Updated: May 1, 2021
The Afghan report was made publicly available on the 19th of November 2020, after a 4 year inquiry. The report provided evidence of war crimes perpetrated by the Australian Defence Force against unarmed Afghan civilians.
I remember sitting as a third year student in my weekly 'Sociology of Terror' tutorial as we discussed the horrors of war. Specifically, talking about the wars and conflicts in the post 9/11 period. As I sat there listening to the tutor and classmates speak around me about the glorification of the soldier, the respect and honour they deserve for sacrificing/forfeiting their lives for their state or society, I started to feel sick. A churning kind of sickness, as though I was being tossed around.
As a girl growing up in an Afghan household, war has always been an underlying aspect of much of our lives, despite never having experienced it myself.
It is the unspoken guest at my grandmother’s gatherings, it is the silence where there should be my oldest uncles. It is in the sadness that never leaves my mother's eyes, and in the grooves of my grandmother's face. It is the weary tiredness of my uncles.
It is in the fierce, almost cloying protectiveness of their children. It is in the terror my mother feels if I miss too many of her phone calls. It is the recognition, dawning awareness in peoples' eyes when I tell them I am Afghan.
In my household we were never allowed to have any toy guns or weapons. If someone was to bring a nerf gun or water pistol as a gift my usually thrifty and borderline-hoarding father would immediately throw it out. My parents never had much to say about what we wore, but camouflage anything was something we could never wear.
Any commemoration, glorification or normalisation of the soldier was strongly disapproved.
I remember Comedian Trevor Noah spoke about this in a segment, where the United States acts on the assumption that they are the Rebel Alliance, the underdogs fighting for freedom, democracy and world order. But for much of the world they are the Galactic empires and the army, the storm troopers coming in and causing destruction. That always stuck in my head, because I feel that's how the United States, British, and Australian Army are viewed. I know that's an extremely simplistic metaphor, but it captures feelings better than any other I have found.
The Afghan report, or the Inspector-general of the Australian Defence Force Afghanistan Inquiry report as it is officially called, is a 465 page document completed over four and a half years that investigated the conduct of Australian soldiers during the War in Afghanistan. The report found credible evidence for the murder of thirty-nine unarmed Afghan civilians. Among the perpetrators is Australia’s most elite force, the Special Air Services Regiment. Soldiers were found to have killed Afghans, both farmers and prisoners, then planted weapons on their corpses in order to claim that they had been armed combatants.
If this in itself wasn’t despicable enough it was found that new patrol members were coerced into murdering prisoners to achieve their “first kill," in a brutal hazing practice that they called “blooding.” The disregard and animosity peddled by politicians and the media for supposed “enemy” populations in the post-9/11 era culminated in contemptible individual actions. The Major General of the Army Brereton stated, "the cases in which it has been found that there is credible information of a war crime are ones where it was, or should have been, plain that the person killed was a non-combatant." There was no question of “defence” or “protecting their country” - Australian soldiers murdered civilians.
The culture of the military meant that during the inquiry, many held their silence or were just outright deceitful, placing the loyalty to their units above decency and justice.
It was as though wearing that uniform gave them the right to play God, placing themselves outside of the laws that govern everyone else. The General of the army himself acknowledged there was a, “misplaced focus on prestige, status and power.” The translation of this is that the over-peddled narrative of “serving your country” is basically a cover to live out a twisted Jack Ryan fantasy. The report also found that there was a “liberal” interpretation of people they considered being “directly involved in hostilities.” Essentially they could use their own judgement, however skewed, to determine who they could target.
The Afghan report is only the tip of the iceberg of the abuses perpetrated in Afghanistan.
Citizens Not Soldiers
Stories of the conflict in Afghanistan, both in the news and popular culture, more often than not focus on the military coming into the country be that the young soldier, the intrepid journalist or the worn and cynical veteran, to save the people. They rarely tell the story of the generations of individuals whose life, psyche and existence has been shaped by it.
Yes sure, there are the exceptions that share the story of the Afghan women and children who are brutalised and oppressed. But even those are more often than not a story of suffering for the consumption of those completely removed from the conflict. For every story of pain, resilience and courage we get, we have ten where the Afghan people are no more than props in their own story. Think of the BBC drama ‘Sherlock’ here the Afghan conflict is nothing more than an ornament to flesh out the character of Watson. This is far from the only, or worst example.The news media is no better, here the Afghan people are nothing more than numbers, if they are mentioned at all.
