Afghanistan Panel Urges Military Accountability for Alleged War Crimes

Serving and former defence chiefs, including Governor General David Hurley, are facing fresh calls to take responsibility for command failures which may have led to alleged war crimes in Afghanistan under their watch.

A report from an independent panel appointed to oversee the landmark Brereton inquiry has finally been released, warning that a lack of accountability from Australia's military top brass has generated "anger and bitter resentment" among troops and veterans.

In 2020, a report prepared for the Inspector General of the Australian Defence Force by Justice Paul Brereton recommended 19 soldiers be investigated by police for the "murder" of 39 Afghan prisoners and civilians, and the cruel treatment of two others.

Now, the subsequent Afghanistan Inquiry Implementation Oversight Panel has rejected Justice Brereton's conclusion that senior commanders should not be held accountable for the murders of 39 Afghans.

"The Panel did not agree with the Brereton Inquiry's view that some accountability and responsibility could not fall on the most senior officers and it suggested that issue should be the subject of further consideration," it said. 

"There is ongoing anger and bitter resentment amongst present and former members of the special forces, many of whom served with distinction in Afghanistan, that their senior officers have not publicly accepted some responsibility for policies or decisions that contributed to the misconduct, such as the overuse of special forces."

Members of the oversight panel, led by former inspector-general of intelligence and security Vivienne Thom, also compared the failure of senior Defence leaders to accept accountability for war crimes to company bosses who face dismissal or even criminal charges for corporate collapses.

"In the private sector, major corporate failures result in both an organisational and individual responsibility," the report handed to the government in November 2023 states.

"Personal knowledge or direct involvement of the senior officers in the causes or behaviour that led to the corporate failure are not required."

According to the panel there was also a lack of "operational or risk adjusted curiosity" which meant "multiple signs" were ignored that could have stopped alleged Australian war crimes from occurring in Afghanistan much sooner.

"They included: spreading rumours; issues arising from operational reporting (including a formulaic format lacking in detail); reports by locals and non-government organisations; and media commentary," the panel said. 

"None of these indicators of trouble sparked sufficiently sustained curiosity."

One Nation Senator Malcolm Roberts, who finally obtained the document from the government on budget night after requesting it through the Senate, said action must now be taken against the top brass.

"The senior leadership of Defence is avoiding accountability and must face accountability for crimes that are alleged to have happened under their watch," Senator Roberts told the ABC.

"If we're going to put people in jail for war crimes the first people in cuffs should be the generals and politicians that sent them there."

Defence Minister Richard Marles is still considering recommendations by departing Defence Chief Angus Campbell on the stripping of honours and awards for senior figures over alleged war crimes which occurred during their command, as well as the panel's findings.

"Work remains ongoing to address the issues identified in the Afghanistan Inquiry Implementation Oversight Panel final report and the government will have more to say about this in coming months," a spokesperson for Mr Marles told the ABC.