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Australia's Military Reports Alleged War Crimes By Australians In Afghanistan

Nov 19, 2020
Originally published on November 19, 2020 4:34 pm
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MARY LOUISE KELLY, HOST:

As American forces draw down in Afghanistan, a country that has fought alongside the U.S. is having a reckoning. Australia just released the findings of a years-long inquiry into suspected war crimes committed by its elite forces. It's recommending a criminal investigation for 19 soldiers involved in the killing of 39 Afghans. NPR's Diaa Hadid reports.

DIAA HADID, BYLINE: The head of the Australian Defence Force, Angus Campbell, outlined what the inquiry found.

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ANGUS CAMPBELL: Rules were broken, stories concocted, lies told and prisoners killed.

HADID: He says special forces lied about shooting unarmed men. They planted guns on corpses so they could claim they'd targeted combatants. General Campbell said some were killed as part of an initiation ritual.

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CAMPBELL: This shameful record includes alleged instances in which new patrol members were coerced to shoot a prisoner in order to achieve that soldier's first kill in an appalling practice known as blooding.

HADID: And he added this message for the Afghan people.

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CAMPBELL: I sincerely and unreservedly apologize for any wrongdoing by Australian soldiers.

HADID: The inspector general of Australia's Defence Force began its inquiry four years ago, after a researcher uncovered alleged atrocities. It then morphed into the most wide-ranging investigation so far of any military attached to the U.S.-led effort in Afghanistan. It examined the period from 2005 to 2016. Many details in the report were redacted. But in March, Australia's public broadcaster, the ABC, aired footage of one suspected incident.

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UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER: The helmet camera footage you're seeing is from the SAS patrol dog handler.

HADID: The footage shows an Afghan man in a wheat field. The patrol dog pins him down. A soldier walks up and points his weapon. He asks the dog handler if he should shoot, and then he does.

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UNIDENTIFIED SOLDIER: (Unintelligible).

HADID: Human rights advocates believe few of these incidents ever came to light because it's so hard for Afghans to come forward. Consider this farmer, Lalai. He's got one name. He can't read or write. He's about 20. His village, which doesn't even exist on a map, is in a region where the Australian forces were deployed.

LALAI: (Non-English language spoken).

HADID: He says his brother and his uncle were killed by foreign forces about five years ago. He says they burst into their compound at night and shot them. He says, "We asked the translator, why did you kill them? And he said, these guys, they do whatever they want." Lalai didn't report the incident, but other Afghans did come forward. The Australian inquiry found they were ignored. They also found there was no safe way for soldiers to complain up the chain of command.

Veteran Chris August Elliott has researched Australia's involvement in Afghanistan. He notes the alleged atrocities occurred over years and involved different units.

CHRIS AUGUST ELLIOTT: For that to have occurred as a pattern, it had to have required an entire cultural system of enablement.

HADID: Elliott argues the whole military chain of command should be called into account. So does Patricia Gossman of Human Rights Watch.

PATRICIA GOSSMAN: It would be unprecedented and so important, not just for Australia, of course, but for the Afghans who have never, ever seen justice for so many war crimes over the long period of this war.

HADID: And that's why Lalai says he hitched a ride for two hours to get to a phone to speak to NPR about his brother and uncle. He says, years on, he still hopes for justice.

Diaa Hadid, NPR News, Islamabad.

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