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The shadow of responsibility: Australian war crimes allegations in Afghanistan

  • 24 November 2020
  In 2016, Australia’s Special Operations Commander, Major General Jeff Sengelman, was troubled enough to concede that, ‘A growing body of actual and anecdotal evidence from the past decade suggests that the personal and professional ethics of some [in the Australian Defence Forces] have been deeply compromised.’ He was particularly concerned by alleged misdeeds allegedly committed ADF personnel in Afghanistan.

The findings of the Inspector-General of the Australian Defence Force Afghanistan Inquiry, a four-year investigation released last week, albeit in heavily redacted form, bore out much of those concerns. Compiled by a team of investigators led by NSW Supreme Court of Appeal Justice Paul Brereton, the inquiry found ‘credible evidence’ that 39 Afghan non-combatants and prisoners were allegedly killed by Australian special forces personnel. These findings involved prisoner executions, the planting of weapons upon the slain victims and cover-ups along the chain of command. Two others were reportedly also treated with cruelty while under the control of Australian personnel. The report recommends the referral of 36 ‘matters’ to the Australian Federal Police for criminal investigation, spanning 23 incidents and the involvement of 19 individuals.

There had been many dress rehearsals prior to the report’s findings to reflect upon the nature of responsibility for such crimes. But after September 11 2001, the cult of Anzac and the elevated standing of Australia’s armed forces became an unimpeachable standard of public service. That such forces might have engaged in acts of cold brutality did not sit well with such ennobling mythology, being, in the words of the ABC’s political editor Andrew Probyn, ‘shaken by a murderous few with maximum firepower and discretion but minimum oversight.’

In view of such a shaking experience, the discussion in Australia as to how such atrocities are to be approached is telling. The call for responsibility has varied by degrees. Most tend to some variant of the rotten apple theory: a few particular fruits that may be isolated and extruded from the barrel. Culpability can thereby be confined, preserving the integrity of other military personnel and, importantly, political decision makers.

Prime Minister Scott Morrison, for instance, is doing his best to limit culpability: these alleged atrocities involved the ‘disturbing and distressing’ conduct of the abominable few. Thinking less of the Afghan victims, his concern has been for the innocent service personnel who have donned military uniform, that they ‘in no way feel reflected upon by the actions alleged of a number, a small number