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Australia finds evidence of war crimes in Afghanistan inquiry

Four-year inquiry began after local media reported special forces had killed unarmed men and children.

Australia said on Thursday that its special forces were suspected of being responsible for 39 unlawful killings in Afghanistan, as it released a long-awaited report into alleged war crimes committed in the South Asian nation.

Australia launched the inquiry in 2016, amid reports from whistle-blowers and in the local media of the alleged killing of unarmed men and children that the government initially tried to suppress.

Detailing the findings, General Angus Campbell, chief of the Defence Force, said the investigation found evidence that members of the Australian special forces had killed prisoners, farmers or other civilians, and offered his unreserved apologies to the people of Afghanistan for any wrongdoing.

The report “found there to be credible information to substantiate 23 incidents of alleged unlawful killing of 39 people by 25 Australian special forces personnel predominantly from the Special Air Service Regiment,” Campbell told reporters.

“These findings allege the most serious breaches of military conduct and professional values,” he said, adding: “The unlawful killing, of civilians and prisoners is never acceptable.”

Some of those allegedly responsible are still serving in the military while others have left the armed forces. The inquiry recommended the 23 incidents, involving 19 individuals, be referred to the police for criminal investigation.

In a letter accompanying the inquiry’s report, James Gaynor, the inspector general of the Australian Defence Force, described the nature and extent of the alleged misconduct as “very confronting”, noting there were additional allegations that members of the Australian military had treated people under their control with cruelty.

“None of these alleged crimes was committed during the heat of battle,” he wrote. “The alleged victims were non-combatants or no longer combatants.”

During the course of the inquiry, New South Wales Supreme Court Judge Paul Brereton and his team interviewed 423 witnesses – some on multiple occasions – and reviewed more than 20,000 documents and 25,000 images.

The team “encountered enormous challenges in eliciting truthful disclosures in the closed, closely-bonded and highly compartmentalised Special Forces community,” the report noted in explaining the length of the inquiry.

‘Blooding’

Large chunks of the 531-page report were redacted because of classified security information or because they contained material that could compromise future criminal proceedings.

The inquiry found the 23 incidents of unlawful killings would be “the war crime of murder” if accepted by a jury, and a further two incidents “the war crime of cruel treatment”. Some incidents involved a single victim, and others, multiple people, and took place between 2009 and 2013.

It also found that weapons had been planted on some of the victims, while junior soldiers were sometimes forced to shoot prisoners for a “first kill” as part of an initiation known as “blooding”.

Large sections of the more than 500-page report were heavily redacted [Lukas Coch/AAP Image via Reuters] The report said that it had probably failed to uncover all wrongdoing that had taken place during the years under investigation, and recommended a mechanism be set up to receive and assess any future allegations of war crimes in Afghanistan.

“We embarked on this inquiry in the hope that we would be able to report that the rumours of war crimes were without substance,” the report said, noting that all but two of the team were serving members of the defence forces. “None of us desired the outcome to which we have come. We are all diminished by it.”

A special investigator, who was appointed last week, will now determine whether there is sufficient evidence to move ahead with the prosecutions.

Prime Minister Scott Morrison last week warned the report would contain “difficult and hard news for Australians”.

The release of the report came after Morrison spoke with Afghan President Ashraf Ghani.

“The Prime Minister of Australia expressed his deepest sorrow over the misconduct by some Australian troops in Afghanistan,” Ghani’s office wrote on Twitter.

Al Jazeera’s Nicola Gage, reporting from Canberra, said that while any criminal cases could take years, the Australian Defence Force is expected to establish a fund to provide compensation to the families of the victims.

An honour guard at Defence Headquarters before the release of the inquiry into alleged war crimes committed by Australia soldiers in Afghanistan [Mick Tsikas AAP Image via Reuters] The Australian military was deployed alongside forces from the United States and other allies in Afghanistan following the September 11, 2001 attacks.

In the years since, a series of often-harrowing reports have emerged about the conduct of its elite special forces units – ranging from a prisoner being shot dead to save space in a helicopter to the killing of a six-year-old child in a house raid.

“Afghans have waited many years for this report to come out. And they shouldn’t have to wait many years for justice,” Elaine Pearson, Australia director at the Human Rights Watch said, calling for “swift and independent prosecutions” for the “deliberate and cold-blooded killings”.

Pearson told Al Jazeera she agreed with Australia’s decision to pursue justice through its courts, rather than the ICC.

“The ICC is a court of last resort. Australia does have the rule of law and so these cases should come to Australian courts. People should be investigated and held to account,” she said from the city of Sydney.

“But unfortunately, the experience from other countries, such as the UK, has not been very positive. We’ve seen cases where investigations have been opened and then shut down due to political interference. And that’s why its really important that [the Australian] office of the special investigator needs to be independent of the military and the politicians and it needs to have adequate resources to carry out its investigations.”

Australia has about 1,500 troops remaining in Afghanistan.

The US is also under investigation for possible war crimes in Afghanistan after the ICC authorised an investigation earlier this year. The court will also look into allegations against Afghan soldiers and Taliban armed fighters.

Four-year inquiry finds special forces soldiers allegedly responsible for 39 unlawful killings, refers cases to police.

