New evidence of more Australian special forces’ war crimes in Afghanistan

By Mike Head
11 June 2018

Yesterday, in an attempt at damage control, the Australian government belatedly revealed the existence of a third closed-door inquiry into alleged war crimes by the Special Air Services (SAS) and other military special forces personnel in Afghanistan.

After a Fairfax Media investigation reported over the weekend a new series of killings by Australian commandos, the Defence Department announced that earlier this year, military chiefs commissioned David Irvine, a former director-general of security, to conduct an “independent assessment.”

This is the latest manoeuvre in years of official cover-up, seeking to cloak the barbaric character of the ongoing, 17-year US-led invasion and occupation of the impoverished country.

Far from being the conduct of a few “bad apples” or “rogue elements,” there is mounting evidence of endemic abuses of Afghani civilians, reflecting the nature of the war itself.

The Afghanistan war necessarily involves brutal killings of civilians, because most of the population are suspected of opposing the US and its allies. Such wars require the recruitment and training of soldiers to become “elite” hardened killers.

The crisis surrounding the SAS began last Friday, when the Fairfax journalists, Nick McKenzie and Chris Masters, reported some contents of a 2016 confidential inquiry, which concluded that special forces members committed war crimes in Afghanistan.

Yet another probe has been underway since May 2016, headed by New South Wales Supreme Court Justice Paul Brereton, who is a major-general in the Army Reserve, on behalf of the Inspector General of the Australian Defence Force.

None of these inquiries, each conducted by a figure within, or close to, the military-intelligence apparatus, can be regarded as “independent.” Irvine led the secretive overseas spy agency, the Australian Secret Intelligence Service (ASIS) from 2003 to 2009, then ran the domestic surveillance force, the Australian Security Intelligence Organisation (ASIO) from 2009 to 2014.

Among the latest cases reported by Fairfax Media, each backed by eye-witnesses, are the following:

* A SAS trooper on his first deployment to Afghanistan in 2009 was pressured by higher-ranking soldiers to execute an elderly, unarmed detainee as part of a “blooding” ritual.

* On the same mission, a man with a prosthetic leg was killed by machine-gun fire. His plastic leg was souvenired and taken back to SAS headquarters in Perth to be used as a novelty beer-drinking vessel.

* In September 2012, an SAS commando killed handcuffed detainee Ali Jan by kicking him off the edge of a cliff near the village of Darwan.

These revelations came on top of the leaked inquiry report, written by Defence Department consultant Dr Samantha Crompvoets. Her report pointed to the toxic culture, personal degradation and abusive behaviour inevitably produced among the special forces officers and troops sent repeatedly to both Afghanistan and Iraq since 2001.

Crompvoets, an academic whose consulting firm has conducted several reviews for military agencies, reported that during interviews with her, special forces “insiders” confidentially disclosed “unsanctioned and illegal application of violence on operations” that extended to “disregard for human life and dignity.”

One “SOF [special operations forces] insider” told Crompvoets: “I know there were over the last 15 years some horrendous things. Some just disgraceful things happened in Kabul … very bad news, or just inappropriate behaviour, but it was pretty much kept under wraps.”

The consultant said the conduct went “well beyond blowing off steam.” She wrote: “Even more concerning were allusions to behaviour and practices involving abuse of drugs and alcohol, domestic violence, unsanctioned and illegal application of violence on operations … and the perception of a complete lack of accountability at times,” from the military chain of command.

Crompvoets said “others felt there was a deep impediment to change because of the extent to which leaders with SOF backgrounds, highly placed through the SOF and beyond, were compromised by their own participation or complicity in problematic behaviours of the past.”

This indicates systemic cover-ups, implicating successive governments, both Liberal-National and Labor, and high-ranking military officers, some of whom today sit at the top of the armed forces and spy services.

Ex-SAS commanders are prominent throughout the political and military establishment.

Andrew Hastie, who chairs the Joint Parliamentary Committee on Security and Intelligence, is a former SAS officer. So is Duncan Lewis, the current ASIO director-general, whom the previous Labor government appointed as national security adviser in 2008.