Afghans again and again become footnotes to the stories of the supposed valour and heroism by soldiers, and the country itself is stripped to nothing but a hardened and inhospitable battleground.
Following in this pattern, is it any surprise then, that so much of the discussion surrounding the findings of the Afghan report seems to be fixated on the ramifications of the disciplinary actions for the soldiers. One recommendation made by the report that has caused anger, is the decision to strip the Special Operations Task Group rotations that served in Afghanistan between 2007 and 2013 of the Meritorious Unit Citation awarded to them. This means that even those soldiers who were not mentioned in the report will be affected. While the General Campbell of the ADF has stood by this decision, both the Prime Minister and the Defence Minister are among those who are uncomfortable with it. For my own part, I feel nothing but growing disgust that a citation is anything in the face of hundreds of families ripped apart. That the loss of a hunk of metal is anything compared to the loss of a child experienced by a parent.
That is not to say that I do not feel for the pain of the families of soldiers, or the individual soldiers themselves who experienced extensive trauma, to now to be stripped of something that gave their senseless violence a meaning because I do, I really do. But this report is not about them, it is about people who were seen as collateral to some concocted grand narrative.
This is without even going into the fact that the Government’s initial response to the investigative report (ABC’s ‘Afghan Files’) was to suppress it. With the Australian Federal Police investigating journalist Daniel Oaks and conducting a raid on ABC headquarters last year, where they confiscated most of the Afghan files.
The report is just one piece of the puzzle that proves that Australia's conduct as a part of the broader American effort in Afghanistan is an example of neo-imperialist US foreign policy. Any support for this war, or any attempt to diminish its impact to a sum of only 36 unlawful killings is extremely harmful because it condones conduct that is illegal under International Law and also against the political ideals that the war was justified because of peace and democracy.
The findings in the report prove what many Afghans have known for years, that Western interventionist armies under the guise of freedom and the war on terror have perpetuated despicable and senseless acts of violence against civilians.
The report highlights 36 unlawful killings, but the number of civilian deaths in the first nine months of 2020 have 5939 according to figures by the UN. The NGO Save the Children estimates that a third of civilians have been children.The conflict in Afghanistan has been a relentless decade long tug of war of power between entities that all have a cold disregard for the Afghan people that they are terrorising. The fact is that while 36 killings may have been identified as “war crimes,” they are far from the only atrocities committed by the Australian and American armies, since their initial deployment post-9/11.
Al Jazeera shares reports of prisoners murdered in helicopters to save space, and killings of a six-year-old child in a house raid. Then you have the military approved programs pumped up by their own self-important action hero fantasies that are nothing more than cold-hearted butchery, such as the “Kill/Capture” program. This program allowed Special Force troops to capture or assassinate Afghans they believed to be insurgent leaders. A 2011 Four Corners report found cases where Special Force Troops accidentally murdered the local Afghan police chief. Or another case where three unarmed civilians were killed, though they had only acted in self-defence. In each of these cases the ADF investigators did not bother interviewing any local witnesses because they considered travelling there to be too dangerous.
Both the conflict, the narrative surrounding it, and the ongoing peace talks have neglected to consider the Afghan men, women and children whose life have been irreversibly affected by it. Human rights chief of the UN Assistance Mission in Afghanistan, Fiona Frazer, states: "our interviews with victims and their families reveal the near complete failure of parties to the conflict to acknowledge the harm caused, nor even to make contact with them following an incident." What is needed is concrete action towards safeguarding the lives of civilians, and the bare minimum is that parties should acknowledge the immense pain caused and move towards reconciliation.
What’s the point of all of this? The point is that I am angry, disgusted and sad, for a people, my family's people, that will forever be seen through a veil of the violence that they have suffered, that a report that highlights the sheer malignancy of a venerated institution has not survived more than a week in the news cycle and that once again we value those who willingly participate and inflict violence, more than the people who have to endure it.
In summary, I am heartbroken.
Editor: Tahmina R.