As Australia reels from the shock of the Brereton report what happens next is crucial

By Leo D’Angelo Fisher

Paul Brereton’s four-year investigation into alleged war crimes by Australian Special Forces in Afghanistan between 2005 and 2016 has sent shockwaves through the Australian Defence Force, the veteran community and the broader Australian public. As it should have.


It might seem a predictable resort to describe the report as “landmark” and “historic” but in this case they are apt descriptors.


The Australian public, partly through the mythologising of Australia’s military since Gallipoli, but also with sound reason, regard the ADF, past and present, with pride as warriors of great skill, courage, decency and integrity. It’s a reverence observed without fanfare but one that runs deep in the collective Australian psyche.


That reputation has taken a terrific blow.


Paul Brereton is a distinguished jurist, a judge of the Supreme Court of NSW, and a Major-General in the Australian Army Reserve. His report is beyond reproach and his report will lead to criminal prosecutions. And hopefully to much more.


Justice Brereton’s inquiry was exhaustive. Over four years it investigated 57 incidents of alleged misconduct by Australian soldiers in Afghanistan, conducted interviews with 423 witnesses – many of whom chose not to co-operate – and examined 20,000 documents and 25,000 images.


Justice Brereton made clear that none of the incidents could be explained as "disputable decisions made under pressure in the heat of battle". The “vast majority” of victims were prisoners or detainees; others included farmers and other civilians. All were non-combatants.


The report exposed a culture of secrecy, fabrication and deceit among special forces and was scathing of a “self-centred warrior culture” that informed the alleged war crimes.


The report recommends that a total of 36 separate incidents be referred to the Australian Federal Police for criminal investigation. The Morrison government has responded to those recommendations by announcing the creation of the Office of the Special Investigator to head the war crimes probe. The special investigator, who the prime minister has promised will be an “eminent person”, will investigate and prosecute allegations of Australian war crimes in Afghanistan.


At his Canberra press conference this week, Defence Force Chief General Angus Campbell, visibly shaken and angry, announced that, on the recommendation of the Brereton report, 19 Australian soldiers will be investigated and most likely face criminal prosecution for the alleged murder of 39 Afghan prisoners and civilians. The perpetrators of these alleged atrocities are predominantly members of the elite Special Air Service (SAS) Regiment.


If the charges are proven and agreed to by a jury they would constitute the war crime of murder.


The very prospect is a shock to the ADF and the Australian public.


“Shameful, disturbing, appalling”


General Campbell openly expressed his disgust with the allegations documented by the Brereton report. He described the alleged conduct as “shameful”, “deeply disturbing” and “appalling” and offered his apology to the people of Afghanistan and the families of the slain Afghanis.


The significance of this apology cannot be overstated. The Brereton inquiry – conducted under the auspices of the Inspector-General of the ADF – sought to verify “rumours of serious misconduct by Australian Special Forces in Afghanistan” but was not a criminal investigation. Whatever is eventually decided in Australian courts, Campbell is satisfied that wrongdoing occurred in Afghanistan, wrongdoing that shed innocent blood, tarnished the reputation of the ADF and brought shame to Australia.


He has acted swiftly and with force. Apart from the apology to Afghan families, and the likelihood of immediate compensation, General Campbell issued immediate orders that 2 Squadron SASR – formed in 1964 – be disbanded and that Special Operations Task Groups deployed in Afghanistan between 2007 and 2013 be stripped of their Meritorious Unit Citations. Medals for valour or gallantry may also be re-examined “after any further processes or proceedings are concluded”.


General Campbell has made it clear that the toxic culture of “ego, elitism and entitlement” uncovered by the Brereton report represents ”a failure of unit and higher command”. He put on notice “the chain of command responsible for the system failures which enabled alleged breaches to occur and go undetected” and vowed that officers up the chain of command will be required to account for their behaviour, including omissions or duplicitous reporting, at the time the alleged executions took place.


General Campbell was at pains at his press conference to emphasise that most of the 26,000 Australian servicemen and women serving in Afghanistan – including 3000 members of the Special Operations Task Group – lived up to ADF ideals and the rules of engagement under which they operated. “The overwhelming majority of Special Forces personnel did not choose to take this unlawful path,” General Campbell said.


The Brereton report will no doubt prove polarising within the ADF and the veteran community.


Critics of the report believe the actions of individuals cannot be seen in isolation of deeper institutional and systemic considerations – including the responsibility borne by government in involving Australia in a seemingly pointless war without a coherent strategy or clear war outcomes, and the lack of foresight in repeated deployments to one of the most hostile environments on the planet.


Bad things done in our name


But those who welcome the report – and the criminal prosecutions to follow – believe with equal vehemence that the actions of a few cannot go unchallenged and be permitted to besmirch the reputation of the overwhelming majority of the Australian soldiers who served in Afghanistan in accordance with the laws of armed conflict.


Whatever one’s point of view, and whatever the chain of contributing factors, there can be no quibbling that bad things happened in Afghanistan, done in the name of all Australians. As Justice Brereton observed, the alleged behaviour of a relative few was a “disgraceful and a profound betrayal” of all the ADF stands for.


So what happens now?


Australians are used to reports being swept under the carpet, but it’s unlikely that the chilling findings of the Brereton report, and the criminal prosecutions to follow, albeit some years from now, will allow that to happen.


If there is a risk it is that the root-and-branch cultural and institutional changes that have been promised will come to nought. It is hardly the first time that the ADF has embarked on reform.


The Brereton report leaves no doubt that extensive change needs to occur in the ADF. Its 143 recommendations, all of which have been accepted by General Campbell, address three core themes: culture; command, reporting and governance; and individual and collective accountability.


The onus is now on General Campbell to ensure that his public commitments of support for change are pursued with vigour. As The Australian wryly observed in an editorial, the failures chronicled by the Brereton report will not be solved “by hiring cultural change experts and woke consultants”.


Defence Minister Linda Reynolds has appointed an Afghanistan Inquiry Implementation Oversight Panel to provide oversight of the ADF’s response to the Inquiry. The panel is led by former Inspector-General of Intelligence and Security Vivienne Thom and also comprises former Attorney-General’s Department secretary Robert Cornall and University of Tasmania vice-chancellor and ethicist Rufus Black.


The panel will report quarterly to the Minister.


Again, such panels can quickly disappear from view, but these are prominent and respected figures; veterans and the wider community can take some comfort from that.


Writing the next chapter


Scott Morrison has said that justice will only be truly served if we understand and deal with the “context, rules and culture” that created the environment in which the alleged war crimes took place.


“I know there would be some concern in the veterans’ community and I know there would be some concern within those serving members of the ADF that this process may only just focus on those specifically involved,” Mr Morrison said at a press conference prior to the release of the report.


“I want to assure them that [Angus Campbell], the Minister [for Defence] and myself are very, very keen to ensure, to really understand and learn from this. Then those matters can‘t be ignored. And they need to be understood and they need to be addressed.”


Everybody seems to understand what’s at stake and what needs to be done.


Justice must be done – the reputation of the ADF and Australia’s hard-won reputation as a moral authority on the world stage depend on it – but unless justice is accompanied by real change in the ADF, the real risk is that the grievous shortcomings identified by the Brereton report will simply go into hibernation to rise another day on another faraway battlefield.


The Brereton report may well mark the close of a dark chapter but its true value will lie in the chapters to follow. Paul Brereton has done his bit, and then some. Let’s hope that those who need to step up are up to the challenge. There’s never been a more important one facing the ADF.

Leo D'Angelo Fisher is a regular columnist and Editor-at-Large at Australian Veteran News. Connect with him on Twitter: @DAngeloFisher.

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