Government Senator Jim Molan headed allied military operations in Iraq during 2004-05. A Labor Party MP and ex-minister, Mike Kelly, was a colonel and Director of Army Legal Services, which would have handled complaints against special forces members, before he became a Labor candidate in 2007.

Other ex-SAS commanders include Army chief, General Angus Campbell, who will become the Chief of the Armed Forces next month, and Deputy Chief of Army General Rick Burr.

Crompvoets’ report was commissioned to try to improve the performance of the special forces, and rescue their political reputation. She stated: “The current situation holds inherent risks, not only for sub-optimal delivery of capacity, but potentially for national security and/or strategic/political interests, given the sensitive nature of deployments.”

Nevertheless, the suppression of the report for more than two years confirms an ongoing pattern of cover-up. The journalists, McKenzie and Masters, said previous efforts to obtain the Crompvoets’ report under freedom of information laws had been blocked.

There is a long record of special forces crimes. Internal investigations, in recent conflicts alone, go back to the military intervention in East Timor in 1999.

The Australian Defence Force paid out $120,000 in compensation for incorrectly killed and injured Afghan civilians during 2009–2011 alone, according to an Amsterdam International Law Clinic report. With payments of less than $2,000 per murder, that indicates hundreds of casualties.

The following is a partial list of known cases:

* Last July, the Australian Broadcasting Corporation (ABC) published reports of leaked documents said to cover “at least 10” incidents between 2009 and 2013 in which military investigators summarily cleared soldiers of killing civilians or other war crimes.

One of the incidents occurred in 2013, when troops commanded by Hastie severed the hands of dead alleged Taliban fighters. This followed a training session where soldiers were told such methods could be used for identification purposes.

* In October 2016, special forces sergeant Kevin Frost told the ABC he helped cover up the shooting of a detainee and wanted those involved—including himself—to face trial.

* In May 2013, Stephen Smith, the defence minister in the last Labor government, rejected complaints by Afghan detainees that they were subjected to humiliating public searches of groin and buttocks areas, as well as poor food and cold cells.

* In May 2011, an Australian military court dropped manslaughter charges against two soldiers involved in the killing of five Afghan children during a raid in the southern province of Uruzgan in early 2009. The decision effectively gave Australian forces a green light to kill civilians.

* In October 2008, an inquiry whitewashed an operation that resulted in the mistaken killing of Rozi Khan, the pro-occupation governor of Chora district in Uruzgan province. A SAS death squad stormed the house of an alleged Taliban member to execute him in cold blood, but got the wrong man.

Such crimes are not isolated incidents. They flow from the thoroughly predatory motives of the US-led invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq. The September 11 terrorist attacks on New York and Washington were seized upon as the pretext to take over these countries to secure domination over one of the world’s most strategic and resource-rich regions.

The revelations of war crimes are a warning to workers and youth. The special forces operations are part of preparations for use at home. As well as deployments to overseas neo-colonial wars, the commandos train to suppress domestic unrest, in the name of combatting terrorism.

2-Leaked inquiry: Australian special operators committed war crimes in Afghanistan

By CHAD GARLAND | STARS AND STRIPES Published: June 8, 2018

Elite Australian troops committed “unsanctioned and illegal” violence in Afghanistan with a “disregard for human life,” special operations soldiers told a secret military inquiry, an Australian newspaper reported Friday.

Fairfax Media revealed details of the Australian Defense Department inquiry, including allegations of war crimes, command failures and a lack of accountability from the military chain of command.

A close ally of the United States, Australia has deployed forces to Afghanistan for nearly 17 years. About 270 troops are now in the country as part of NATO’s Resolute Support mission.

The inquiry found problems “deeply embedded in the culture” of Australia’s elite task force in Afghanistan and conduct that went “well beyond blowing off steam.”

The war crimes allegations prompted a separate inspector general’s investigation into special operations activities in Afghanistan between 2001 and 2016, Fairfax reported. That investigation began in May 2016.

