Rick Burr, Australia's Chief of Army, felt “sick” when he learned how senior special forces soldiers egged on juniors to execute prisoners, but insists he and other officers overseeing troops in Afghanistan were blind to the suspected atrocities that took place under their watch.
In his first interview since the scathing Brereton inquiry report, Lieutenant-General Burr told The Age, The Sydney Morning Herald and 60 Minutes of his determination to “hold ourselves to account and win back the trust of the Australian people".
The comments come as Chief of the Defence Force Angus Campbell said the ADF needed to "own" the shameful conduct examined by the inquiry because "if we don't own it, we won't fix it, and if we don't fix it, this horror may appear again". General Campbell has also backed soldiers being equipped with body-worn cameras to record their actions in the field.
Afghanistan's chief peace envoy, Abdullah Abdullah, said the report into Australian special forces alleged war crimes was shocking, but welcomed the fact that Australia had “come clear about it”.
“There is the promise, the prospect of prosecution for those who have committed these heinous crimes that will count. This will help preventing these types of crimes," he said.
On Thursday, NSW Court Of Appeal judge Paul Brereton released his inquiry report, four years in the making, which uncovered credible evidence of 23 incidents in which Afghan non-combatants who had been captured or injured were summarily executed by special forces soldiers or at their direction. Interviews on oath with more than 400 special forces insiders informed Justice Brereton's findings that 39 Afghans were allegedly murdered by Australian special forces.
Lieutenant-General Burr, who commanded the special forces operations of the NATO-led International Security Assistance Force in Afghanistan in 2008, stressed he had heard no whispers of the allegations. He said he was one of “many commanders at many levels (who) are asking, how did this happen?”.
As debate rages about how it was possible that no officers knew of the alleged war crimes, Lieutenant-General Burr blamed “deliberate attempts to both conceive conduct and conceal these alleged unlawful acts” by the two dozen-or-so senior and junior soldiers accused of murdering prisoners and civilians.
But Lieutenant-General Burr also agreed that it was the job of officers and military leaders to know what was happening on the ground.
“To now discover that they were lied to ... it is truly devastating,” he said.
Lieutenant-General Burr insisted that the cultural and leadership failings exposed by Justice Brereton – including celebration of a warrior culture that spurred on some to go rogue – was not evident when he led the Special Air Service Regiment in 2003-04.
“This is not the SAS Regiment that I remember," he said, describing the findings as devastating for "so many individuals who have served in this regiment [doing] … so many honourable things”.
Lieutenant-General Burr also dismissed criticism from decorated SAS Afghanistan-war veteran Ben Roberts-Smith – whom the Federal Court has heard is under federal police investigation for alleged war crimes – that the inquiry was little more than an amalgam of “rumours”.
“The Inspector-General has made his findings very clear. He speaks to credible information across a range of issues,” Lieutenant-General Burr said. “This report is so important. We asked for this inquiry, we've waited 4½ years for it. We welcome its findings.”
Lieutenant-General Burr refused to comment on whether it was appropriate for media mogul Kerry Stokes to remain as chairman of the Australian War Memorial, after he vowed to use his money to fund the legal defences of the more than two dozen soldiers accused of war crimes and of lying about their own war history.
Lieutenant-General Burr said he had no plans to stand down as a director of the war memorial and that it was “for others” to comment on Mr Stokes' position, which he declined to endorse. But the army chief thanked the SAS whistleblowers, such as medic Dusty Miller, who spoke up about war crimes they encountered in Afghanistan despite risking blowback from accused colleagues.
“I thank Dusty, I thank all like Dusty who have come forward. It’s taken tremendous courage to do that. I know there is a lot of hurt and a lot of pain that has been endured by many, for a long period of time,” he said.
Lieutenant-General Burr also expressed his “very heartfelt, very sincere apology to the people of Afghanistan".
And he defended his decision to disband the SAS’s 2nd Squadron, which hosted Mr Roberts-Smith before he left the SAS in 2015. Soldiers from the 2nd Squadron who never served in Afghanistan or who were whistleblowers are angered at the decision to scrap the squadron, given only a small number of its former members are accused of war crimes.
But Lieutenant-General Burr said the Brereton report “makes clear that there was a nexus of these [alleged war crimes] activities” to 2nd Squadron “at a particular point in time”.
“We must all pay the price,” he said.
General Campbell told the ABC's Insiders program that he supported the Brereton review's recommendation to mandate the wearing of bodycams for all personnel because it could improve both training and accountability.
“I think it is a very good idea. It creates a degree of objectivity and a capacity for learning, development and record keeping. That material would become a digital archive, permanently and securely held so that if claims were to arise, they would be, they would contribute to understanding what may have happened.”
If you are a current or former ADF member, or a relative, and need counselling or support, contact the Defence All-Hours Support Line on 1800 628 036 or Open Arms on 1800 011 046.
With Rob Harris