Afghanistan occupation leads to war crimes

The special forces veteran interviewed spoke of a culture of impunity.
July 14, 2017

Australian special forces routinely commit war crimes in Afghanistan.

Such a conclusion is strongly suggested by hundreds of pages of secret Australian Defence Force documents leaked to the ABC, which were revealed on July 11. 

This followed the July 10 airing on the ABC’s 7.30 of an investigation into the two incidents involving the killing of Afghan children by Australian special forces and their cover-up. The report on 7.30 included testimony of a special forces veteran.

The 7.30 episode focused on two incidents. One was the 2012 killing of 14-year-old Khan Mohammed who was shot by Australian special forces while he was gathering figs, alone and unarmed.

The other was the September 2013 killing of Bismillah Azadi and his son Sadiqullah by Australian special forces in Uruzgan province. They were killed in bed. An inquiry at the time accepted the special forces soldiers' claims that Bismillah Azadi had pointed a pistol at them. However, this was disputed by his cousin Mohammed Masoom who told the ABC that he did not have a gun and was killed in his sleep. 

The leaked documents revealed that such internal inquiries were often conducted by officers who did not visit the scene or interview local witnesses.

Australian Defence Force Investigative Service (ADFIS) staff were first sent to investigate incidents in Afghanistan in 2011 because of growing local complaints about Australian war crimes, the ABC said.

Incidents in which ADFIS ruled Australian special forces acted within rules of engagement include:

• The April 2009 shooting in Jalbay, Uruzgan Province, of three unarmed men who ran and hid from Australian troops. An inquiry admitted no weapons were found and intelligence sources said the men were not insurgents but the victims did not behave like “uninvolved” Afghan civilians, making them likely “associates” of the Taliban.

• The June 2009 ground/air assault on two civilian vehicles in Noy Juy, Mirabad, killing an unknown number of civilians.

• The October 2010 killing of a detainee by an Australian special forces soldier in Zangitan, Kandahar Province, initially passed as a battlefield death until it was investigated by a journalist. The 2012 ADFIS inquiry accepted the Australian soldier's claim that after the interpreter had left the room, the detainee had managed to free himself from handcuffs and grab a conveniently located knife.

• The March 2011 killing of a sick child and his uncle who was taking him back from a medical clinic in Sah Zafar, Chora Valley. While ruling that the pair's Australian killers acted within their rules of engagement, the ADFIS inquiry also attempted to portray the uncle as an insurgent.

• The March 2013 shooting of two civilians on a motorcycle in Uruzgan Province; at least one was killed.

The incidents related in the 7.30 program are being investigated in by the Inspector General of the Australian Defence Force (IGDAF) that is headed by Supreme Court Justice Paul Brereton. The IGADF inquiry is the result of an incident in which ADFIS was not convinced that Australian special forces were acting within their rules of engagement.

This incident, which took place in September 2013 in Patan, Chenartu District, was the shooting of a detainee who had been left alone with an Australian special forces soldier. The special forces soldier's commanding officer refused to hand over the rifle used in the killing to ADFIS for forensic tests, although he eventually did so after the weapon had been used in further operations.

The IGDAF inquiry is secretive but is likely to reveal more atrocities. In October last year special forces sergeant Kevin Frost came forward and said that he thought he should himself be punished for aiding the cover-up of an extra-judicial execution.

Other revelations in the documents include mutilation of enemy corpses.

The special forces veteran interviewed on 7.30 spoke of a culture of impunity leading to “an apparent 'weapons free' mentality, seeking to 'get kills up' in some attempt to glorify themselves amongst their peers”.

“Without doubt this behaviour has led to the deaths of large numbers of innocent civilians during the course of special operations in Afghanistan. Deaths which … serve no strategic or tactical value,” he said.

The culture of impunity included carrying “drop weapons” to plant on killed civilians to “write it off as a legitimate battlefield kill,” he said.

The veteran blamed the culture of impunity on the prosecution for manslaughter of three soldiers for the February 2009 massacre of two adults and four children near the village of Sarmorghab in Oruzgan province. He saw this prosecution as unjust and leading to commanders taking a “protectionist” attitude to their soldiers.

However, this ignores that none of the soldiers stood trial and the prosecution was only initiated to forestall an International Criminal Court investigation.

While both the Afghan media and anti-war media in Australia, have long reported atrocities in Afghanistan, the 7.30 broadcast and the leaked documents have pushed the atrocities and routine cover-ups into the limelight. However, most  commentary also frames the problem as the culture of the special forces.

But that is not the problem. One of Australia's greatest war crimes in Afghanistan was maintaining the reign of terror of local warlord Matiullah Khan. This points to the whole Afghanistan war being the imperialist invasion and occupation of a country, despite being couched in the language of liberation and democracy and fighting terrorism.

War crimes are inevitable with imperialist war. 

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