Australian Defense Minister Marise Payne said in a statement posted online Friday that special operations troops operate in a “complex, chaotic and very dangerous environment” but vowed that the allegations were being taken seriously and examined independently of the chain of command. She said the government would respond to the recommendations of the IG investigation.

A member of Australia’s Special Operations Task Group provides security during a training validation exercise for Provincial Response Company-Uruzgan in Tarin Kot, Afghanistan, April 27, 2013.
JESSI ANN MCCORMICK/U.S. ARMY

In the past two weeks, Maj. Gen. Paul Brereton, a judge leading the IG inquiry, had questioned more than a dozen elite soldiers, some for up to five hours at a time, Fairfax reported Friday.

“I was blown away by the details he had,” one Special Air Service Regiment member told the newspaper.

The inquiry report leaked to Fairfax describes a host of “serious breaches of trust,” including wastefulness, loss of weapons, poor workplace safety practices and internal rivalries that led to poor coordination between key special operations units.

One informant disclosed the undermining of training events, such as the joint U.S.-Australian Talisman Saber exercise.

More serious concerns included “allusions” to domestic violence, drug and alcohol abuse, as well as the allegations of illegal violence on operations.

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Specifics about the alleged war crimes weren’t disclosed in the media reports, but one special operations “insider” reportedly told investigators there had been “horrendous things” done in the past 15 years.

“Some just disgraceful things happened in Kabul,” the insider was quoted as saying. “Very bad news, or just inappropriate behavior, but it was pretty much kept under wraps.”

Some troops felt senior leaders within the special operations community and beyond “were compromised by their own participation or complicity” in past abuses, creating a “deep impediment to change,” the inquiry found.

Australian media have reported on earlier claims of cover-ups related to Australia’s elite troops, including an Australian Broadcasting Corp. report last summer on the alleged killing of an Afghan boy.

There is a reasonable basis to believe war crimes and crimes against humanity have been committed by many sides over the past 15 years, the prosecutor of the International Criminal Court said in November when requesting permission to investigate alleged crimes in Afghanistan committed by the Taliban, Afghan forces, the U.S. military and the CIA.

Police investigate Ben Roberts-Smith over alleged war crimes

The Australian Federal Police has launched a major investigation into Australia’s most decorated former soldier, Ben Roberts-Smith, over allegations he committed war crimes in Afghanistan.

The AFP began investigating the Victoria Cross recipient in June over his alleged actions while serving with a special forces patrol during Australia’s longest war.

Victoria Cross recipient Ben Roberts-Smith at Remembrance Day commemorations at the Australian War Memorial last month.
Victoria Cross recipient Ben Roberts-Smith at Remembrance Day commemorations at the Australian War Memorial last month.Credit:AAP

In a statement to Fairfax Media sent on Wednesday evening, an AFP spokesperson said: “The Australian Federal Police (AFP) received a referral to investigate allegations of war crimes committed by Australian soldiers during the Afghanistan conflict.”

It is understood that both the Chief of the Defence Force, Lieutenant-General Angus Campbell, and the Inspector-General of the Australian Defence Force, which is conducting its own inquiry, have been briefed on the police referral, though it is unclear if either is the source of it.

The police probe into Mr Roberts-Smith – one of the most secretive investigations in the nation – is the most serious inquiry ever conducted by the police into alleged war crimes. The AFP, which declined to provide any details of its probe citing an ongoing investigation, has jurisdiction to investigate claims of unlawful acts by Australian soldiers serving overseas.

This is the second major inquiry to begin probing the famous former special forces corporal over allegations he committed war crimes in Afghanistan.

Ben Roberts-Smith speaks with Prime Minister Scott Morrison.
Ben Roberts-Smith speaks with Prime Minister Scott Morrison.Credit:Sitthixay Ditthavong

A quasi-judicial investigation launched by the defence Inspector-General in 2016 and led by NSW Court of Appeal Justice Paul Brereton is separately investigating Mr Roberts-Smith along with a small number of other special forces soldiers.

