Diggers’ anger as commanders duck responsibility for war crimes, report warns

15 May 2024

The refusal of the nation’s military leaders to accept responsibility for war crimes in Afghanistan has generated “anger and bitter resentment” among serving personnel and veterans that will take years to overcome, an independent panel has warned.

The Afghanistan Inquiry Implementation Oversight Panel says in its final report to Anthony Albanese and Defence Minister Richard Marles that it does not accept the Brereton inquiry’s finding that senior commanders should not be held accountable for the murders of 39 Afghans by up to 25 special forces soldiers.

It says there has been “an unmet need for Defence senior leadership to communicate to the serving and ex-serving ranks of the ADF 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 warns.

The report, obtained by The Australian, says the resentment among special forces soldiers was “expressed forcefully and repeatedly to the panel by Defence members of all ranks” during visits to SAS and 2nd Commando Regiment headquarters.

It warns that the anger in the Defence and veterans’ community over the issue will “likely last for a long time”.

The November 2020 Brereton report explicitly cleared senior commanders of responsibility for the war crimes it identified but the panel led by former inspector-general of intelligence and security Vivienne Thom says com­mand­ers need to accept account­ability to “prevent or mitigate any recurrence” of such crimes.

“The panel did not agree with the Brereton inquiry’s view that some accountability and responsibility could not fall on the most senior officers and it suggested that issue should be the subject of further consideration,” its report says.

The report is due to be tabled in the Senate this week after Mr Marles moved on Tuesday to authorise its release – six months after he received the document.

Mr Marles is still considering recommendations by outgoing Chief of the Defence Force Angus Campbell on the stripping of honours and awards for commanders for war crimes that occurred on their watch.

His spokeswoman said: “Work remains ongoing to address the issues identified in the Afghanistan Inquiry Implementation Oversight Panel final report and the government will have more to say about this in coming months.”

The report compares the failure of Defence’s senior leaders to accept accountability for war crimes with the actions of company CEOs who face dismissal and even criminal charges after major corporate collapses.

“In the private sector, major corporate failures result in both an organisational and individual responsibility,” it says. “Personal knowledge or direct involvement of the senior officers in the causes or behaviour that led to the corporate failure are not required.”

The panel says “substantial progress” has been made in addressing special forces cultural issues highlighted by Paul Brereton in his report for the Inspector-General of the Australian Defence Force. “While there are still occasions when individuals exhibit behaviours indicative of unhealthy exceptionalism, today the responses from the leadership appear to be rapid, clear and appropriate,” its report says.

It warns that there are still some signs of “toxic competitiveness” between the SAS and 2nd Commando Regiments that Justice Brereton identified as a contributing factor, with “significant and forceful comments” by some soldiers on their rival regiments in interviews by the panel.

The Albanese government is yet to implement a Brereton inquiry recommendation to compensate the families of Afghans unlawfully killed by ADF troops but the panel says it accepts that the government faces difficulties in identifying, locating and paying those affected since the fall of Kabul to the Taliban.



Ben Packham is The Australian’s foreign affairs and defence correspondent. To contact him securely use the Signal App. See his Twitter bio for details…. Read more