Atrocities in Afghanistan, and a grim echo from the Lindt Café siege

Justice Paul Brereton’s investigation of war crimes allegedly committed by Australian special forces soldiers in Afghanistan will confirm within days that atrocities were committed which will deeply shock the nation.

That investigation, and others carried out by the Australian Defence Force in parallel with it, have also identified disastrous failures in the structure and leadership of Special Operations Command that have developed over decades.

It won’t bring back Afghans allegedly murdered by some of those sent to protect them, but if there’s a degree of redemption for the army in the shocking scenario now emerging, it’s in the fact that the investigation was launched by the ADF and that it has relied heavily on the testimony of soldiers appalled by what they saw, and in some cases by what they did.

Brereton, a major general in the Army Reserve, has spent four years investigating claims that members of the Special Operations Task Group breached the laws of armed conflict while on operations in Afghanistan between 2005 and 2016.

Along with criminal killings and torture, the Brereton inquiry also examined the possibility that aspects of the organisational, operational and cultural environment in SOCOMD enabled war crimes to occur.

ADF commanders have been working to rectify what they’ve described as ‘catastrophic cultural and professional shortfalls’ within SOCOMD and ‘corrosive’ friction between the major special forces units, the Special Air Service Regiment and the commandos. Under the pressure of 20 intense rotations in Afghanistan over 11 years, the special forces had become isolated from the rest of the army, they say.

It’s not surprising that the Brereton inquiry took four years to complete. It was carried out in an atmosphere of deep operational secrecy that cloaked the activities of special forces units.

Much of the evidence against perpetrators has come from special forces soldiers, serving and past, who were appalled by what they’d witnessed. In many cases it took years for them to develop sufficient confidence in the inquiry and in the genuineness of Defence senior leadership’s determination to get to the bottom of persistent allegations to speak up.

In December 2014, Major General Jeff Sengelman became Special Operations Commander Australia as the nation absorbed the news of the Sydney Lindt Café siege, the deaths of two hostages and the claims that the army should have been brought in to deal with this act of terrorism rather than the police.

It fell to Sengelman to assess whether SOCOMD could have done a better job.

Sengelman engaged sociologist Samantha Crompvoets to discuss with a range of agencies, including the Australian Security Intelligence Service which operates overseas, and police forces what the potential future role of SOCOMD was in relation to domestic counterterrorism.

Unexpectedly, Crompvoets was told stories that questioned the reputation and capability of special forces even in their current role.

She raised those allegations with special forces officers and was met with a mix of confirmation and hostility.

Concerned about the claims, Crompvoets wrote up her report on agency views of military involvement in ‘civil’ events such as sieges and she added an appendix covering the concerns raised about activities of the special forces in Afghanistan. That warned that there appeared to be serious problems with the behaviour of some members of the Special Operations Task Group in Afghanistan that may have extended to unsanctioned and illegal violence.

As this was happening and within days of starting his job, Sengelman too had heard stories about atrocities. He asked special forces soldiers to contact him if they were willing to talk about them.

He received around 200 responses, many in hand-written notes.

Sengelman took his concerns and those raised by Crompvoets to Army Commander Lieutenant General Angus Campbell, who called in the inspector-general of the ADF. Brereton was then appointed to examine what at that stage were regarded as unconfirmed but worrying rumours.

As Brereton’s investigation progressed, the reality turned out to be much worse than anyone imagined. By early 2020, the inquiry was examining 55 different episodes, predominantly unlawful killings of unarmed civilians or prisoners of war. It’s not clear how many of those will ultimately result in prosecutions.

In 2018, army commander Lieutenant General Rick Burr asked David Irvine, a former head of the Australian Security Intelligence Organisation, to review SOCOMD.

Irvine found that after a decade of constant combat in Afghanistan and the Middle East, coupled with its other responsibilities, the command was ‘worn out and run down’. He warned that in an elite unit, esprit de corps could quickly turn into arrogance. In a closely knit, inward-looking unit, ‘can do’ could become ‘only we can do’. Australia’s special forces had to be well grounded and humble, he said.

Irvine stressed the importance of a ‘redemption initiative’ introduced by Sengelman which provided soldiers with the opportunity to confess to transgressions and hold themselves to account. That enabled personnel who had conducted themselves in ways inconsistent with army values to be ‘managed out’.

Irvine noted that the culture among some soldiers was such that they did not report serious crimes to senior officers, ‘sometimes for fear of ostracisation—or worse—within the unit’.

Others did take the risk and spoke up, enabling the IGADF to investigate.

Identifying what went wrong on the Afghanistan missions, understanding how deep a distorted warrior ethos went within the SAS, straightening out that mindset and ensuring that what appears to have been an entrenched culture of impunity in key parts of the special forces doesn’t emerge again, is a priority for the army.

Burr, who commanded the SAS in 2003 and 2004, says that the since the army became aware of the allegations it has focused strongly on changing elements of the culture in the special forces and introduced strong ethics training with the help of outside specialists.

The army commander insists that the special forces are again ready and deployable. He says they are a critical capability and there are many challenges on the horizon that Australia will need them for.

Over the past five years, SOCOMD has been integrated within the broader army structure and the command has embraced significant organisational, cultural and capability reforms.

Along with comprehensive reforms, the natural flow of new personnel through the ADF means that 80% of those serving in the SAS now did not deploy to Afghanistan in a special operations task group. Burr says that reflects how quickly the army can refresh and regenerate capability. That, he says, ‘gives us a strong platform to make sure we are embracing and inculcating these new initiatives and making sure that we are living these expectations every day’.

While detailed allegations will only emerge in the coming week when Brereton’s report is released, questions have already been asked about whether Australia’s special forces units might be disbanded. Asked if the fact that they operated in small groups outside the immediate view of commanders played a role in what has happened and meant that the model was no longer sustainable, Burr says that the model does work and must be sustained.

‘It has delivered us enormous success over many years and it’s a model that is used in many armies and, in particular, in special forces.

‘The Australian Army relies on small teams. They have to be well led and they can make a big difference on the ground, whether that is supporting bushfire or counter-Covid operations, or warfighting. That is our command and control philosophy. In special forces it is an imperative.

‘They need to be able to act with autonomy, to take advantage of a local situation to achieve their mission’, Burr says.

But for this operating model to continue, trust in junior leaders is critical. ‘We must continue to invest in leadership, accountability and culture.’