Australian Army rebuilding special forces culture ahead of Afghanistan war crimes report

The Australian Army had been focused intensely on rebuilding the cultural and ethical base of its special forces even before shocking allegations emerged that soldiers carried out multiple war crimes in Afghanistan.

New South Wales Supreme Court judge Paul 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 between 2005 and 2016.

Army commander Lieutenant General Rick Burr tells The Strategist he has not yet seen Justice Brereton’s report, as the inquiry is independent and ongoing. But as a special forces officer he finds the allegations deeply troubling. ‘These are extremely serious allegations and not reflective of who we are, and who we must be as a professional institution. We are all determined to establish the facts so that we can act on them.’

Burr has written today to all Australian soldiers explaining why the investigation was launched and telling them to prepare for serious findings. ‘This is not who we are and not what we stand for’, he says.

‘I am also concerned about the impact of those findings on those of you who served in Afghanistan and other operations and who served as professionals with pride and integrity. You did the right thing. You and your families should be proud of what you did and be confident to tell that story.’

He urges soldiers to reach out if they need help and says that support will be provided by the army.

Brereton’s initial brief from the Inspector-General of the Australian Defence Force (IGADF) was to ascertain whether there was truth in widespread rumours, but the result was much worse than most imagined. In February, the inspector-general’s annual report revealed that there were 55 separate incidents or issues under inquiry, ‘predominantly unlawful killings of persons who were non-combatants or were no longer combatants, but also cruel treatment of such persons’.

Defence Minister Linda Reynolds said weeks ago that the investigation was nearing its conclusion and warned that Australians would be dismayed by its findings.

ADF commanders have been working to rectify what they’ve described as ‘catastrophic cultural and professional shortfalls’ within Special Operations Command (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 this decline has been reversed and a restructured SOCOMD is now positioned to implement the Afghanistan inquiry’s findings and to rebuild the trust of government, the defence organisation and the public.

Identifying what went wrong on the Afghanistan missions, how deep a distorted warrior ethos went within the SAS, straightening out that ethos 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.

‘We’re holding ourselves to account’, he says. ‘We asked for this inquiry when we became aware of rumours around these matters. We needed to understand exactly what had happened and an independent inquiry was the only way to gain a clear picture.’

Burr says the most important job now facing him and ADF chief General Angus Campbell is managing this issue and they will consider the report’s findings in detail.

He says he is concerned about the impact the findings will have on the thousands of men and women who have served in Afghanistan and who have behaved impeccably. ‘Most people in Afghanistan did the right thing. The veterans and their families need to know that. Waiting for this report is exacting a very heavy toll.’

Burr says the army has not been sitting back waiting for the Afghanistan report to be delivered.

After a continuous operational effort for the army and the ADF since East Timor in 1999, its leadership has focused on the need to consolidate lessons from operations and to implement reforms to be prepared for future operations.

Over the past five years, SOCOMD had been reintegrated within the broader army structure and the command had embraced significant organisational, cultural and capability reforms. ‘The leadership, structures and plans are now in place to assure the momentum of this substantial cultural and professional transformation’, Burr says.

‘Today our special forces are ready and deployable. They are a critical capability and there are many challenges on the horizon that we will need them for.’

Along with comprehensive reforms, the natural flow of new personnel through the ADF means that 80% of those serving in the SAS now had not deployed to Afghanistan in a special operations task group, Burr says. ‘That reflects how quickly we can refresh and regenerate capability and that 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.’

In 2015, the then special forces commander, Major General Jeff Sengelman, was concerned about the persistent allegations of special forces atrocities and raised them with Campbell, who was then chief of the army. Campbell, now chief of the ADF, is also a former special forces commander.

They commissioned sociologist Samantha Crompvoets to interview soldiers from the special forces and other ADF units and members of agencies who worked with them.

Crompvoets confirmed 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.

In 2018, Burr asked former ASIO chief David Irvine to review the comprehensive reforms that had been put in place in SOCOMD and gave him unfettered access to all aspects of the command.

Irvine found that after a decade of constant combat in Afghanistan and the Middle East, coupled with its other responsibilities, SOCOMD 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 SOCOMD members 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’.

He 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.

Burr says the army’s approach to bystander behaviour is very clear. ‘It’s critical to our profession that people call out bad behaviour when they see it. Concealing misconduct is not acceptable and does not align with our values. We want our people to call it out so it can be acted on quickly.

‘Moral courage and integrity are critical to our profession, and especially so for the sensitive capabilities held in our special forces. Army must be a safe environment where people feel empowered to come forward, confident that army will take action against reports of misconduct.

‘This culture is essential to being a trusted, respected, safe and high-performing organisation at every level.’

Asked if the fact that the special forces operate 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 needs to 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.

‘For this operating model to continue to remain strong, trust in our junior leaders is critical. We must continue to invest in leadership, accountability and culture—which are my three key themes—and we will make our army as effective as it can be.’

One of Irvine’s recommendations was the appointment of a senior officer with considerable command experience from outside SOCOMD as an independent special forces adviser.

Major General Shane Caughey was appointed to that role in 2019 and he supports and monitors the implementation of reforms. ‘As a mentor, he’s lending his insight to SOCOMD and he’s an independent sounding board for me on special forces matters’, Burr says.

In any future operation, the adviser would ensure that SOCOMD maintained good governance and oversight.

A former warrant officer of the army has been appointed to ensure clear communications between the adviser and SOCOMD’s other ranks.

In March this year, to again assure himself that the necessary reforms were being implemented, Burr asked Irvine to re-examine the progress of the cultural and professional reforms within SOCOMD. Irvine concluded that the command was on track to meet its targets of major renewal and regeneration but the challenge remained substantial.

The three main goals were to deal with the most serious issues from Afghanistan, to reset the command to meet Australia’s special operations requirements and to prepare it for the changing strategic environment to come.

In terms of cultural change, there remained some pockets of resistance among old hands in the units, and these had been described as ‘pockets of permafrost’. And while pleasing progress had been made to restore the unit’s ethical base, more work could be done.

‘Mr Irvine gave me independent assurance that we are indeed doing all of the right things but never to be complacent, to absolutely stay focused on the further implementation and consolidation of these initiatives, which I’m determined to do’, Burr says.

‘And what I see every day in our army is truly inspiring—selfless service, good people helping others, soldiers doing exactly what our nation expects. But if people do misstep there are structures in place to take action quickly. It is understood that behaviour inconsistent with our values is not tolerated.’

As the army prepares for the release of Brereton’s report, the existence has emerged of an Instagram account tagged ‘State Sanctioned Violence’ which the ABC reported was run by one former and one serving special forces soldier. The site reportedly had thousands of followers and carried a photograph of a bumper sticker declaring: ‘Make Diggers Violent Again’.

Burr says the army is investigating. ‘I want to make it clear, this behaviour, this attitude, is not tolerated and does not align with the army’s values. Individuals who act contrary to our values compromise the respect and trust of their mates, their chain of command and the Australian public. If these allegations are substantiated, those at fault will be held accountable.’

He says that regardless of these challenges, the whole army is focused on strengthening the individual character of all soldiers and ensuring that they have a values-based approach to everything they do.

‘A “Good Soldiering” framework has been designed to ensure that the army builds leaders of character who make good decisions, who always expect the best of themselves and of their teammates and collectively build high-performing teams, teams based on trust and always operating in a legal, ethical and responsible way in everything that we do’, Burr says.

‘I want all Australians to be confident in their army. We remain resolute in our commitment to serve the nation.’