How Australian Special Forces Tried to Cover Up Killing of Afghan Children
July 14, 2017
Jason Ditz / AntiWar.com & Dan Oakes and Sam Clark / Australian Broadcasting's National Reporting Team
The Australian Federal Police has confirmed to the Austrailian Broadcasting Corporation it is considering whether to launch a full investigation into at least one of the incidents, in which the shooting of a boy in Kandahar Province in 2012 was allegedly covered up by soldiers. Meanwhile, a secretive defense inquiry into the conduct of Australian Special Forces in Afghanistan is examining the alleged killing of at least two children in separate incidents by Australian troops.
Australian Special Forces Killed
Afghan Children, Tried to Cover It Up
Killings Reflect Shifting Priorities, Tactics in Afghan War
Jason Ditz / AntiWar.com
(July 12, 2017) -- Adding to evidence of the humanitarian nightmare the Afghan War has become, Australia is now investigating soldiers from their special forces related to evidence that at least twice in raids in Kandahar Province, those troops killed children in rural areas, then tried to cover up their deaths.
"Cover it up" might be overstating it, really. Indeed, the evidence suggests that the Australian forces who were present at the killings just plain never reported them up the chain of command, and it was only because local villagers found the bodies that those deaths became public knowledge.
This comes as Australia's Inspector General is already investigating the special forces over other unlawful killings, and that those special forces were killing so many civilians they routinely carried spare "drop weapons" with them just to plant on the corpses to make it look like they were combatants.
The investigations serve as just another embarrassment from the perspective of Australia's military, but also appears to be the result of broad changes in the priorities and tactics of the US and its coalition allies in fighting in Afghanistan, as they moved away from the "clear and hold" tactics of the war's first decade.
Those familiar with the situation say that once "clear and hold" was abandoned, the collateral damage of raids stopped being a major concern for the troops, since they weren't going to be there after the operation anyhow, and that often helicopter-based raids became "land, kill, and leave."
This attitude was plainly in evidence when the Australian forces engaged in the raids in question, heading into rural Kandahar in the middle of the night and shooting anything that moved, even if they weren't in a combat situation yet. If the slain turned out to be children, the expectation was that this could simply be swept under the rug.
It is this same attitude that has other nations involved in the operations facing similar question, from New Zealand's probes into "revenge raids" to US special forces desecrating the bodies of slain enemies. It's also the latest in a long list of reasons why they aren't "welcomed as liberators" and aren't anywhere near winning the war.
Death in Kandahar
By the National Reporting Team's Dan Oakes and Sam Clark
WARNING: This story contains graphic images that some people may find distressing
(July 10, 2017) -- The Australian Federal Police (AFP) has confirmed to the ABC it is also considering whether to launch a full investigation into at least one of the incidents, in which the shooting of a boy in Kandahar Province in 2012 was allegedly covered up by soldiers.
A source with knowledge of that incident told the ABC that Australian special forces soldiers were moving through the remote area during the early hours of the morning when they shot a boy dead, then left his body where it lay. It was later found by local villagers and retrieved by his family.
The source said there was no obvious insurgent activity in the area at the time, and the patrol had not been fired on prior to the boy's death.
The killing was allegedly never reported up the chain of command, and was never the subject of any inquiry. Defence has confirmed to the ABC it has no record of a civilian casualty occurring in that area at that time.
The office of the Inspector General of the Australian Defence Force (IGADF) is currently carrying out a wide-ranging inquiry into the culture of Australia's special forces, including allegations of unlawful killings committed in Afghanistan.
The inquiry, which began last year, is being headed by NSW Supreme Court judge Paul Brereton.
It is investigating a number of incidents, including the death of the Afghan boy and although the terms of reference of the inquiry refer to "rumours", it is now clear it is investigating specific allegations.
The boy's name was Khan Mohammed, relatives say
(July 10, 2017) -- Photographs from the scene of the shooting, obtained by the ABC, show the Afghan boy's body and the contents of his pockets. There is no weapon in the photographs, or other items suggesting he was an insurgent.
Another photograph shows what appears to be an Australian Army GPS device with the co-ordinates of where the killing took place.
An Afghan journalist employed by the ABC interviewed family members of the dead boy. They said the boy was Khan Mohammed and was either 14 or 15 years old.
The relatives said he was collecting figs in the early hours of the morning when he was killed, and that other villagers later saw his body and alerted his family.
They said the boy appeared to have been shot in the leg and the chest and that his body was found among some large rocks, which accords with the photographs.
The boy's uncle Mossa Jan said the family believed that the boy had been killed during the day. However, a person with knowledge of the incident insisted it occurred before dawn. The photographs of the boy's body also suggest he was killed at night.
The precise sequence of events [that] led to the boy's death remains unclear.
When the ABC informed Defence of the existence of photographs of the scene, it immediately referred the matter to the AFP, which has responsibility for investigating any potential war crime.
The AFP has subsequently liaised with the inquiry into special forces headed by Justice Brereton.
Father and son gunned down in raid
Defence also confirmed to the ABC that the inquiry is examining the circumstances surrounding the death of a man named Bismillah Azadi and his son Sadiqullah in an Australian raid in Uruzgan province in September 2013.
