MELBOURNE, Australia — They were the elite of the elite among Australian soldiers, with a record of daring raids in Afghanistan. But a twisted and extreme warrior culture was being instilled, driving the commandos to glorify atrocity as they waged a methodical campaign to kill helpless Afghans and cover it up.
Commanders ordered junior soldiers to execute prisoners so they could record their first “kill.” Adolescents, farmers and other noncombatants were shot dead in circumstances clearly outside
the heat of battle. Superior officers created such a godlike aura around themselves that troops dared not question them, even as 39 Afghans were unlawfully killed.
These are among the findings of battlefield misconduct, released on Thursday in a public accounting by the Australian military — a rare admission of abuses that often remain hidden during war.
The country’s military chief, Gen. Angus Campbell, said he accepted the findings and would eliminate an elite unit at the center of the investigation, the 2nd Squadron of the Army’s Special Air Service Regiment, a decision akin to disbanding a component of an elite American commando unit such as SEAL Team 6 or Delta Force. The report also recommends that the Australian government pay compensation to the families of the Afghan victims.
“Today, the Australian Defense Force is rightly held to account for allegations of grave misconduct,” General Campbell said as he announced the findings of the inquiry. He called them “deeply disturbing” and “unreservedly” apologized to the Afghan people.
“It’s alleged that some patrols took the law into their own hands, rules were broken, stories concocted, lies told, and prisoners killed,” he said. “Those who wished to speak up were allegedly discouraged, intimidated, and discredited.”
John Blaxland, a defense expert at the Australian National University, noted that the inquiry had been initiated from within the defense force.
Before the release of the report on Thursday, Prime Minister Scott Morrison called Afghanistan’s government to express his “deepest sorrow” over the troops’ misconduct. A spokesman for the Afghan president, Ashraf Ghani, said that Mr. Morrison had vowed that any soldier who committed crimes would face legal consequences.
The report released on Thursday documents a wide range of misconduct that the country’s defense chief called the product of a “distorted culture” in which “much of the good order and discipline of military life fell away.”
It presents a scathing assessment of an atmosphere of unquestioning loyalty in the special forces, in which superiors were considered “demigods” who could make or break someone’s career. That meant low-ranking soldiers did not question commands, even unlawful ones.
The report placed the most responsibility on a small number of midlevel sergeants and their protégés for instigating and covering up the wrongdoing. It suggested that their motives included a desire to outscore other patrols in the number of enemy combatants killed, to clear at all costs the battlefield of people believed to be insurgents and to initiate new soldiers into a brotherhood of combat.
Higher-level commanders bore responsibility for the culture that developed and for the abuse that happened on their watch, but criminal behavior was largely concealed from them, the report said.