Australian defence chief warns further criminal charges could be laid over alleged war crimes in Afghanistan.
By Ben Doherty
Gen Angus Campbell says there could be ‘very, very uncomfortable days’ ahead for Australia’s special forces.
Australia’s Defence Force chief has warned of some “very, very uncomfortable days” ahead for Australia’s special forces, with the potential for further criminal charges to be laid over allegations of war crimes committed in Afghanistan.
Gen Angus Campbell, himself a former troop commander and squadron commander within the SAS regiment, told a civilian audience in Sydney that if the military had failed institutionally, “we need to face that”.
Speaking at the Lowy Institute, Campbell said the Office of the Special Investigator (OSI) was continuing its work investigating allegations of war crimes made against Australian soldiers.
Last month, former SAS trooper Oliver Jordan Schulz, 41, was arrested and charged with the war crime of murder, over the alleged shooting of an unarmed Afghan civilian, captured on camera. Schulz has been bailed awaiting trial.
“There may be others,” Campbell said. “And that is a matter for the OSI and ultimately, then, a matter for the commonwealth director of public prosecutions.
“You won’t see me trying to gloss over these things. And I think that there could be some very, very uncomfortable days coming forward.”
The OSI was established in 2020 in the wake of a report by NSW court of appeal judge Maj Gen Paul Brereton, which found “credible information” to implicate 25 current or former Australian Defence Force personnel in the alleged unlawful killing of 39 people in Afghanistan.
The inquiry recommended that allegations against 19 of those individuals be referred for criminal investigation.
Campbell said the continuing investigations, carrying the potential of further charges, were a confronting reckoning for soldiers and officers implicated and for the military more broadly.
“In these circumstances, it’s really important to support the people who are involved,” he said.
“But to recognise that if we have failed as an organisation, then we need to face that … and we are individually and collectively better for it if we do so.”
Campbell said the restoration of the reputation of the Australian military would be won by upholding the standards of behaviour expected of it by the Australian public.
“I don’t look to the question of ‘how do I protect my reputation or the reputation of the Australian Defence Force?’ Instead I ask the question: what are the correct values and behaviours and purpose to which we should be applying our effort? And reputation emerges.”
The defence force chief said the military was “doing the work” as recommended by Brereton to address the issue of command responsibility in the commission of alleged criminal offences.
The Guardian revealed on Tuesday that the culture within the Australian army’s special forces will be reviewed regularly in the wake of the Brereton inquiry, according to defence documents released under freedom of information.
The Australian defence force is also updating its policy around respite for frontline soldiers to ease pressure on individuals, after the inquiry found an over-reliance on a small cohort of special forces soldiers for the Afghanistan campaign provided too little time between deployments.
The director general of the OSI, Chris Moraitis, told parliament earlier this year his office was investigating between “40 and 50” allegations of criminal behaviour by Australian soldiers in Afghanistan.
In a wide-ranging address on Tuesday, Campbell said Australia’s Aukus commitment of acquiring conventionally armed nuclear-powered submarines would “transform its strategic posture, bolstering security and stability in the Indo-Pacific for decades to come”.
He declined to comment on the French president Emmanuel Macron’s aeroplane interview in which he said Europe must not become a “vassal” unwillingly drawn into any conflict between the US and China over Taiwan.
But he did say, in response to a question on Taiwan, that “anything that undermines” the stability of the Indo-Pacific region “is of interest to Australia”.
“Conflict sometimes may be necessary as the absolute last resort. But Shakespeare got it right: when you unleash the dogs of war, you can’t necessarily be confident to contain the outcome. A stable, secure, free and open Indo-Pacific, for all nations is in Australia’s interest.”