After almost two decades of the Australian Defence Force’s involvement in Afghanistan, it takes something major for the crisis there to warrant national attention. Streaks of deadly car bombings and rocket strikes rarely register. Most don’t bat an eyelid at the new normalisation of relations with the Taliban and their sinister return to global prominence. Just recently, 22 promising scholars were slain during a shooting at Kabul University, where my own father studied some 40 years ago. Within hours, the news cycle had shifted elsewhere.
However, a damning report alleging that 39 Afghans were slain mercilessly by ADF soldiers was released on Thursday, after a four-year long investigation by Maj Gen Justice Paul Brereton. It found that all of the victims were non-combatants, including farmers, prisoners and children. Junior ADF soldiers were allegedly instructed by their superiors to enact executions in cold blood as part of a ‘blooding’ process to give them their first kill. Weapons and radios were placed on dead bodies to cover up the war crimes. According to the report, there was an air of competitiveness to killing Afghans, as though their murders were akin to sport or a video game.
None among those slain were ever formally charged with crimes and none were killed in the heat of the battle. Their thoughtless killing suggests the ADF had no fear of repercussions and no legitimate precedent to think they might ever be held accountable. The legal treatise of innocent until proven guilty, as the report lays out, has never been seen to apply to Afghans, who are the disposable casualties of Australia’s ego and entitlement abroad.
The report is extraordinary because, for the first time in the history of Australia’s longest war, there is finally some effort to address the bloodthirsty culture of ADF soldiers and the impunity with which Afghan death is treated. The report’s 143 recommendations, if implemented, would see a total of 25 perpetrators put on trial. That is more than six percent of the roughly 400 ADF soldiers currently stationed in Afghanistan.
Yet I was particularly struck by the statement released soon after the report by Defence Personnel minister Darren Chester in an appeal to the Australian public: ‘We must not allow the alleged actions of a relatively small number to stain the reputations of thousands who serve today, and the broader veteran community.’
Chester’s disregard for the structural problem underpinning the Brereton report employs the same ‘bad apples’ logic that excuses anti-Black police in racialised murders. There is a seeming amnesia to the fact that Australia provided one of the four most substantial combat force contingents during the 2003 invasion of Iraq, a bungled military operation that laid the seeds, and power vacuum, for ISIS to develop.
The government and large swaths of the media yet again seemed to be squandering the opportunity for a national reckoning. But what hit hardest was the addendum to articles about the report from The Age and The Guardian. At the bottom of the page, both outlets listed 24-hour support and counselling hotlines for members of the Australian Defence Force and their families.
It mortifies me that the emotional impact of this report centres veterans, although it is unsurprising given how often this ‘bad apples’ framing occludes the extent of national complicity. Perhaps these war crimes in Afghanistan are not an exceptional lapse in judgement, but the very character of Australia on display in full focus. Even through such senseless violence, many are quicker to take a defensive position on behalf of bloodthirsty war criminals than consider the large population of Afghans who have settled in Australia as refugees since the Soviet invasion.
When pressed, there remains an inability for Australia to truly consider itself a home for Muslims and, in this context, Afghans, despite the total number of Afghan-born Australian residents today having reached fifty thousand. Descendents of those refugees who still identify ethnically as Afghan, like myself, increase the number of that population substantially.
These findings mirror the same culture of impunity among other allied soldiers in Afghanistan. Just last year, forty innocent pine nut farmers were killed in a strategic US drone strike that mistook them for combatants. In Britain, the High Court is currently considering whether the UK failed to properly investigate allegations of unlawful killings of Afghans by UK Special Forces.
There is a common effort to separate Australia’s culpability in war crimes from more overtly brutalising world empires like the US and the UK. It is precisely this wilful ignorance that makes accountability impossible. The reputation of the ADF is long-stained. What remains salvageable is our ability to scrutinise and eliminate the conditions that yielded those abuses of power.