Australia's elite special forces face war crimes probe

They are accused of serious misconduct including unlawful killings in Afghanistan

Australia's elite special forces have long been the pride of the military, but the reputation of the secretive units is under question over claims that they engaged in widespread misconduct, including unlawful killings.

The Defence Department has confirmed that the special forces are facing two inquiries after numerous allegations emerged of serious misconduct and potential war crimes in Afghanistan.

An investigation by Fairfax Media uncovered multiple claims of unsanctioned conduct involving the special forces, which is principally made up of two elite units - the Special Air Service Regiment (SAS) and the Commandos.

In one case, a trooper was reportedly pressured to kill an elderly unarmed detainee in Afghanistan as part of an initiation ritual. In another, a soldier allegedly kicked a handcuffed Afghan detainee off a cliff and then executed him. The soldiers also allegedly removed the prosthetic leg from a man killed in battle and took it back to Perth to use as a souvenir drinking vessel.

Defence Minister Marise Payne said the allegations were being investigated by an inquiry started in May 2016 after a request by the former chief of the army.

"These allegations must be - and are being - thoroughly examined, independently from the chain of command," Ms Payne said.

Special forces troops in Afghanistan often worked undercover, performing dangerous raids and reconnaissance in enemy territory. The brewing concerns over their conduct prompted the commander of the special forces to order a review of the SAS by a consultant.

The review found there had been "unsanctioned and illegal application of violence on operations" and a "complete lack of accountability".

The government has launched a second inquiry by former spy chief David Irvine. He is reportedly investigating efforts by the special forces units to improve their culture and practices following the concerns about misconduct.

The revelations have cast a cloud over some of Australia's most prestigious and best-trained units.

In 2016, former commando Kevin Frost broke his cover and spoke out publicly about his activities in Afghanistan, saying he was involved in the shooting of a captured prisoner of war in the head and was ready to go to jail for his crime. Mr Frost said he believed this was not an isolated case, though his credibility was questioned because of his problems with drugs and post-traumatic stress disorder.

Some analysts believe Australia has relied too heavily on the special forces, which have undergone repeated deployments around the world, especially in Afghanistan. This has required the units, which are relatively small, to engage in intensive action with insufficient respite.

Head of the Australia Defence Association Neil James said the special forces have a cultural problem but it is "not as bad as it has often been painted".

"The deeper problem is governments have an aversion to casualties," he told ABC News. "Therefore they use the special forces when they could have used other parts of the (Australian Defence Force) and given the special forces more respite between rotations."

Others suggested the alleged crimes involved only a small number of troops and praised the other soldiers for helping to expose the misconduct.

Mr Brendan Nicholson, an editor for The Australian Strategic Policy Institute's blog The Strategist, noted that Australia is not the only nation to be examining the conduct of its special forces. He said investigations are being conducted or planned in Britain, the United States, New Zealand and the Netherlands.

"As wars have become more complex, special forces from many nations have increasingly been called on to fight in the shadows, with no front lines and amid civilian populations," he wrote yesterday.

"With soldiers sent repeatedly to fight in wars far from scrutiny and rewarded for acting on their own initiative, that sort of responsibility and stress was bound to take its toll."

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A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on June 14, 2018, with the headline Australia's elite special forces face war crimes probe. Subscribe