In March, ABC’s Four Corners program revealed footage of a Special Air Service Regiment (SASR) soldier, identified as Soldier C, shooting an unarmed Afghan man at point blank range during a village raid in May 2012. The man, Dad Mohammad, lies motionless on his back after having been mauled by an SASR squad dog, with nothing in his hands but a string of red prayer beads. Soldier C stands over him and asks, once to the dog handler in his squad and twice to his patrol commander: “You want me to drop this c***?” Within seconds, he fires three shots and Dad Mohammad is dead.
A previous military investigation cleared Soldier C of any wrongdoing. Investigators were told by witnesses that Dad Mohammad was holding a radio, and that Soldier C fired from 15 to 20 metres away in self-defence.
Soldier C is now also under investigation for shooting an unarmed, intellectually disabled man in the back of the head in March 2012. Following the killing, another patrol member was asked to plant assault rifle magazines on the dead man’s body to mark him as an enemy combatant. Back at base, the patrol squad was told that the man was a high-level target, which was a lie. The murder is reportedly known among SASR soldiers as the “the village idiot killing”.
Until the Four Corners report, Soldier C continued active service, his crimes covered up for almost seven years.
This is not an isolated occurrence. A four-year-long government inquiry into war crimes in Afghanistan, headed by Justice Paul Brereton, is examining 55 separate incidents of alleged war crimes committed by Australian soldiers. Other war crimes allegations, including those against Victoria Cross recipient Ben Roberts-Smith, are being investigated by the Australian Federal Police.
Many of the allegations have been revealed by ABC and Nine (previously Fairfax) journalists. They include the execution of unarmed or handcuffed detainees, the mass shooting of unarmed civilians, the flying of Nazi and Confederate flags, and the planting of AK-47s on dead bodies.
Considering the secrecy of special forces operations, the extent of the allegations being revealed is astounding, and suggests an even wider problem of abuse and brutality. The Brereton inquiry is expected to make several adverse findings against the special forces. In a recent briefing with SASR soldiers, the current head of the special forces, Major General Adam Findlay, reportedly acknowledged “poor moral leadership” in the SASR and said that “there are guys who criminally did something”, including lying under oath to cover up war crimes.
The development of this violent and criminal culture among the SASR can’t be separated from the broader context of Australia’s imperialist war in Afghanistan, where Australian soldiers acted as a violent occupying force. Destroying infrastructure, smashing vehicles, burning homes and killing dogs were a regular part of operations.
The war faced little public scrutiny. In recent decades, Australian governments have increasingly relied on the highly trained and well-equipped special forces in overseas deployments. This enables a more secretive projection of military force without the higher numbers of Australian casualties a larger deployment of regular infantry would bring. The same elite operatives are deployed year after year in secretive operations. According to whistle-blowers, this led to a culture of violence and coverups developing in the SASR.
As the allegations of these war crimes became public, the special forces initially received backing from establishment figures. In 2018, former defence minister and then director of the Australian War Memorial Brendan Nelson attacked journalists for trying to “tear down our heroes”, saying that “unless there have been the most egregious breaches of laws of armed conflict, we should leave it all alone”.
As investigations began against Ben Roberts-Smith, former Australian Federal Police chief Mick Keelty broke protocol to inform the former soldier that he was a suspect. Billionaire media mogul Kerry Stokes, now Roberts-Smith’s employer, has bankrolled his defamation case against journalists reporting on his alleged crimes. In 2019, Australian Federal Police raided ABC offices in response to the reporting of war crimes allegations documented in the leaked “Afghan files”. The AFP has recommended that journalist Dan Oakes be prosecuted for reporting information contained in the files.
With the weight of evidence piling up against the SASR, its supporters have gone quiet or have begun damage control. The Brereton inquiry is set to recommend a series of reforms for the special forces, and Major General Findlay has said that major changes must take place.
Gangs of killers are an indispensable part of maintaining a modern capitalist state, and they will not be done away with. Far from it. Just last year, in the middle of these war crime investigations, the Morrison government announced an additional $3 billion in funding for the special forces. Clearly, there is no question of withdrawing support for the SASR, even if a few heads roll or some token reforms are pushed through.
But any measures will be designed to rehabilitate the reputation of the special forces, not to end war crimes and the practices that give rise to them. They will do nothing to change the role of the special forces as a killing machine in the service of Australian imperialism. The special forces should be disbanded, and the political establishment held to account for funding, covering up and defending their crimes.