Australia’s Afghanistan War Crimes: A Case of Old Habits Die Hard?

Picture of Aussie soldier gulping beer from ‘prosthetic leg of dead Taliban fighter’

Every time you start to believe that West is your model of morality, you get a jolt.

Recent revelations of horrific war crimes committed by the Australian soldiers in Afghanistan where innocent men, women and children were deliberately and gruesomely killed are a rude reminder that West’s claim to morality is not just outright falsehood, their colonial habits of abuse with impunity linger till today.

The Aussie soldiers that killed Afghan civilians seem to have treated their unfortunate victims as games and killed them at will and with such glee, that these remind white Australia’s massacre and decimation of its Aboriginals, a century or two ago.

Several media reports including an investigation by the Australia Army  have reported that a small group of “Australian special forces were allegedly involved in the murder of 39 Afghan civilians and in some cases executing prisoners to “blood” junior soldiers before inventing cover stories and planting weapons on corpses”.

Maj Gen Justice Paul Brereton of Australian Army who investigated the allegations found horrific cases of cold blooded murders that include, “….slitting throats, gloating about their actions, keeping kill counts, and photographing bodies with planted phones and weapons to justify their actions.”

Lately, photographs of Australian special forces soldiers including some senior officers who are still in the service that show them, “…chugging beer out of the prosthetic leg of a dead Taliban soldier at an unauthorised bar in Afghanistan” reveals a behavioural pattern which is both vile and sick which goes against the very spirit of their so-called fight against terror in a country where disrespect to the dead and consumption of alcohol is treated with utter contempt. The fact that “the practice was widely tolerated by officers at high levels and even involved some of them“ has made these crimes even more despicable.

Furthermore, what makes these barbaric acts particularly disturbing is that “None of the killings took place in the heat of battle” meaning that these have occurred completely unprovoked, in cold blood.

However, the good news is that the Australian government has taken the allegations seriously and responded with a probe though it is also important to note that the investigation has been ordered only after a brave and a principled investigative journalist reported these crimes, who also reported that these have occurred under the very nose of the authority who were expected to have prevented these from happening. Sadly, the institution that either tolerated or looked the other way, seem to have escaped justice, so far.

Dr Samantha Crompvoets – the military sociologist whose early internal report unearthed these horrendous crimes and prompted the Brereton inquiry is perplexed, “how anyone who read the report could come to the view that collective accountability was not needed.”

In this regard, a bigger issue that must also be probed concerns the briefings the soldiers received at the time they were sent to Afghanistan, a country where “enemy” is indistinguishable from the civilians and where people are racially and religiously different and where the objective of the mission was to “win the hearts and minds of the locals.” It would also be important to find out whether their pre-mission briefings included orientation in war crimes and the consequences of harming of civilians or whether the soldiers were given free hand to do whatever they liked to “defend Australia and its democracy”?

The brazen manner the offending soldiers have acted demonstrate that empathy and respect for civilians have been the last thing on their agenda nor does it appear they bothered much about accountability. Another issue that seems to have also been overlooked in the investigation is the issue of white Australia’s racial attitudes (some of us may deny this but this exists) and how these might have affected the behaviour of the soldiers in a country which is racially and culturally not just alien but to some, “primitive”, an ascription that dehumanizes human beings meriting contempt.

The issue of race is important because Australia’s racist history is deep and long and even though in recent times it has made considerable progress in overcoming some of the prejudices the ugly nature of the Afghan crimes and the arrogance and impunity with which these have been committed reveal a pattern where race might have also played a key role and thus warrants investigation. Furthermore, the fact that the government is refusing and/or dithering to make the institution in charge accountable, is a testimony of a mindset that Maj. Gen. Paul Brereton, the Principal Investigating Officer thinks is symptomatic of “….deep and systemic cultural problem.”

Afghanistan war crimes have put Australia in a difficult moral position especially at a time when its relations with China, its principal trading partner and a major contributor to its economic growth is at its worst. Furthermore,  these revelations have also come at a time when Australia is desperately looking for allies in the region. Afghanistan war crimes have certainly dented Australia’s moral authority to forge the tie with confidence.

China in the meantime has jumped on the Afghan crimes and responded distastefully pushing in the wake, its bilateral relations with its largest trading partner at its lowest ever. This is unfortunate.

We are in the middle of a pandemic and facing numerous challenges. This is not the time to heighten tensions. Everyone in Australia especially government needs to calm down and think maturely and seek solutions that are not just permanent but transformational and address behavioural issues not just within the ADF but in the larger society as well. They may take some lessons from Japan – one of the main reasons why Japanese stay so calm under pressure is because values of humility, tolerance and mutual respect are taught at schools where arrogance is admonished.

In this regard, another related issue that Australia may also like to deal with, an issue that also entails war crimes at times, is whether it is in Australia’s best interest to join every one of America’s wars that have almost always been conducted without legitimate international authority and waged almost always against people of other races, revealing patterns that are decidedly illegitimate and immoral and where “enemies” are almost always non-whites!

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The author is an academic and former senior policy manager of the United Nations

The article was published in Countercurrents on 3 December 2020

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