The AFP recently began collecting witness statements from members of the Special Air Service Regiment in Perth after quizzing them about Mr Roberts-Smith, according to defence insiders.

It is understood Mr Roberts-Smith has not yet been interviewed by the AFP, although the agency would not comment on the details of its inquiry. Typically, people of interest in a police inquiry are not interviewed until its later stages.

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Mr Roberts-Smith’s supporters have repeatedly said that, despite reports he is a focus of the Brereton inquiry, he has not been interviewed by its investigators. However, legal sources who occasionally work alongside Mr Roberts-Smith’s legal team said he had recently been liaising with his lawyers and barrister, Arthur Moses SC, in anticipation of being examined by the Brereton Inquiry.

The developments are unprecedented. Never before has such a famous and decorated Australian soldier been the subject of dual inquiries: an alleged war crimes investigation by the nation’s police agency and an Inspector-General inquiry investigating similar allegations.

Since Fairfax Media first detailed serious allegations about Mr Roberts-Smith, he has vehemently denied any wrongdoing in Afghanistan, insisted he has a “spotless record” and insisted those making claims about him are disgruntled or jealous liars.

The AFP inquiry into alleged war crimes moved several months ago from assessment phase, which typically involves police assessing the credibility of allegations prior to assigning investigative resources, to a full-blown inquiry staffed with detectives.

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Fairfax Media is not suggesting that Mr Roberts-Smith is guilty of war crimes, only that he is the subject of two inquiries into allegations raised by fellow soldiers.

The federal police investigation is being conducted by the agency’s offshore and sensitive investigation taskforce under the leadership of Deputy Commissioner Neil Gaughan.

Because war crimes allegations are deemed “politically sensitive matters” by the AFP, the decision to progress any such allegation from assessment phase to inquiry phase involves a painstaking process and referral up the chain of command. In certain cases, the AFP also notifies the Minister for Home Affairs Peter Dutton.

The AFP inquiry is being run out of the agency’s Canberra headquarters, and, in addition, the federal police’s Perth office is running a separate inquiry into threats sent to a serving Special Air Services Regiment sergeant.

Fairfax Media is not suggesting that Mr Roberts-Smith has any involvement with those threats. However, evidence provided by defence sources suggests that the sergeant was threatened because he was rumoured to be assisting the Brereton Inquiry.

Mr Roberts-Smith has vehemently denied any wrongdoing in Afghanistan, insisting he has a ‘spotless record’.

Senior military officials in Canberra were locked out of the federal police probe until recently, with Special Operations Command only briefed on the existence of the inquiry in the past month.

Fairfax Media has confirmed through multiple military sources that both the AFP inquiry and the Brereton inquiry have gathered extensive information from decorated serving and former special forces veterans who served alongside Mr Roberts-Smith in Afghanistan. The Brereton inquiry has interviewed more than 200 witnesses on oath since 2016.

It is unclear if Mr Dutton or Prime Minister Scott Morrison have been briefed on the AFP inquiry into Mr Roberts-Smith, who, over the past five years has been appointed to serve on several federal government Defence committees.

Mr Roberts-Smith is the most highly decorated Afghanistan veteran in the Commonwealth, having received a Victoria Cross and Medal for Gallantry for his actions in Afghanistan in 2006 and 2010. He was appointed by former prime minister Tony Abbott to chair the Australia Day selection panel.

The Director of the Australian War Memorial Brendan Nelson (right) hugs Ben Roberts-Smith.
The Director of the Australian War Memorial Brendan Nelson (right) hugs Ben Roberts-Smith.Credit:AAP

Fairfax Media detailed allegations about Mr Roberts-Smith earlier this year, drawing on more than a dozen special forces insiders. Mr Roberts-Smith responded to the reporting by launching defamation proceedings and claiming no witnesses would back up what he described as malicious and unfounded claims about his behaviour.

