Watch (HRW), say that McBride's prosecution will deter others from coming forward with information about war crimes committed by the Australian armed forces.
“David McBride is a brave whistleblower who drew attention to hideous abuses after his superiors failed to respond to his concerns,” said Elain Pearson, HRW’s Australia director.
“His whistleblowing has been vindicated by this report and his continued prosecution is a chilling warning to others who may wish to come forward.” Pearson added.
The road to justice
The Australian military’s top brass believe it will take years to bring all those implicated in the atrocities to trial.
Nevertheless, Australia’s Prime Minister has promised Afghan President Ashraf Ghani that those responsible for the murders will be brought to account but many believe the wider military and political culture that led to the atrocities needs to also be in the dock.
In his response to the report, former Prime Minister Kevin Rudd who was in office when the abuses took place, said that the war crimes were a “betrayal” of the moral code Australians expect its armed forces to abide by.
“These personnel have gravely and unfairly tarnished the reputation of the Australian Defence Force,” he said in a statement, in which he also called on the military to fully cooperate with civilian authorities in attempts to bring those responsible to justice.
Indigenous Australian activist Luke Pearson addressed one common response to the report, which like Rudd’s said the actions of the soldiers were not representative of Australia as a whole.
On Twitter he wrote:
“Another problem with ‘this is not who we are’ is that it’s always from ppl invested in this bull**** nationalistic collective identity stuff to begin with.
“You don’t get to pick and choose your collective responsibilities and limit them solely to celebratory and ideological while distancing yourself and everyone else from the very real horrible s*** that Australia has done and continues to do.”
The academic Randa Abdel Fattah wrote that the behaviour of the Australian soldiers was not the work of ‘bad apples’, and could not be extricated from the wider issues of white supremacy and western militarism.
“Anybody half conscious since 2001 will have witnessed the political & media dehumanisation of Afghans as enemies, terrorists, disposable. Where's the surprise in all this? THIS is who White Australia is. Not an aberration, but war crimes two decades in the training.” Abdel Fattah wrote.
Concern about the behaviour and political extremism of Australian forces in Afghanistan are long standing.
In 2018, an investigation by the Australian Broadcasting Corporation (ABC) revealed photographs of Australian soldiers mounting Nazi flags to their vehicles, which were dated to 2007.
In a later report in 2020, the same broadcaster revealed photographs dated to 2012 showing soldiers posing with the Confederate flag, another far-right symbol, while smiling.