The knuckles on my hands quickly turned from brown to pink to white when I first learned of the ‘bombshell’ Brereton Report. The outcome of a four-year long investigation by Maj Gen Justice Paul Brereton, the report lists 23 harrowing instances of innocent Afghans killed by Australian troops stationed in Afghanistan from 2005 to 2016. None of the Afghans murdered died in the heat of the battle. The ‘large number of killings [were] often gloated about’ by Australian forces.
During operations in Afghan villages, a military sociologist was told that it was routine practice for Australian Defence Forces to take men and boys away and interrogate them, which was a guise for their real and more sinister intention: to tie them up and torture them.
One corroborated account reports that members of the highly trained SAS division stopped two 14-year old boys and decided on a hunch they might be Taliban sympathisers. They cut the boys’ throats, then bagged and dumped their bodies in a nearby river. Another account details how an Afghan civilian was shot dead because there was not enough room on a helicopter. In a separate incident, another Afghan man was used as ‘target practice’. He was slain in cold blood with his hands in the air, having thrown away his mobile phone moments before in a last minute bid to prove his innocence to the bloodthirsty Australian soldiers.
As a member of the Afghan-Australian community, it has been common knowledge for many years that innocent civilians are regularly killed without repercussions in Afghanistan and that Australian soldiers are notorious, even among the ranks of American and British troops. Though the number of incidents, perpetrators and victims identified by the Brereton Report are harrowing, I can only wonder about the war crime atrocities that did not get reported and the whistleblowers who remain too intimidated and traumatised to come forward.
Taken collectively, the findings offer significant evidence of what I see as a massacre over time. For more than a decade, ADF soldiers partook in a culture of cruelty and impunity when it came to ending the lives of Afghan civilians and showed no fear of repercussions. The findings by Brereton double down on a previous report released in 2016 and confirm what is common knowledge to many Afghans already: that they can be killed at any moment, for any reason, and any explanation can be devised ad-hoc to absolve the killers of responsibility.
The reported incidents testify to a cultural disposition for unchecked brutality among Australian soldiers in Afghanistan. The findings reveal the damning structural features of the ADF. In fact, the sheer volume of this corroborated evidence suggests the military units in question cannot be reformed. The unjust killing of 39 innocent Afghans is no accident and doesn’t happen due to the immoral decisions of one or two bad apples. The problem runs deeper than that.
Yet, even when pressed under the pressure of the report, General Angus Campbell, the Australian defence chief, declined to dissolve the entire regiment. Instead, he committed to disband the murder-cited SAS 2 squadron and stripped all special forces in Afghanistan of meritorious unit citation. That those special forces were deemed accomplished and meritorious until now is itself an indication of the level of denial among the ADF and their culture of impunity.
Moreover, it is suspicious that the report shows no evidence that members of senior command ever oversaw any of these killings or had any knowledge of them. The current findings, taken at face value, indict only patrol commanders and junior soldiers, but not anyone with any significant power. If senior leadership truly had no idea about the structural and cultural issue among ADF soldiers, they must be held all the more responsible for their ignorance. I should note The West Australian has reported that General Angus Campbell his move to strip all special forces of their meritorious unit citation.
The aftermath of the Brereton Report has seen the entire nation grappling with its shame. Brereton called it ‘the most disgraceful episode in Australia’s military history’ and Campbell apologised to the people of Afghanistan, its leaders and to the Australian people. Prime Minister Scott Morrison and Minister for Foreign Affairs Marise Payne separately contacted the President of Afghanistan, Ashraf Ghani, to apologise. Ghani’s graceful acceptance of the apologies from Australia provides useful insight into precisely how oppressed communities are generally expected to acquiesce to our own slaughter. Though the ADF entered Afghanistan in 2002 with the intention of efficiently training Afghan troops, they are still there almost 20 years later.
Ghani’s grace is not one I share. I was mortified when I read the report and I am mortified now. I wrote a blog post for Meanjin about my horror and the nationalist backlash it received reveals a uniquely Australian practice of denialism. This has devastating consequences for any hopes for accountability. In the blog, I noted that support hotlines for ADF veterans and their families were shared alongside articles about the Brereton Report. No such resources were shared for Afghans and their families, as though the emotional impact of the war crimes and loss of Afghan life were a necessary casualty in the ADF’s process of finally attempting reform.
The population of Afghan-Australians, some 50,000 or more, have been erased in this coverage, further emphasising the disposability with which we are treated here and abroad. It is this very disposability that feeds into the culture of war crimes among ADF soldiers. My humble attempt to centre the innocent victims of the Brereton Report was met with a spate of hate baiting attack articles in the Daily Telegraph and the Daily Mail. Much of the rhetoric, including a claim that I was ‘driven by an animosity towards the Australian way of life’, is much the same that other people of colour have endured for daring to speak out publicly on injustice.
The targeted reporting of my blog post as ‘unAustralian’ led to dozens of death threats flooding my inboxes. Suddenly, I was being told to go back to where I’d come from or else. White men detailed the dismemberment I deserved for daring to write critically about ‘Aussie diggers’. One stranger’s profanity-laced email chastised me for being ungrateful to Australia for accepting my family as refugees and said the Taliban should’ve killed me for my queer sexuality and gender.
What these defensive messages reveal is the strong and vocal contingent of Australians still deeply mired in denial. Many are convinced of our country’s inherent goodness. Many wrongly believe Australia can do no harm and that no harm has ever been done in our name. It would be remiss of me to suggest that all Australians feel this way, however, failing to reckon with our nation’s savage history is a crucial impediment to repair. These are not the first war crimes committed under an Australian flag and, if all legitimate criticism of the patriotic power structures that made them possible are shot down, they will not be the last.
Bobuq Sayed is a writer, editor and artist of the Afghan diaspora. They tweet @bobuqsayed.