Australian media are reporting new war crimes committed by Special Air Services (SAS) troops in Afghanistan, including the mass murder of unarmed civilians and planting weapons on the bodies of civilians to cover up unlawful killings. The new revelations come weeks after Australia’s special forces chief admitted that SAS soldiers committed war crimes in Afghanistan, and just weeks before the Australian military is set to report the findings of a four-year investigation of alleged war crimes committed during the course of the country’s nearly 19-year participation in the US-led war in Afghanistan.
An Australian Broadcasting Corporation (ABC) investigation found that SAS troops killed as many as 10 unarmed Afghan civilians during a December 2012 operation in and around the village of Sara Aw in Kandahar province. The raid, believed to be the deadliest unlawful killing of Afghan civilians by Australian soldiers, involved SAS and Afghan special forces searching for Taliban militants, who locals admit were operating in the area.
"There were three Taliban in nomad houses," said local farmer Mohammad Nassim. "They resisted and were killed. But then [the SAS] killed other people, civilians." Abdul Qadus said his brother Adbul Salim was driving a tractor when he was shot dead. "At the time he was carrying a load of onions; he was taking them to the city," explained Qadus. "There were some other people with him as well… I saw them being shot and killed."
"Another one was my cousin, who was sitting and packing onions when they shot and killed him," Qadus added. Another villager identified only by his first name Rahmatullah said that the Australians came after him. "They were shooting people intentionally," he said. "They were mass shooting."
"Some people busy with irrigation were shot, some were shot near the onions," said Nassim. "Some people went to the tractor and were shot there."
‘Impossible to Forgive’
In a separate report, ABC reports members of the SAS 3 Squadron allegedly planted the same AK-47 assault rifle on the bodies of two different Afghan civilians killed during a May 2012 raid in the village of Shina. The rifle was easily identifiable because it had teal-colored tape wrapped around its stock. Three Afghans were killed in the raid. SAS claimed they were all insurgents. However, Australian sources and the families of the victims say that while one of the dead men was a Taliban fighter, the other two were civilians. Australian veterans of the Afghan war have said that "throwdowns" of weapons and radios to cover up unlawful killings are common occurrences.
"Often people who had been killed had weapons placed on they and were photographed with these weapons," admitted one SAS veteran. The practice of planting “drop weapons" has also been widely reported among US troops in Afghanistan and Iraq.
Shina villager Abdul Wali said that Australian troops ordered his father Abdul Wahid, the imam of the local mosque who was in his 80s, to approach them. However, when Wahid and another village elder walked toward the soldiers, they opened fire on the unarmed farmers, hitting Wahid in the abdomen and neck. "He was on his own land," said Wali. "He never stole or did anything bad to anyone. He was an elderly person. This is impossible to forgive and I won’t forgive it."
Another slain civilian, 20-year-old Jan Mohammad, was engaged to be married. Villager Sakhi Daad said Mohammad was grazing a cow when incoming SAS Blackhawk helicopters spooked the animal. "When the cow heard the helicopters, it ran and he ran after it," said Daad. "Soldiers came his way… and saw him running… Maybe they thought he was Taliban… they shot him straight away in the head." Mohammad was then photographed with the planted AK-47 with teal tape on its stock.
Adbul Wali says he wants the Australians who killed his father to be tried. "If the government cares about us, if they care about our widows and orphans, then they must summon them and try them in court."
The new revelations come two weeks after Australian Special Operations Commander Major-General Adam Findlay admitted that SAS soldiers committed war crimes in Afghanistan. Findlay blamed “poor moral leadership up the chain of command" for the crimes and hailed the "moral courage" of SAS members who blew the whistle on their fellow soldiers’ unlawful acts. Findlay said that a "small number of commissioned officers had allowed a culture where abhorrent conduct was permitted," and that "a handful of experienced soldiers including patrol commanders and deputy patrol commanders… had enabled this culture to exist." The commander added that "war crimes may have been covered up."
Reported atrocities committed or allegedly committed by Australian troops in Afghanistan include the 2012 killing of an intellectually disabled man mocked as "the village idiot," attacking villagers with dogs and killing them, executing a sleeping farmer and his child in Ala Balogh in 2013, killing children and stomping a grandfather to death. In Iraq, Australian special forces worked directly with the Iraqi Counter-Terrorism Service (CTS), a US-formed, backed and trained elite force that has committed widespread atrocities, including torture and extrajudicial assassinations.
The Inspector-General of the Australian Defense Force is concluding a four-year investigation into alleged war crimes by SAS troops in Afghanistan. Investigators are looking into over 55 separate incidents occurring between 2005 and 2016. More than 330 people have provided evidence to the inquiry, and the Inspector-General’s report is due to be delivered in the coming weeks.
Prime Minister Scott Morrison has refused to comment on any of the recent revelations, saying he does not want to involve himself in the independent investigation. However, his government is prosecuting whistleblower David McBride, a former military lawyer who allegedly leaked classified material to ABC documenting at least 10 potential war crimes. In February, Australian Federal Police also raided ABC headquarters, and the agency recently recommended prosecution of ABC journalist Dan Oakes for his reporting on the network’s "Afghan Files" series of stories on Australian war crimes.
Brett Wilkins is editor-at-large for US news at Digital Journal. Based in San Francisco, his work covers issues of social justice, human rights and war and peace.