Australian soldiers ‘thrown under the bus’ over alleged Afghanistan war crimes, SAS body says

australian soldiers ‘thrown under the bus’ over alleged afghanistan war crimes, sas body says

Australian Defence Force and Special Air Services (SAS) in Afghanistan exhibit at the Australian War Memorial. A new report says senior officers must take responsibility for alleged war crimes. Photograph: Mick Tasikas/AAP

Australian soldiers and junior officers were thrown “under the bus” by generals and politicians over allegations of war crimes in Afghanistan, a body representing Australia’s SAS has said in the wake of an excoriating report that found “more senior officers have to take some level of responsibility”.

The chair of the Australian SAS Association, Martin Hamilton-Smith, said veterans were comforted that “finally” an investigative body set up to look at the allegations emerging from the Afghan conflict “was pointing the finger at the ministers and generals who designed the war, and sent our people to fight it”.

He welcomed the release of an oversight panel report that found Australian veterans carried “ongoing anger and bitter resentment” towards senior military officers who failed to accept responsibility for war crimes allegedly committed by special forces troops.

An earlier inquiry – conducted for the Inspector General of the Australian Defence Force by Maj Gen Paul Brereton – found “credible information” to implicate 25 current or former personnel in the alleged unlawful killing of 39 individuals and the cruel treatment of two others in Afghanistan between 2005 and 2016.

But Brereton’s 2020 report did not sanction senior commanders, frustrating former and current serving personnel.

The Afghanistan Inquiry Implementation Oversight Panel, led by former intelligence watchdog Vivienne Thom, has revisited that finding. In the newly released report, the panel said it “did not agree with the Brereton inquiry’s view that some accountability and responsibility could not fall on the most senior officers”.

The report was delivered to the defence minister, Richard Marles, six months ago, but was only made public on Wednesday. That occurred after the former army lawyer and whistleblower David McBride was jailed for his role in stealing secret defence documents about the Afghanistan war and leaking them to the media.

“More senior officers have to take some level of responsibility for what goes wrong in their organisation or at least for any circumstances or policies that permitted or facilitated it,” the panel report said. “If no one at an appropriate level of authority knew anything about the misconduct, that is an organisational failure in itself.”

The panel’s 114-page report said there was an “unmet need” in defence for senior leadership to explain to serving soldiers and veterans “that they collectively accept organisational responsibility and accountability for part of what went wrong in Afghanistan”.

“There is ongoing anger and bitter resentment amongst present and former members of the special forces, many of whom served with distinction in Afghanistan, that their senior officers have not publicly accepted some responsibility for policies or decisions that contributed to the misconduct such as the overuse of special forces,” the panel said.

The report said the resentment would “likely last for a long time”.

Hamilton-Smith, of the Australian SAS Association, welcomed the report but was critical of successive governments’ handling of the allegations until now.

“Throwing corporals, sergeants and junior officers under the bus when things allegedly go wrong is not a good look for the generals and politicians who send them to war,” Hamilton-Smith said.

“Afghanistan was one of the most difficult conflicts imaginable. Our people didn’t know who the enemy was: the farmer by day could be a Taliban terrorist by night.

“Our people were faced by terrible gut-wrenching decisions; people were killed and others were savagely wounded; people buried their friends. And the politicians and generals who sent them to fight took no responsibility whatsoever for events on the ground.”

Hamilton-Smith said until “due process” had been completed in regards to the allegations against Australian special forces troops, they remained only allegations.

“These matters have been handled as thought the accusations had already been proven true: a presumption of guilt not innocence, because of the way this has been handled by the generals and the politicians.”

The chief of the ADF, Angus Campbell, provided advice to Marles on 15 May last year about the issue of command accountability, including the possibility for senior commanders to be stripped of honours and awards.

Guardian Australia asked Marles last month why it was taking so long to make a decision about command accountability.

Marles said the Brereton report was “a hugely significant piece of work in response to appalling allegations” but he refused to put a timeframe on it.

“Timing in respect of that is not as important as thoroughness and getting those decisions right, so that is what I am focused on,” Marles told the National Press Club last month.

“But we will get it done, because history will judge us on the extent to which we follow through on Brereton, and we mean to do that fully.”

On Thursday a spokesperson for Marles responded to the oversight panel’s final report by saying “work remains ongoing to address the issues” that it identified.

“The government will have more to say about this in coming months,” the spokesperson said.

Government sources argued that ADF leadership had taken responsibility for the failings that led to the events detailed in the Brereton report, including through Campbell’s appearance at the final hearings of the royal commission into defence and veteran suicide.

“I stood up in front of our nation and took absolute responsibility and apologised to Australia, to all those defence personnel who were affected and to those in Afghanistan who may be affected by the credible information of allegations of unlawful conduct that Justice Brereton identified,” Campbell told the royal commission in late March.

One former SAS soldier, former trooper Oliver Schulz, has been charged with the war crime of murder over the death of a man named Dad Mohammed in May 2012, in Afghanistan’s Uruzgan province. Schulz’s charge was certified in a Sydney court this week.

More charges against special forces troops are expected, and the Office of the Special Investigator is continuing investigations.

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