Since then, Mr Roberts-Smith has been publicly backed by the director of the Australian War Memorial, Brendan Nelson, and its chairman, media mogul Kerry Stokes. Mr Stokes handpicked Mr Roberts-Smith as a Channel Seven executive after he left defence.

Dr Nelson, a former defence minister, has repeatedly attacked the media reporting and Inspector-General’s inquiry into Mr Roberts-Smith on the basis that it is taking too long and because, “We want to believe in our heroes”.

But Fairfax Media has confirmed from special forces insiders that over a dozen SAS soldiers are assisting the Brereton inquiry. Many believe that scrutiny of allegedly unlawful acts is needed to preserve the integrity of the regiment and are scathing of Dr Nelson’s advocacy, believing it amounts to an attack on soldiers willing to raise concerns about alleged battlefield combat.

Another high-profile supporter of the Brereton inquiry is former SAS officer and Afghanistan veteran Andrew Hastie, who is now a Coalition MP.

Andrew Hastie.
Andrew Hastie.Credit:Trevor Collens

Mr Roberts-Smith has claimed a series of articles published this year in The Age, The Sydney Morning Herald and The Canberra Times are defamatory because they portray him as a war criminal and also allege he punched a woman with whom he had an affair. Mr Roberts-Smith denies all the allegations.

Fairfax does not concede that it made all the claims that are alleged by Mr Roberts-Smith. If the court decides otherwise, however, Fairfax says it can prove the claims are true.

In support of its truth defence, Fairfax alleges Mr Roberts-Smith was involved in six unlawful killings in Afghanistan, including an alleged incident in 2012 in which he is said to have kicked Ali Jan, an unarmed and handcuffed Afghan man, off a cliff before directing a soldier under his command to shoot him.

Mr Roberts-Smith has said the defence filed by Fairfax was “baseless” and “purports to imply” that a list of 17 people, whose names have been redacted in the document, “will be witnesses in support of the Fairfax claims against me”.

Mr Roberts-Smith said he was “confident that witnesses who will be called in this case will say that Fairfax Media’s allegations are untrue”.

Last week, Mr Roberts-Smith issued a fresh statement denying all wrongdoing after the woman who alleges he punched her in the face in March outlined her claims in a sworn affidavit lodged in the Federal Court defamation proceeding launched by the ex-soldier.

The woman told the ACT police about the alleged assault in May, but later told officers she did not want to proceed with a criminal complaint, leading them to cease their inquiry. In the woman’s affidavit, she alleges she withdrew her complaint because she didn’t want her and her family’s identity exposed via any potential prosecution.

ACT Police has said that it ceased its investigation due to “insufficient evidence to support any prosecution.”

Nick McKenzie is an investigative reporter for The Age. He’s won seven Walkley awards and covers politics, business, foreign affairs and defence, human rights issues, the criminal justice system and social affairs.

Australian military probes ‘rumors’ of possible war crimes in Afghanistan

MELBOURNE (Reuters) – Australia’s military watchdog has issued a public plea for information regarding rumors of possible war crimes committed by Australian troops in Afghanistan.

The Australian Broadcasting Corporation reported in July on an alleged cover-up of the killing of an Afghan boy as well as hundreds of pages of leaked defense force documents relating to the secretive operations of the country’s special forces.

On Friday, the Inspector-General of the Australian Defence Force released a statement saying it was conducting an inquiry “into rumors of possible breaches of the Laws of Armed Conflict” by Australian troops in Afghanistan between 2005 and 2016.

“The inquiry would like anyone who has information regarding possible breaches of the Laws of Armed Conflict by Australian forces in Afghanistan, or rumors of them, to contact the inquiry,” the statement read.

Australia is not a member of NATO but is a staunch U.S. ally and has had troops in Afghanistan since 2002.

As recently as May, Australia recommitted to the 16-year-long, seemingly intractable war against the Taliban and other Islamist militants by sending an additional 30 troops to Afghanistan to join the NATO-led training and assistance mission.

That brought Australia’s total Afghan deployment to 300 troops.

Reporting by Joseph Hinchliffe; Editing by Nick Macfie