MELBOURNE, Australia — Australian troops unlawfully killed 39 civilians and prisoners in Afghanistan over an 11-year period, the country’s military said on Thursday, offering an extraordinary public accounting of abuses that often remain hidden in distant war zones.
The killings were the result of a “distorted culture” and “toxic competitiveness” that took root among some of Australia’s most elite soldiers as they prepared to join American forces in Afghanistan, according to a report by the inspector general of the Australian Defense Force.
It paints a damning portrait of a cavalier and deceitful atmosphere in which commanders ordered junior soldiers to shoot prisoners so that they could record their first “kill,” then invented cover stories to deflect scrutiny.
The inspector general said that all 39 killings, including of adolescents and noncombatants like farmers, had taken place in circumstances that were clearly outside the “heat of battle.” The report stopped short of calling the killings war crimes, but it recommended that 19 soldiers be referred to the police for criminal investigation and that the Australian government pay compensation to the families of the Afghan victims.
Australia’s examination of its troops’ actions is groundbreaking in its scope, the first time that a member of the American-led coalition in Afghanistan has so publicly, and at such a large scale, accused its troops of wrongdoing.
It presents a striking contrast with how the United States has reckoned with its 19 years of war in the country.
President Trump recently pardoned three service members for war crimes and other unlawful acts. And though there have been far more anecdotal reports of battlefield crimes by U.S. service members than those documented by Australia, few have resulted in formal investigations, with American military officials portraying any such misconduct as rare.
U.S. investigations, when they have occurred, have generally centered not on entire units, but on individuals like Staff Sgt. Robert Bales, who pleaded guilty to killing 16 civilians and is serving life in prison without parole. The focus on individuals has allowed special operations groups like the one at the center of the Australian report to avoid broader scrutiny.
The United States has also never gone so far as to eliminate an entire unit implicated in wrongdoing, as Australia announced it will do. The Australian defense ministry’s decision to terminate the 2nd Squadron of the Special Air Service Regiment is akin to disbanding a component of an elite American commando unit such as SEAL Team 6 or Delta Force.
Before the release of the Australian report on Thursday, Prime Minister Scott Morrison called Afghanistan’s government to express his “deepest sorrow” over the troops’ misconduct. On Thursday, the Australian defense chief, Gen. Angus Campbell, who said he accepted the findings of the four-year inquiry, called the episodes described in the report “deeply disturbing” and “unreservedly” apologized to the Afghan people.
“Today, the Australian Defense Force is rightly held to account for allegations of grave misconduct,” he said as he announced the findings.
General Campbell said that a “self-centered warrior culture,” fostered by commanders within the Special Air Service Regiment, had eroded military discipline on the battlefield.
“It’s alleged that some patrols took the law into their own hands, rules were broken, stories concocted, lies told and prisoners killed,” he said. “Those who wished to speak up were allegedly discouraged, intimidated and discredited.”
The report documents a wide range of misconduct among Australia’s special forces. Some members carried weapons or equipment that could be planted on corpses to make them look like legitimate targets. This practice most likely originated from a desire to avoid scrutiny when soldiers killed legitimate but unarmed enemy combatants, but “evolved to be used for the purpose of concealing deliberate unlawful killings,” the report found.
It also presents a scathing assessment of a culture of unquestioning loyalty in the special forces in which superiors were considered “demigods” who could make or break someone’s career. That meant low-ranking soldiers did not question commands, even unlawful ones.
The report placed the most responsibility on a small number of midlevel sergeants and their protégés for instigating and covering up the activities. It suggested that their motives included a desire to outscore other patrols in the number of enemy combatants killed, to clear at all costs the battlefield of people believed to be insurgents and to initiate new soldiers into a brotherhood of combat.
Higher-level commanders bore responsibility for the culture that developed and for the abuse that happened on their watch, but criminal behavior was largely concealed from them, the report said.
John Blaxland, a defense expert at the Australian National University, said that while countries like the United States, Britain and New Zealand had also investigated accusations of unlawful killings, Australia’s inquiry was unprecedented because it addressed more broadly the military hierarchy and the nation’s approach to defense strategy.
“Some countries will probably try to wield this as a diplomatic stick against us, but if they’re honest, they’ll recognize Australia is being searingly tough on itself,” he said, noting that the inquiry had been initiated from within the defense force.
Professor Blaxland said the report’s findings reflected an ill-conceived national policy governing Australia’s involvement in Afghanistan that bred cynicism among some soldiers.
Australia had committed “military forces to open-ended missions without compelling strategy that made an erosion of moral compass possible,” he said.
“Of fundamental importance is the recognition by Australian politicians and the public writ large that we cannot take a cavalier approach to the deployment of armed forces and expect to sustain that over a decade without moral injury,” Professor Blaxland added.
Yan Zhuang reported from Melbourne, Australia, and Thomas Gibbons-Neff from Kandahar, Afghanistan.