The Chief of the Defence Force, General Angus Campbell, has shelved any punishment for seven senior army officers who failed to prevent war crimes on their watch in Afghanistan, and has exonerated a further 21, saying they should “learn from their experiences”.
The move follows an edict from Defence Minister Peter Dutton that Defence wait for criminal investigations into the findings of the 2020 Brereton report – a process likely to take years – before officers face any consequences for war crimes by soldiers under their command.
The decision, revealed in documents obtained under Freedom of Information laws, means not a single officer has been sacked or demoted for command failures identified in the four-year Brereton inquiry, which found “credible information” that 25 special forces soldiers killed 39 Afghan prisoners and civilians.
All are eligible for promotion and can keep distinguished service medals and Orders of Australia earned on deployments marred by war crimes.
Former Special Air Service and 2nd Commando Regiment chiefs and those who held the role of Special Forces Commander Australia have also been exonerated, despite the Brereton report’s finding that Australian-based commanders bore a “greater responsibility” than those in Afghanistan for “cultures and attitudes that enabled misconduct”.
The decision comes despite Defence’s move to issue termination notices issued to 17 lower-ranked soldiers following the Brereton report for “alleged failure to meet ADF expectations and values”. General Campbell said the fact that alleged crimes occurred under officers from troop to task group commander level “concerns me”, acknowledging “command accountability is my responsibility”.
He said the officers in question were accountable “for what happened under their command”, and noted Justice Paul Brereton’s finding that there was “insufficient curiosity of tactical commanders in this regard”.
But General Campbell said “potential administrative actions” against seven serving and former officers would be suspended until the Office of the Special Investigator concluded its investigation into the alleged crimes identified by Justice Brereton.
“My decision to suspend potential administrative action means that these officers will still be able to continue their careers in the army, which may include currently planned or future promotions, posting selections and changes to service category,” General Campbell said in a July 2021 instruction to Chief of Army Rick Burr.
Several weeks earlier, Mr Dutton told General Campbell it was his “strong view” that the criminal investigations by the OSI “must take precedence over other disciplinary actions you are considering”.
“This suspension is to minimise any risks to OSI investigations and should remain in place only until the OSI has completed its investigations,” he said in a June 2021 letter.
General Campbell said he had decided not to pursue administrative action against 19 officers because alleged war crimes on their watch “occurred so infrequently” that a “detectable pattern of behaviour” could not be identified. He encouraged them to continue to serve and encouraged them to “learn from this experience”.
A further two officers would also not face administrative action, he said, despite numbers of incidents under their command “that may have given rise to a potentially detectable pattern of behaviour”. “They are also encouraged to learn from their experience,” he said.
General Campbell said he understood that allowing the Office of the Special Investigator’s work to take priority “means there can be no immediate closure of these matters for the officers concerned, or for the Australian Army”.
“This is regrettable and may be personally challenging for many,” he said.
A separate document released to The Australian under FOI laws reveals Defence initiated changes early in 2000 to honours and awards regulations to ensure Defence could strip medals and Orders of Australia from soldiers who had committed serious crimes.
The advice from General Campbell to Mr Dutton said some officers had returned Afghanistan campaign medals voluntarily as “a matter of conscience”.
But, as a result of Mr Dutton’s instruction to suspend administrative action in relation to the Brereton report’s findings, General Campbell said medals returned voluntarily were yet to be officially cancelled.
The released documents were prepared ahead of a July 30, 2021, Defence plan promising “transformational reform” to “restore the moral authority, trust, confidence and respect essential to achieving the Defence mission”.
“The people of the Australian Defence Force must be in no doubt as to what is expected – the highest professional, ethical, legal and command accountability standards,” General Campbell said in the reform plan.
But a former army officer who served with SASR for more than a decade said the wider ADF community was “incensed by the glaring double standard that not one SASR officer has ever been held to account”, despite “some of the most egregious Australian war crimes” occurring under their command.
Labor defence spokesman Brendan O’Connor declined to comment.
Source: By BEN PACKHAM – Foreign Affairs and Defence Correspondent – The Australian