When defence chief General Angus Campbell fronted the media in Canberra on Thursday morning to release the explosive report into the war crimes committed by Australian soldiers in Afghanistan, he was clearly devastated by what had been uncovered.
Operators from the Perth based Special Air Service Regiment, the nation’s most elite army unit, had committed acts of such brutality and depravity that the details were judged too gruesome to reveal and were heavily redacted.
But as any defence correspondent could tell you, “specials” have always been treated differently.
Journalists visiting the Australians in Afghanistan soon saw that the SAS base at Camp Russell in Tarin Kowt was a padlocked and razor-wired headquarters within a headquarters. It was off-limits to anyone outside the “specials”, its exclusive status marked by a large “no photographs” sign on the wall.
It was never difficult to recognise a “special” individual. All infantry soldiers must shave every day, but the “specials” could swagger about with beards flowing as they retired to their secret HQ to enjoy non-military meals prepared by their own chef and a good supply of alcohol that was banned elsewhere.
According to the Brereton report, the SAS troops also acquired exotic ammunition and hand grenades that were off limits to Australian forces.
Put simply, “specials” have always been just that – led to believe they were special and the normal rules did not apply.
And while the report clears the nation’s political leaders of any direct culpability, saying, “[I]t was not a risk to which any government, of any persuasion, was ever alerted. Ministers were briefed that the task was manageable. The responsibility lies in the Australian Defence Force,” it does include a thinly veiled warning.
That warning, for the politicians who send Australians to war and deployed the SAS continuously for more than a decade, was as follows: “Special Forces should not be treated as the default ‘force of first choice’ for expeditionary deployments, except for irregular and unconventional operations.”
Similar warnings were issued as far back as 2004 by then SAS commander and now army chief Lieutenant General Rick Burr and then Special Operations commander Major General Duncan Lewis. But they have not been heeded.
Today, the details of what has played out over the past years trickled out in the heavily-redacted report. We learnt that some troops made covering up their crimes into an art form. They even took along props known as “throwdowns”, carrying weapons or radios in their backpacks to plant on their victims’ bodies, to make the innocent appear guilty in a campaign of deception that even ran to falsified patrol reports. These reports should be the reliable first draft of war history, but they contained lies.
“Operation summaries and other reports frequently did not truly and accurately report the facts of engagements,” the report says.
Nothing was apparently off-limits to the gang of SAS cowboys (mostly Corporals and Sergeants).
The extraordinary report, compiled by Army Reserve Major General and NSW Justice Paul Brereton, makes for shocking reading, even with large swathes blacked out.
Brereton and his team conducted 510 witness interviews and reviewed 20,000 documents and 25,000 images.
General Campbell had read every unredacted word and they weighed heavily on him.
As a former SAS officer, he understands the damage this scandal has inflicted upon the Regiment and Special Operations Command.
The alleged murder of 39 non-combatants by 19 individuals, in clear breach of the laws of war and the rules of engagement, has forever stained the reputation and the good works done by thousands of Australian military personnel during the Afghan campaign.
At the press conference General Campbell was blunt about his intention to bring to justice any and all involved in the scandal. His first target was the Number Two SAS Squadron that has been removed from the army’s order of battle (ORBAT). That squadron and other SAS units embroiled in war crimes will also have their unit awards revoked. Many individual SAS officers and soldiers will suffer the same fate.
The unprecedented removal of a squadron from the ORBAT is the first step in a major reshaping of the SAS Regiment to ensure there is no repeat of the Afghanistan experience.
The next phase in this unprecedented saga will be the gathering of evidence by a Special Prosecutor for possible legal action against 19 individuals.
That job could take years. The International Criminal Court in The Hague will no doubt be watching closely.
Ian McPhedran is the author of 2005 bestseller The Amazing SAS.