The issue of war crimes in Afghanistan renders the Australian government morally compromised in serving as America’s cheerleader, Finian Cunningham writes.
Nearly five months after publishing an explosive inquiry into alleged war crimes in Afghanistan committed by Australian special forces, it is becoming clear that the Canberra government has no intention of bringing any of the perpetrators to justice.
Last November, the long-awaited internal investigation known as the Brereton Report was published which found that dozens of Australian special forces had been involved in unlawful killings of Afghan villagers and detainees, including children. The report limited itself to 39 murder cases, suggesting that the real number of war crimes committed by Australian troops is much larger. They were deployed as part of the U.S.-led war in Afghanistan along with several other NATO and non-NATO nations.
When the Brereton Report was released, there was a lot of handwringing and shame expressed by Australian public figures. However, an Office of Special Investigator set up by the Australian government for the purpose of bringing criminal prosecutions against military members appears to have been sidelined. Indeed Australia’s newly appointed defense minister Peter Dutton and his aides have recently begun a media campaign indicating that, as far as the Brereton Report goes, it will be of no consequence in terms of holding military members to account.
Ironically, the only person facing prosecution from the whole affair is the whistleblower David McBride. The former Australian Defense Force lawyer has been charged with unlawfully disclosing classified information which first brought the issue of war crimes to public attention. He faces up to 50 years in jail if found guilty.
McBride (57) was deployed to Afghanistan on two tours of duty in 2011 and 2013, the period when many of the violations by Australian military occurred. Aware of the criminal allegations against troops, he tried to bring the matter to the notice of senior commanders, but he says he was blocked from doing so. During 2014-16, McBride began leaking what became known as the Afghan Files to Australian media which broadcasted several reports detailing horrific killings. The public controversy prompted the establishment of the inquiry led by Major General Paul Brereton which would take four years to complete.
Essentially, the Brereton Report confirms what McBride had disclosed. There were multiple war crimes committed by Australian special forces against Afghan civilians. Those crimes included shooting unarmed villagers in cold blood during raids, as well as desecrating the bodies of victims.
However, for his whistleblowing valor, David McBride is being threatened by the authorities to end the rest of his life in prison, while Australian commandoes who perpetrated wanton murders remain free, some decorated for their past service, while others continue to be active members of the armed forces.
McBride’s fate has an unerring similarity with that of Julian Assange, another Australian whistleblower. It was Assange and his Wikileaks site which exposed countless war crimes committed by American forces in Afghanistan and Iraq. Currently, Assange (49) is incarcerated in solitary confinement in a British maximum security prison undergoing an extradition trial to the United States. If he is extradited, Assange faces 170 years behind bars for espionage charges. There is little doubt that his case is one of political persecution, not legal prosecution.
While Assange was imprisoned in Britain over his extradition, the Australian government has shown little interest in defending the rights of one of its citizens. Prime Minister Scott Morrison has not made any official appeal to Washington for clemency despite a public outcry around the world against the inhumane treatment of the whistleblower, whose only “crime” was telling the truth about heinous crimes committed by American forces.
The case of David McBride points to an explanation for the official Australian indifference toward the plight of Julian Assange. That is, the Australian authorities are up to their own necks in sharing responsibility for war crimes in Afghanistan. It is implausible that Australian forces could have gone on murder sprees without the knowledge of senior military and political figures in Canberra. This is why the Australian authorities are intent on deep-sixing the issue by not following up with criminal prosecutions. Even though such a cover-up gives impunity to past and possibly future war crimes.
Evidently, the priority concern for Australia’s politicians is to make sure that whistleblowers like David McBride and Julian Assange are also buried behind bars so that no-one will ever dare repeat their kind of truth-telling and exposure of state crimes.
The other major concern for the Australian establishment is to further ingratiate itself with Washington and the American geopolitical agenda of hostility toward China. Covering up war crimes in Afghanistan is doing Washington a huge favor by whitewashing the whole criminality of that bloody two-decade war of aggression during which more than 43,000 Afghan civilians are estimated to have been killed.
It is also vitally important for the Canberra authorities to not let the Australian public dwell on the disgrace of war crimes committed in Afghanistan by their troops. To do so would undermine government efforts to augment the American campaign of hostility toward China. Australian politicians have been echoing Washington’s belligerence against China – accusing the latter of malign trade conduct and human rights violations. Canberra is beating war drums in lockstep with Washington, offering the U.S. a strategic military projection point in order to harass and eventually attack China.
But the issue of war crimes in Afghanistan renders the Australian government morally compromised in serving as America’s cheerleader. Hence the paramount necessity for Canberra to bury that issue along with truth-tellers like David McBride and Julian Assange.