SYDNEY: Australian and New Zealand officials are examining allegations that members of their countries’ Special Forces units committed crimes in Afghanistan, including possibly carrying out executions of unarmed prisoners.
A senior Australian judge and a former New Zealand prime minister are conducting inquiries into separate but remarkably similar incidents during the war, which will soon enter its 18th year.
Australian media outlets, citing anonymous complaints by serving and retired soldiers, have reported that members of Australia’s Special Air Service Regiment (SAS) may have killed prisoners while hunting for a soldier from the Afghan National Army who deserted after killing three Australian soldiers on a military base in southern Afghanistan in 2012.
Two years earlier, a unit of the New Zealand SAS — the British and Commonwealth equivalent of Navy Seals or the US Army’s Delta Force — led a raid on a village north of Kabul the SAS suspected was home to fighters responsible for a roadside bomb that had killed a New Zealand soldier.
Six civilians were killed and 15 injured in the raid, most of them women and children, according to a book by two New Zealand journalists, Hit & Run: The New Zealand SAS in Afghanistan and the Meaning of Honour. No enemy fighters were found, they wrote, contradicting the official account.
The US military has been accused of numerous crimes against civilians in modern times, dating to the 1968 My Lai Massacre during the Vietnam War. Such allegations have been rare for Australia and New Zealand, which were drawn into the Afghan war through their military alliance with the United States.
Although Australia withdrew combat forces from Afghanistan in 2013, at one point it was the largest contributor outside Nato to the US-led mission. New Zealand’s force was much smaller, although it sent its most prestigious military unit, the SAS.
In Australia, a judge and a former head of the domestic intelligence service are conducting separate but related investigations into Australian soldiers’ behaviour in Afghanistan and the changes made to improve the culture of the Army’s Special Forces.
The New Zealand government and military have taken similar steps, under the pressure of media coverage. This year, a former top judge and prime minister were asked to investigate the 2010 incident. The defence forces are also conducting a legal review of a battle six years earlier involving New Zealand’s most decorated soldier.
In one of the incidents under investigation in Australia, a SAS soldier is alleged to have been coerced by his fellow soldiers into executing an elderly Afghan prisoner as part of an initiation ritual, TheSun-Herald and The Sunday Age newspapers have reported. Members of the unit also allegedly used another dead Afghan’s prosthetic leg as a beer tankard.
Australian military officials have said they are responding to complaints from their own soldiers. “They are serious allegations and, as Australians would expect, they must be thoroughly examined independently from the chain of command,” the then chief of the country’s defence force, Mark Binskin, said in a written statement last month.
A separate official inquiry two years ago reported some members of Australia’s Special Forces had described a “complete lack of accountability” in their units as well as “unsanctioned and illegal application of violence on operations”.
Some of the Australian soldiers have told journalists that repeated combat tours undermined respect for the rules of armed conflict and consideration for Afghan civilians.
“There is a view among many former operators that we were there too long and they deployed too often,” said Chris Masters, the author of No Front Line: Australia’s Special Forces at War in Afghanistan, in an interview. “Desensitisation set in.”
The Australian military has published ads in Afghan newspapers promising anonymity to anyone who wants to complain about Australian soldiers’ conduct. Critics say the ads are an invitation to the Taliban and other hostile groups to force Australian soldiers to respond to untrue allegations.
“How many false claims will come up?” said Kevin Bailey, a former SAS soldier who is now a conservative political candidate. “How much propaganda will the enemy get? Imagine fighting the Nazis in the Second World War and saying to the German people: ‘Our people are doing terrible things. Please comment.’”
One sensitive aspect of the allegations in both countries is a connection to soldiers awarded the Victoria Cross, the Commonwealth equivalent of the US Medal of Honor.
In 2004, a New Zealand SAS unit was ambushed in a pre-dawn attack in southern Afghanistan by about 20 fighters, according to an official account. A corporal carried a severely injured colleague nearly 80 yards to safety while being shot at. He then returned to the fight and helped defeat the attackers.
The soldier, Willie Apiata, was awarded the Victoria Cross, the first New Zealander to be so honoured since World War II. He became a national hero.
Last year, an online documentary suggested there was more to the battle than revealed in Apiata’s short, official citation for valour.
Based on interviews with Afghan villagers, it reported that the New Zealand SAS soldiers may have provoked the fight by roughing up nearby villagers beforehand. The next day, after the firefight, the soldiers dumped the bodies of the dead Afghan fighters back at the village, where they kicked in doors and restrained 15 or 16 residents with plastic handcuffs, according to the documentary makers, who did not suggest Apiata had not behaved bravely.
Now, New Zealand defence officials are re-examining the case. “All of those allegations made in the documentary series are being looked at to see if they meet the threshold of well-founded allegation,” the chief of New Zealand’s defence force, Tim Keating, said last month, two weeks before he retired.
Several Australian media organisations including The Age newspaper reported recently that questions have been raised about the conduct in Afghanistan of an Australian recipient of the Victoria Cross, Ben Roberts-Smith, along with that of other soldiers.
The corporal served with the elite force in Afghanistan during six deployments between 2006 and 2012. He now helps manage a television network.
By arrangement with The Washington Post
Published in Dawn, July 16th, 2018