There is “credible evidence” that Australian special forces unlawfully killed 39 people during the Afghan conflict, a long-awaited report has found.
The Australian Defence Force (ADF) has released findings from a four-year inquiry into misconduct by its forces.
The inquiry investigated 57 incidents and heard from more than 300 witnesses.
It had uncovered a “shameful record” of a “warrior culture” by some soldiers, ADF chief General Angus Campbell said.
Nineteen current or former soldiers should be investigated by police over the killings of “prisoners, farmers or civilians” between 2009 and 2013, the report found.
Afghanistan said it had been assured by Australia that it was committed to “ensuring justice”.
What did the report find?
It said 25 serving or former soldiers had carried out crimes or been “accessories” to them. Most allegations concerned soldiers within the Special Air Service (SAS) elite unit.
Gen Campbell said none of the alleged killings could be “described as being in the heat of battle”.
“None were alleged to have occurred in circumstances in which the intent of the perpetrator was unclear, confused or mistaken,” he told reporters on Thursday.
“And every person spoken to by the inquiry thoroughly understood the law of armed conflict and the rules of engagement under which they operated.”
Gen Campbell said the most alarming allegations concerned some SAS soldiers who allegedly “took the law into their own hands”.
“The report notes that the distorted culture was embraced and amplified by some experienced, charismatic and influential non-commissioned officers and their proteges, who sought to fuse military excellence with ego, elitism and entitlement,” he said.
The inquiry – by the inspector-general of the ADF – was conducted behind closed doors, meaning few details have been reported until now.
What’s been the reaction?
Last week, Mr Morrison warned the report contained “difficult and hard news for Australians” about its special forces.
“It is the environment [within the ADF], it is the context, it is the rules, it is the culture and the command that sat around those things,” he said.
“And if we want to deal with the truth of this, we have to deal with the truth of that.”
The office of Afghanistan’s President Ashraf Ghani said Mr Morrison had phoned to express his “deepest sorrow” over the findings.
Afghanistan has not commented since the report was made public.
The defence chief’s language was as part of this story as the findings themselves. He started by apologising to the Afghan people for any wrongdoing, then told the Australian people they had the right to expect better from their special forces.
He used words like shameful, appalling and toxic when describing the actions of some troops and the culture in which they operated.
And it wasn’t just that these alleged executions took place, it was the manner of impunity by which they happened. In fact, according to the report, there was an air of competitiveness within the special forces.
One moment stood out in General Campbell’s address: when he described how some junior soldiers had allegedly been coerced to shoot unarmed civilians to get their “first kill” – a practice known as “blooding”. He said that weapons and radios had then been allegedly planted to support claims that the victims had been enemies killed in action.
The public version of the report is highly redacted and we don’t know details of specific incidents or specific individuals. But it has been enough to make for very uncomfortable reading for the military, the government and for the Australian public.
What happens next?
Last week, Mr Morrison said a special investigator would be appointed to consider prosecutions from information contained in the report.
An independent oversight panel would also be established to provide “accountability and transparency that sits outside of the ADF chain of command”, the government said.
Australia maintains an operation of around 400 soldiers in Afghanistan as part ongoing peacekeeping efforts with the US and other allies.
Have other countries faced allegations?
Earlier this year, the International Criminal Court (ICC) began investigating alleged war crimes by the US and others in the Afghan conflict.
The actions of the Taliban, the Afghan government and US troops since May 2003 are expected to be examined.
A 2016 report from the ICC said there was a reasonable basis to believe the US military had committed torture at secret detention sites operated by the CIA.
The report also said it was reasonable to believe the Afghan government had tortured prisoners and the Taliban had committed war crimes such as the mass killing of civilians.
The UK is also investigating whether allegations of unlawful killing by UK Special Forces were investigated properly.