Australian 'war crimes': Troops to be fired over Afghan killings

Image source, Reuters
Image caption,
The report blamed an unchecked "warrior culture" for the crimes

The Australian Defence Force (ADF) has sent notices of likely dismissal to 13 special forces soldiers following last week's damning report on the murder of 39 Afghan civilians and prisoners.

They are suspected of being accessories or witnesses to the killings, or of being dishonest in testifying.

They are separate from the 19 Special Air Service troops who could face prosecution for the murders.

Australia's prime minister and top military commander have apologised.

Afghanistan called the murders unforgiveable but welcomed last week's report as a step towards justice.

ADF Lieutenant General Rick Burr said the 13 soldiers had two weeks to respond to the notices.

"At this point in time no individuals have been separated from the Australian Defence Force," he told reporters on Friday.

Two soldiers have been sacked already, according to Nine Entertainment newspapers. They are reported to have been witnesses to the killing of an Afghan man in a field, a case that was the subject of a TV investigation.

What did the report find?

The report blamed the murders of "prisoners, farmers or civilians" in 2009-13 on an unchecked "warrior culture" among some soldiers.

It said 25 special forces soldiers had taken part in unlawful killings directly or as "accessories", across 23 separate incidents. It recommended that 36 incidents in total be investigated by federal police.

Australian Defence Force chief Gen Angus Campbell said none of the incidents could be "described as being in the heat of battle".

It also found evidence that:

  • Junior soldiers were told to get their first kill by shooting prisoners, in a practice known as "blooding"
  • Weapons and other items were planted near Afghan bodies to cover up crimes
  • An additional two incidents could constitute a war crime of "cruel treatment"

What happens next?

Prime Minister Scott Morrison has said a special investigator would be appointed to consider prosecutions from information contained in the report.

But police investigations could take years, even before possible criminal trials.

The government said it would also establish an independent oversight panel to provide "accountability and transparency that sits outside of the ADF chain of command".

Australia maintains an operation of around 400 soldiers in Afghanistan as part of ongoing peacekeeping efforts with the US and other allies.

Media caption,
Is peace with the Taliban possible?

Have other countries faced allegations?

Earlier this year, the International Criminal Court (ICC) began investigating alleged war crimes by the US and others in the Afghan conflict.

The actions of the Taliban, the Afghan government and US troops since May 2003 are expected to be examined.

A 2016 report from the ICC said there was a reasonable basis to believe the US military had committed torture at secret detention sites operated by the CIA.

The report also said it was reasonable to believe the Afghan government had tortured prisoners and the Taliban had committed war crimes such as the mass killing of civilians.

In Britain, the High Court is considering whether the UK failed to properly investigate allegations of unlawful killing by UK Special Forces.

And on Thursday, the Afghanistan Independent Human Rights Commission also called for the UK "to open an independent public inquiry to review and investigate the allegations of unlawful killings by UK Special Forces".

Last year, the BBC's Panorama programme revealed that the UK had failed to fully investigate credible evidence of a pattern of illegal killings carried out by British Special Forces.

"The US and UK, and other countries with an armed presence in Afghanistan [should] respond to these media reports, and to investigate their forces' participation, and leadership, of acts of violence against Afghan non-combatants," the AIHRC said in a statement.

Media caption,
British Special Forces have been accused of covering up the killings of four young Afghans in 2012