War crimes in Afghanistan: Don’t fall for diversions

December 4, 2020
Australian soldiers, part of the US-NATO occupation force, train Afghan nationals. Photo: Wikimedia Commons CC BY-SA 2.0

Until just a few days ago, the Australian government was still reeling from the public findings of the long-awaited Brereton report investigating Australian special forces war crimes in Afghanistan. Before the report was released on November 19, Prime Minister Scott Morrison vowed it would be taken seriously, and after the report came out he apologised to the government of Afghanistan.

But now Morrison seems to be changing tack, exploiting a tweet by a Chinese foreign ministry official of a fabricated image of one of the exposed war crimes (the slitting of the throats of Afghan civilian youths by Australian special forces) to whip up a nationalism-charged diversion focused on “China versus Australia”.

The image is fake, but it depicted war crimes that are not fake. The throat-slitting was among the 39 illegal killings of civilians and prisoners by (or at the instruction of) members of the Australian Special Air Service Regiment (SAS) that were exposed by the Brereton inquiry. Some of these killings involved brutal torture and all these crimes were subsequently covered up by Australian Defence Force personnel.

Morrison might hope that his disproportionate outrage at the tweet might help minimise the action his government takes in response to the inquiry.

The Chief of Defence, General Angus Campbell, insists that the report’s recommendations need to be acted upon, including that the victims’ families be compensated financially. He also said the Special Operations Task Group responsible for criminal acts between 2007 and 2013 needs to be stripped of its Meritorious Unit Citation.

Morrison, however, baulked at the report’s recommendation of compensation to the victims’ families and publicly questioned removing the award. Not all 3000 SAS troops had committed a “crime”, he said, a sentiment echoed by Labor MP and former commando Luke Gosling, who said it would be “cruel” to strip the honour from those who had not “done anything wrong”.

Even the Chief of Defence realises that something dramatic has to be done in response to the inquiry if the Australian military is to retain some public legitimacy.

Morrison, on the other hand, may be underestimating the public disillusionment that has grown over the war in Afghanistan.

In 2001, much of the public was persuaded that the 9/11 terror attacks on the United States justified invading and occupying Afghanistan. But nearly two decades later, the war is still dragging on and the invasion hasn’t brought democracy and women’s rights to that country, let alone ended terrorism.

The idea — once echoed by Labor PM Kevin Rudd — that Afghanistan was the “good” war, as opposed to the “bad” war in Iraq, no longer has traction. The exposure of numerous war crimes by Australian and other invading armed forces, first by WikiLeaks and other media and only years later officially confirmed, were the nails in the coffin of the myth of the “good war” in Afghanistan.

The Brereton inquiry reveals that even the troops sent to Afghanistan had long seen through this myth.

Australia’s active combat troops were withdrawn from Afghanistan in December 2013, but approximately 400 remain as “trainers” and “advisers”, stationed in Kandahar and Kabul, under NATO command.

Australia’s military and training presence in Afghanistan must end completely because it provides political legitimacy to the US-NATO-led occupation and helps prop up the rule of corrupt warlords. In doing so, it undermines the democratic movement for self-determination and democracy in Afghanistan.

Australian special forces units must be disbanded before they commit more war crimes or train other militaries in other countries, such as Indonesia, to commit war crimes.

Afghanistan has been devastated by this war. Millions of Afghans have become refugees or internally displaced. There is still no proper count of Afghan casualties. Australia has a moral obligation to pay reparations, but under the governance of civil society groups, not the corrupt puppet government that the invaders set up.

The war apologists are pushing back, including calling for Campbell to be sacked. However, the report is out, including with SAS personnel on record as witnesses to war crimes.

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