Australian troops warned to prepare for Afghanistan war crimes report

Army chief Lieutenant General Rick Burr has written to all of Australia’s soldiers to prepare them for the release of a report expected to contain shocking allegations that a small number of troops carried out multiple war crimes in Afghanistan.

He sets out to reassure them that the Australian Defence Force’s Special Operations Command (SOCOMD) has been extensively rebuilt and that if they need welfare support the army will provide it.

Burr, a former commander of the Special Air Service Regiment that is the focus of many of the allegations, says these claims are ‘extremely serious and deeply troubling. They do not reflect who we aspire to be. We will act on the findings when they are presented to the Chief of the Defence Force.’

Additional changes to SOCOMD, if they are required, might be significant, he warns.

New South Wales Supreme Court judge Paul Brereton, a major general in the Army Reserve, has spent four years investigating claims that Australian special forces breached the laws of armed conflict while on operations in Afghanistan between 2005 and 2016.

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

In his letter, Burr tells the soldiers the inquiry is ‘a serious and sensitive matter’ of which there are different levels of understanding across the army. ‘I want all of army to understand what the inquiry is and what it means’, he says.

‘We asked for this inquiry to understand what happened and to determine if there is any substance to the allegations.’

Burr says it’s important to note that the inquiry is administrative in nature and is not a criminal investigation. It is independent of government and the ADF chain of command to ensure its integrity.

He notes that the annual report by the Inspector-General of the ADF in February stated that there were 55 separate lines of inquiry at that time. ‘These concern alleged unlawful killings of people who were non-combatants or were no longer combatants and also cruel treatment of such people’, Burr says.

‘As we wait for the report, I remain concerned about the impact on those of you who served in Afghanistan and other operations with integrity; reflective of who we are and what we stand for. Please continue to look out for each other and understand your service and commitment is appreciated. It’s important that we support each other and get through this together.

‘Telling our story to each other, and family, helps keep perspective and shares challenges. Reach out if you need help or someone to talk to, we will support you.’

ADF personnel and their families involved in, or affected by, the Afghanistan inquiry are supported by their chain of command and also have access to a range of other assistance, including mental health, medical, legal, pastoral and social work services.

‘My task is to lead the army and act on the findings once we receive the inquiry report’, Burr says. ‘I do not yet know the character and scale of these actions. They may be significant.

‘We must continue to achieve our mission and be stronger and more effective in the future.’

Burr tells the soldiers that the whole army must build on actions already taken to deal with problems identified by internal social research programs. ‘This is what we do. We are a learning organisation.’

He says SOCOMD is now internally aligned and more integrated. ‘We have strengthened its organisational capacity and increased independent oversight so I can be confident that it is well governed.

‘This work is ongoing. Continuing to strengthen the fundamentals of governance, assurance and accountability is essential to implement the inquiry findings.

‘Together, we will be a more capable and effective army for the future.’

General Burr tells the army that the work of all of its members is inspiring, appreciated and making a difference. ‘We are an army for the nation, an army in the community. We are Australia’s army.’