The man and boy were shot and killed by Australian SAS troopers, who were cleared by a subsequent investigation after claiming Bismillah had pointed a pistol at them. That investigation also found that Bismillah was almost certainly a Taliban sympathiser.
However, Bismillah's cousin has told an Afghan journalist engaged by the ABC that the man was not armed and was not a Taliban supporter, and had been sleeping with his son wrapped in a blanket beside him when they were killed.
"In the morning I informed the police and the police visited the site and we show the bullet ridden bed that he was sleeping in and the body that penetrated by multiple rounds," Mohammed Masoom said.
" . . . Later I was asked by police chief Matiullah Khan to his office and he took me to Australian -- some five to six Australian soldiers met us and they were shaken and apologised for what has happened the night.
"The soldiers confessed that it was a grave mistake being committed by them and they asked for forgiveness but I did not forgive them, I told them that he was sleeping and did not reacted or gone violent, if you suspected him for any crime, why didn't you arrest him and taken for investigation, he was defenceless and had no gun or even a knife while he was shot died.
"The soldiers has nothing to say and only insists on forgiveness but I told him that we will not forgive you, later they said that when they shot him and discovered that a boy was in bed too and realised that they did kill the wrong person along with the boy, they put some cash with the corpse and left."
'Decay of moral and ethical values'
The ABC has spoken to a decorated special forces veteran of Afghanistan, who said cases like these appeared to underline his concerns about a "culture of recklessness" and indifference to Afghan life that grew up among an influential minority of special forces soldiers.
"Ultimately the behaviour of some elements of SOTG (Special Operations Task Group) led to the indiscriminate, reckless and avoidable deaths of innocent civilians, caused by an institutional shift in culture that contributed to the decay of moral and ethical values towards armed conflict," he told the ABC.
"I saw innocent people killed who didn't need to die or deserve to die, in circumstances that were unwarranted and ultimately avoidable. This behaviour was in direct conflict with what I believed it meant to be a special forces soldier."
The man, who cannot be identified but whose identity and service record the ABC has verified, said the culture spread partly in response to an incident in 2009 in which an Australian commando, acting on orders and while under fire, threw a grenade into a house. The blast killed a number of children.
Two soldiers were charged with manslaughter over the incident, but the charges were dropped before the trial began.
The charging of the men angered many in the Defence Force.
"They acted professionally, they sought immediately to help the people that were injured, they never tried to cover up the story, they reported it correctly and it should have ended it there and then but obviously there was a punitive response by Defence and the end state was there developed an atmosphere of protectionism," he said.
"Commanders in the field realised that even if they do the right thing, their guys could be held out and skinned alive and stuck out to dry, so as a result the protectionism started to occur.
"That level of protectionism consequently developed into an ability to act with impunity in the field, where guys realised there was a lack of consequence, which develops further into an ability to act recklessly with engagements where potentially civilians or non-combatants were engaged due to reckless firing of weapons, or reckless use of supporting platforms."
Allegations soldiers planted guns on bodies to support killings
He has also claimed that Australian special forces soldiers discussed carrying weapons to "plant" on the bodies of dead Afghans to create the false impression that they had been armed when killed.
"The carriage of 'drop' weapons was common amongst some elements and openly discussed in that forum. Drop weapons would consist of either pistols or knives or items that were light, easily concealable, but if a person was engaged in questionable circumstances it was easy enough to place a pistol with the body, take a photo of it and then write it off as a legitimate battlefield kill," he said.
Two other Defence sources with experience of operations in Afghanistan confirmed to the ABC that the use of "drop" weapons was at the very least discussed by special forces soldiers who deployed there.
The IGADF inquiry sprang from an internal review by Special Operations Command in 2015 into the impact of more than a decade of high-tempo operations in Afghanistan.
A consultant who interviewed special operations personnel was so disturbed by allegations of war crimes that emerged from the interviews, they referred them to the Chief of Army, Angus Campbell.
Lieutenant General Campbell then asked the Inspector General of the ADF to implement the inquiry, which has the powers of a royal commission, including the ability to compel people to appear and answer questions, including people who are not serving in the ADF.
However, Defence insiders have expressed concerns that the inquiry will struggle to break down the code of silence that exists within Defence generally but even more so within the Special Forces community.
In a statement to the ABC, the IGADF said he "encouraged" anybody with allegations of "unlawful or inappropriate conduct" by Australian Special Forces troops in Afghanistan to contact the inquiry.
The ABC requested an interview with Lieutenant General Campbell, but this was refused on the grounds it would be inappropriate while the inquiry was underway.
Some already have. Last year, Kevin Frost, a former Australian commando, told the ABC that he had witnessed the murder of a Taliban prisoner while serving in Afghanistan in 2007, and had provided that information to the inquiry.
A recent book by investigative reporters Jon Stephenson and Nicky Hager has alleged that the New Zealand SAS was responsible for the deaths of a number of civilians during a raid on a village in Afghanistan in 2010, and that politicians and the military hierarchy covered the deaths up for years afterwards.
Within the last week, allegations have emerged in the United Kingdom that SAS members executed unarmed civilians in Afghanistan and then tried to cover up the killings.
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