Double afghan chunk

U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo attends intra-Afghan peace talks between the Afghan government and Taliban insurgents commenced in the Qatari capital, Doha, on September 12, 2020. /Getty Images

Editor’s note: Hannan Hussain is an assistant researcher at the Islamabad Policy Research Institute (IPRI) and an author. The article reflects the author’s opinions and not necessarily the views of CGTN.

In recent weeks, Taliban insurgents and Afghan security forces have seen an uptick in violence even as negotiators from both sides attempt to break ground on intra-Afghan talks in Doha. Their most recent silver lining is an ideological compromise on the future of post-conflict governance in Afghanistan.

Abdullah Abdullah, chairman of Afghanistan’s High Council for National Reconciliation, stated this week that both sides are on the verge of synthesizing their visions for Islamic rule – one that refuses discrimination against Afghanistan’s disproportionately targeted minorities and sectarian groups.

Abdullah’s revelation underlines the need for a broader power-sharing governance framework in Afghanistan, with concrete support from Washington. U.S. assistance to the Disarmament, Demobilization and Reintegration (DDR) of Taliban combatants can provide a critical base to incentivize the insurgents’ pivot towards peace.

However, a steady decline in Washington’s financial and training support has heightened the risk of losing these incentives, highlighting the need to recalibrate priorities.

The immediate costs of limiting U.S. assistance towards Afghan reintegration goals are reflected in the recent rise of transnational linkages between Taliban fighters and foreign militant groups. As early as May, the United Nations Analytical Support and Sanctions Monitoring Team identified nearly 6,500 new recruits fighting with Afghan-based terrorist groups, backed by further evidence of Al-Qaeda’s support to the Taliban.

These developments run contrary to Washington’s commitment in February that called for a synchronized withdrawal of U.S. troops from Afghanistan, against the Taliban’s commitment to sever its ties with foreign terrorist groups. In the absence of significant U.S. financial assistance to bolster Afghanistan’s post-conflict reintegration, insurgents may find little incentive in relinquishing attacks on Afghan civilians.

Early signs of the Taliban’s recourse to violence are evident in its “two-track” approach to ongoing peace talks. On the one hand, the Taliban have appeared alongside government negotiators to contemplate a long-term ceasefire. On the other, Taliban insurgents have scored double-digit casualty tolls against Afghan civilians and security forces, drifting further away from any tangible U.S.-led disarmament imperative.

The United States’ post-conflict involvement in Syria and Iraq offers lessons for strengthening political stability in Afghanistan. In northeast Syria, Washington has endorsed the use of transitioning militant detention centers, such as the al-Hol camp, home to thousands of suspected foreign fighters tied to the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL).

The scrutiny and oversight of these facilities are delegated to the Syrian Defense Forces, allowing former fighters to question the future of their involvement in violent extremism based on two rationales: new prospects for peaceful reintegration, and increased institutional capacity to monitor participant willingness.

Lessons from U.S.-led North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) operations reveal similar patterns of establishing political stability in Iraq, mainly by endorsing the use of “countering violent extremism (CVE)” initiatives. The focus has been on establishing safe, accountable and effective communication lines between law enforcement entities and suspected extremist fighters.

Participants are seen during the commencement of intra-Afghan peace talks between the Afghan government and Taliban insurgents in the Qatari capital, Doha, on September 12, 2020. /Getty Images

Though limited in scale, these objectives were exercised in conjunction with the Iraqi Army and the Iraqi police between 2004 and 2011. In the presence of sufficient NATO-led peace-building assistance, Iraqi security forces withstood rapid defections among sectarian fighters and facilitated U.S. efforts to drive the ISIL out of Iraqi strongholds.

One explanation for muted U.S. support towards the DDR program in Afghanistan is its mixed result streak from previous initiatives. For 14 years, Washington supported four main Afghan reintegration programs – the Disarmament, Demobilization, and Reintegration program (DDR, 2003–2005); the Disbandment of Illegal Armed Groups program (DIAG, 2005–2011); Program Tahkim-e Sulh (PTS or Strengthening Peace Program, 2005–2011) and the Afghanistan Peace and Reintegration Program (APRP, 2010–2016).

However, government officials have often weighed the success of latter programs against the Taliban’s propensity to go non-violent. This correlation has a fundamental hole.

Washington’s approach to reintegration of Taliban fighters has consistently targeted factions, not localities. A 2019 survey conducted by the Asia Foundation found that a slight majority of Afghan citizens refused to identify the Afghan National Police (ANP) as their primary source of protection.

The immediate beneficiaries of this friction are the Taliban, who capitalize on the lack of U.S. reintegration initiative at the local level, easily exploiting citizen loyalties to consolidate control across countless districts.

Therefore, there is a dire need for Washington to synthesize its support for the Disarmament, Demobilization and Reintegration (DDR) program in Afghanistan with local level Taliban fighters across all factions.

Reviving DDR aid and scaling disarmament efforts nationwide is imperative, given that both the Taliban and the Afghan government demand an arrangement for post-conflict governance during ongoing talks. But they represent two contrasting visions for fulfilling that goal: a strict Islamic theocracy and a democratic republic.

Double afghan chunk U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo attends intra-Afghan peace talks between the Afghan government and Taliban insurgents commenced in the Qatari capital, Doha, on September