MELBOURNE - The findings of a four-year military inquiry paint a brutal picture of an Australian special forces culture of rewarding the killing of innocents and prisoners and methodically covering it up, according to the New York Times.
They were the elite of the elite among Australian soldiers, with a record of daring raids in Afghanistan. But a twisted and extreme warrior culture was being instilled, driving the commandos to glorify atrocity as they waged a methodical campaign to kill helpless Afghans and cover it up.
Commanders ordered junior soldiers to execute prisoners so they could record their first “kill.” Adolescents, farmers and other noncombatants were shot dead in circumstances clearly outside the heat of battle. Superior officers created such a godlike aura around themselves that troops dared not question them, even as 39 Afghans were unlawfully killed.
These are among the findings of battlefield misconduct, released on Thursday in a public accounting by the Australian military — a rare admission of abuses that often remain hidden during war.
The four-year examination by the inspector general of the Australian Defense Force is groundbreaking in its scope. It is the first time that a member of the American-led coalition in Afghanistan has so publicly, and at such a large scale, accused its troops of wrongdoing.
The inspector general’s inquiry, which examined the period from 2005 to 2016, stopped short of calling the killings war crimes. But the highly redacted report singles out “possibly the most disgraceful episode in Australia’s military history,” and calls for the criminal investigation of 19 soldiers.
The country’s military chief, Gen. Angus Campbell, said he accepted the findings and would eliminate an elite unit at the center of the investigation. The report also recommends that the Australian government pay compensation to the families of the Afghan victims.
Australia’s military reckoning presents a stark contrast to how the United States has examined its own actions in Afghanistan and Iraq.
Mr. Trump recently pardoned three service members for war crimes and other unlawful acts. His administration has tried to block the work of an international investigator examining allegations of war crimes. And while there has been no small number of accusations of battlefield atrocities by U.S. service members, few have resulted in formal investigations, with American military officials portraying any such misconduct as rare.
U.S. investigations, when they have occurred, have generally centered not on entire units, but on individuals like Staff Sgt. Robert Bales, who pleaded guilty to killing 16 civilians and is serving life in prison without parole. The focus on individuals has allowed special operations groups like the one at the center of the Australian report to avoid broader scrutiny.
The Australian defense ministry, by contrast, went so far as to terminate the 2nd Squadron of the Army’s Special Air Service Regiment, a decision akin to disbanding a component of an elite American commando unit such as SEAL Team 6 or Delta Force.
Australia, a military ally of the United States for over a century, first joined American troops in Afghanistan shortly after they arrived in late 2001. Over the years that followed, more than 26,000 Australians have served in the country, including 3,000 special operations forces. The last combat troops left in late 2013, though several hundred support personnel remained.
Public awareness of potential abuses first emerged in 2017, when the Australian Broadcasting Corporation published allegations of unlawful killings of unarmed Afghan men and children after receiving hundreds of leaked Defense Force documents. This later prompted a raid on the office of the national broadcaster by the federal police and a failed attempt to prosecute the journalist who wrote the article.
The report released on Thursday documents a wide range of misconduct that the country’s defense chief called the product of a “distorted culture” in which “much of the good order and discipline of military life fell away.”