Australia to investigate, prosecute troops for alleged war crimes in Afghanistan

Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison
Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison speaks at a news conference at Parliament House in Canberra on Thursday.
(Lukas Coch / AAP Image)

Australia announced Thursday that it would set up a new investigative agency to build criminal cases against Australian special forces suspected of committing war crimes in Afghanistan.

The Office of the Special Investigator is to be formed after a four-year investigation into allegations and rumors surrounding the behavior of some soldiers in Special Air Service and Commando Regiments in Afghanistan from 2005 and 2016.

Benjamin Roberts-Smith, Australia’s most highly decorated member of the armed services when he left the SAS in 2013, has been accused by former colleagues of unlawful treatment of prisoners, including illegally killing some of them. Roberts-Smith, a former corporal who was awarded the Victoria Cross and the Medal for Gallantry for his service in Afghanistan, has denied any misconduct.


Defense Force Chief Gen. Angus Campbell will make public a redacted report on the four-year investigation next week.

Prime Minister Scott Morrison said the new agency, headed by a retired judge or senior criminal lawyer, was needed because the workload would “seriously overwhelm” existing police resources.

“This report will be difficult news, and all of our partners must be assured and those around the world who rightly hold the Australian Defense Forces in high regard,” Morrison told reporters.

“In Australia, we deal with this stuff, and we deal with it honestly, but in accordance through the rule of law and by following the justice practices and principles that makes Australia what it is,” he added.

Appeals judges gave the green light for prosecutors to open an investigation targeting the Taliban, Afghan forces and U.S. military and CIA personnel for war crimes and crimes against humanity.

Two Australian Broadcasting Corp. journalists until recently faced potential prison sentences for using leaked classified defense documents as a basis for a 2017 report that detailed allegations of Australian soldiers killing unarmed men and children.

Police raided ABC Sydney headquarters with search warrants last year, but prosecutors decided that charging the journalists would not be in the public interest.

Prosecuting alleged Australian war criminals is expected to take years.

“These are incredibly complex events involving actions and conduct in another country, in a war,” Morrison said.

“This is not a simple matter ... and so it will take as long as it needs to take to ensure we deal with our dual objectives of addressing the justice that is necessary in accordance with our laws and systems but also ensuring the integrity of our defense forces on which we all rely,” he said.

An ex-soldier from Australia returns to Afghanistan to seek forgiveness from the family of a civilian he killed during the war.

Neil James, chief executive of the Australian Defense Assn. think tank, said the military wanted solders to have their day in court to end a “continuous rumor mill.”

“It’s certainly the case that they’re going to take a long time because we’re talking about a complex investigation. Witnesses will have to be interviewed under caution. In many cases those witnesses will be overseas, and in some cases it’ll be hard to interview them because they are in enemy-held territory in a war zone,” James said.

“So the complexity of this is going to be difficult, but it’s got to be faced because ... Australia has to face up to this, that things did go wrong and we need to fix it,” he added.

About 39,000 Australians served in Afghanistan, and 41 were killed.