The abuses between 2006 and 2013 were revealed in a heavily edited report by the military inspector, published on Thursday after a four-year investigation.
The findings involve 25 Australian soldiers in the illegal killings of Afghans and recommend prosecution of 19 of them. Some of the victims are teenagers, General Campbell said. None of the killings took place during the height of the battle.
The allegations were met with shock in Australia, which joined the US-led campaign in Afghanistan shortly after the September 1
The SAS, which is equivalent to the US Army’s Delta Force, is the most prestigious unit of the Australian Army.
Military investigators found that a small but influential group of its soldiers deliberately set aside the rules of war and adopted a “self-centered culture of warriors” that led to the killing of prisoners and the placement of radios and weapons on the bodies of victims. Those who opposed these soldiers were threatened with silence, which prevented reports from reaching the commanders.
“The report notes that the distorted culture has been embraced and reinforced by some experienced, charismatic and influential NCOs and their protégés who have sought to merge military achievements with ego, elitism and rights,” General Campbell told a news conference in the capital, Canberra.
“We are a nation that stands up when something goes wrong, and we deal with it, and I intend to be a part of it.”
The Afghan presidential cabinet said on Twitter before the report was published that Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison had spoken to Afghan President Ashraf Ghani on the phone to deplore the abuses and promise that justice would be done. The Australian Foreign Ministry has sent an apology letter for the actions of the Australian forces, it added.
General Campbell was in charge of Australian forces in the Middle East part of the time when the illegal killings took place. The action came to light when some soldiers told reporters stories of alleged war crimes, which some experts initially welcomed with skepticism.
The government has set up a special unit to gather evidence and prosecute soldiers, some of whom are still serving in the army. Compensation will be offered to the families of Afghan victims, General Campbell said.
A division of the SAS, 2nd Squadron, will be removed and its name withdrawn, he said. Governor-General David Hurley, the country’s ceremonial leader, will be asked to overturn a well-deserved unit awarded to Australia’s special operations group in Afghanistan between 2007 and 2014, he added.
There is no guarantee that the investigation will lead to convictions. The testimony given by about 423 witnesses to the investigation is not admissible in court and there is no certainty that the closely bound soldiers of the special forces will testify against each other in public trials.
Investigators found that some soldiers used techniques to avoid giving information they had been taught to use if questioned by the enemy.
There is also the possibility of future political intervention. British governments have obstructed the investigation and prosecution of war crimes in Afghanistan and Iraq, according to lobbyist Human Rights Watch. A six-year British investigation into the behavior of military special forces in the Afghan war, completed in 2020, without charges against servicemen, the statement said.
“Canberra needs to learn from the UK’s failed efforts to prosecute soldiers involved in war crimes in Iraq,” said Elaine Pearson, director of Human Rights Watch in Australia.
Australian investigators seem to estimate that successful persecution can be difficult, citing problems in other Western countries involved in the war.
“Even when the evidence is clearly strong and clear, there are pitfalls, both political and popular,” the report said. “Australian persecution is expected to face similar obstacles.”
SAS soldiers have some supporters. A spokesman for Kerry Stokes, an Australian billionaire and media owner, said he would provide financial support for the legal costs of existing and former members of the unit through a social assistance fund he helped set up in 1996.