Elite soldiers blast Defence chief Angus Campbell over handling of Afghanistan war crimes report

1 Dec 2022

By defence correspondent Andrew Greene

Veterans’ groups are demanding the Albanese government pull rank on the Defence chief to prevent him revoking medals over command failures in Afghanistan, before any alleged war crimes are proven in court.

Key points:

  • The SAS and Commando Association say penalties linked to the Brereton Inquiry should be shelved
  • General Angus Campbell has called on Afghanistan veterans to explain why they should keep war honours
  • The defence minister indicated generals who commanded special forces soldiers accused of war crimes would not be stripped of distinguished service medals

In an unprecedented move, the SAS and Commando Association, with the backing of the RSL, are warning penalties linked to the Brereton Inquiry should be shelved “until the facts have been established, in accordance with due process”.

General Angus Campbell recently wrote to officers who commanded those accused of war crimes in Afghanistan, giving them 28 days to explain why they should keep honours earned during deployments marred by accusations of murder and other offences.

National Chairman of the Australian SAS Association Martin Hamilton-Smith said all soldiers and officers involved were entitled to a presumption of innocence.

There needs to be an explanation to veterans about what’s going on, we sent our soldiers to fight a very dangerous war against a ruthless and vicious enemy,” he told the ABC.

“Some of them were killed in our name, many were wounded, hundreds more are living with their experiences. And what thanks do we get? We get this process.”

Australian Commando Association vice-president Steve Pilmore said his members shared the concerns of the SAS and want the government to step in to overrule the Defence chief.

There has been no guilt established yet so it seems we’re putting the cart before the horse and looking for people to pay for something that has not necessarily been proven yet.”

RSL national president Greg Melick backed the special forces associations, saying General Campbell should “await the result of all investigations and finalisation of the legal process” before taking any actions.

The way in which this matter has been handled has caused, and continues to cause, significant distress to currently serving soldiers, veterans and their families,” the retired major general said.

The RSL will be keeping a close watch on developments and in the meantime, and offers its support for the wellbeing of any veterans affected.”

A landmark report by the Inspector General of the ADF (IGADF) two years ago found credible evidence of war crimes committed by Australian personnel during the Afghanistan conflict.

Shortly after that General Campbell moved to strip the Meritorious Unit Citation from members of the Special Operations Task Group, a decision that was later overturned by then defence minister Peter Dutton.

“When the government first responded to this and when the Chief of the Defence Force first responded there’s been a presumption of guilt in our opinion rather than a presumption of innocence,” says Australian SAS Association national president Martin Hamilton-Smith.

In a statement, Defence said General Campbell is “considering the command accountability of current and former serving ADF members who held command positions, at a range of ranks” during the periods where alleged unlawful conduct occurred.

“The CDF is committed to an evidence-based implementation of the IGADF Afghanistan Inquiry recommendations, and supporting the work of the Office of the Special Investigator and the Australian Federal Police,” a Defence spokesperson said.

General Campbell’s move to hold commanders accountable for the alleged crimes follows a green light from new Defence Minister Richard Marles, who overruled a direction by Mr Dutton to suspend such action until criminal investigations were completed.

In parliament this week Mr Marles indicated generals who commanded special forces soldiers accused of war crimes would not be stripped of distinguished service medals, with the action to only be taken against those who directly led the troops.