On September 27, the Australian Director of Military Prosecutions announced that charges were being laid against three soldiers from Australia’s Special Operations Task Group in Afghanistan.
The charges were over the February 12, 2009, killing of two adults and four children near the village of Sarmorghab in Oruzgan province.
One of the adults killed was a civilian and the status of the other is disputed. One of the three accused soldiers will be court martialled for manslaughter. All three face charges of dangerous conduct, failing to comply with a lawful general order and prejudicial conduct.
Also on September 27, pre-trial testimony opened for the first of 12 US soldiers facing court martial for charges that include unprovoked killing of civilians, dismembering corpses and taking body parts as souvenirs.
This is not the first time US soldiers in Afghanistan have mutilated the corpses of their victims. In February, after killing five civilians — three women and two men — in a bungled raid in the village of Khataba, Paktia province, US soldiers used knives to carve the bullets from the female victims’ corpses.
The US military hierarchy then claimed the female victims had been murdered by the male victims in an “honour killing” before the US troops arrived, the March 15 London Times said.
As horrific as such atrocities are, they are not exceptions. They reflect daily atrocities against civilians in Afghanistan, where unknown thousands have been killed.
Two of the Australians charged over the 2009 killings, whose names have not been revealed, issued a statement on September 27, through their lawyers, denying the charges.
The soldiers claimed they were chasing a Taliban insurgent who fled into a house from which he opened fire with an assault rifle. They said they were unaware civilians were inside when they returned fire with rifles and grenades, killing the alleged insurgent and the other five victims.
At the time of the killings, pro-occupation Afghan authorities said all the dead were civilians. The September 30 Australian speculated that “the Australians might have gone to the wrong house and the [alleged insurgent] could have opened fire in the belief he was fending off intruders”.
Civilians routinely possess weapons in rural Afghanistan.
A serving “senior commando officer” interviewed on ABC radio’s AM on September 30, backed up the soldiers’ story and said military personnel were “incensed” and “dismayed” by the charges.
Opposition defence spokesperson David Johnston also “expressed disappointment that the soldiers have been charged”.
The September 30 Sydney Morning Herald said a “spokeswoman for the International Criminal Court” confirmed the ICC had been investigating the Sarmorghab killings, but that their interest would end with Australian authorities laying charges.
Whatever the truth of the incident, the fact that civilians, including children, are frequently killed by occupation forces reveals the brutal nature of the war. It reveals it is not being waged in the interests of the Afghan people.
Responsibility for such deaths must be shared with the politicians who sent these soldiers to help occupy another nation and the military chiefs who give the orders.
No foreign soldier, deliberately or mistakenly, could kill an Afghan child if no foreign soldiers were waging war in their country.
The Liberal-National opposition, however, has argued Australian forces in Afghanistan are under-resourced.
On September 29, Johnston proposed boosting the 1550-strong Australian contingent by 360 soldiers “as well as sending Tiger helicopters, Abrams tanks, mortars and artillery”, the October 1 SMH said.
The call for increasing Australian involvement in the US-led Afghan war comes after dramatic rise in the numbers of Australian solders killed. Up until June, the number of Australian soldiers killed in Afghanistan since the October 2001 invasion was 11. Since June it has risen to 21.
This increase is only a small part of a rise in casualties for the occupying force, which is a direct result of US President Barack Obama’s “surge”.
Prime Minister Julia Gillard’s minority ALP government is dependent on the support of the Greens and independent MP Andrew Wilkie, who share most Australians’ opposition to the war. As a result, the war is on the agenda to be debated in parliament for the first time.
In his September 30 maiden speech to parliament, Wilkie said: “That we must stay in Afghanistan to protect Australia from terrorism is a great lie peddled by both the government and the opposition … In short, there can be no hope of enduring peace until foreign troops are withdrawn.
“No one should be fooled”, Wilkie said, “by the periodic Australian government efforts to tinker around the edges with Australia's commitment to Afghanistan. The reality is that the best plan the Australian government can come up with so far is simply to continue to support whatever the US government comes up with.
“And that alone is no plan — it’s just reinforcing failure.”
It is telling that the three Australian soldiers facing court martial may have acted within the “rules of engagement” despite killing four children.
All criminal charges laid against the occupation forces in Afghanistan have involved ground troops in close range killing. However, most Afghan civilians killed by the US-led forces have been killed in air strikes.
US investigative reporter Bob Woodward’s new book, Obama’s Wars, reveals that the CIA runs a 3000-strong Afghan paramilitary force. Erica Gaston wrote in the September 29 Huffington Post: “As a human rights researcher in Afghanistan for the last two years, I have found that some of the worst behaviour toward civilians comes from these CIA paramilitary forces.
“Civilians described how these groups, often called ‘campaign forces’, used disproportionate and indiscriminate force, throwing grenades or firing into homes without provocation during night-time house raids.
“Those who were detained by these paramilitary forces described being beaten, gun-butted, or otherwise abused.”
After the 2004 revelations of prisoner abuse by US forces at Abu Ghraib in Iraq, low-ranking soldiers were charges and jailed for carrying out orders. Some of these soldiers appeared to have enjoyed their sadistic instructions but others who didn’t, and helped expose the abuse, were also jailed.
Those who gave the orders were not investigated and no investigation was made into how far up the chain of command the orders to abuse prisoners went.
The prosecution of individual soldiers for war crimes in Afghanistan will remain an exercise in scapegoating until it is recognised that the entire invasion and occupation is a war crime.
Those most responsible should face trial. That includes the leaders of the nations that have sent military forces to invade and occupy Afghanistan and Iraq.
Gillard, relying on the support of anti-war MPs, has the opportunity to withdraw Australian soldiers from Afghanistan. If she doesn’t, her government will deepen its complicit in a continuing war crime.