An Australian Regiment Is Yet To Answer for Abuses Committed in Afghanistan

How some of the country’s elite warriors may get away with murder while a whistleblower faces prison and victims await justice

An Australian Regiment Is Yet To Answer for Abuses Committed in Afghanistan
Australian SAS forces on patrol near Bagram, Afghanistan, on Sept. 10, 2002. (Simon O’Dwyer/The AGE/Fairfax Media via Getty Images)

Last year, on one scorching day in April, New Lines traveled by car with Haji Abdul Ahad Bahai through Tarin Kot, the capital of the Afghan province of Uruzgan. Unlike in the past, he didn’t have a job to go to or an obligation to keep appointments with police chiefs and prison officials. His little office at the bazaar, where he had spent 14 years working as an investigator for the Afghan Independent Human Rights Commission (AIHRC), was padlocked when the Taliban shuttered his organization after they took over and the United States withdrew in August 2021.

Even though he lost his job, Bahai has continued to drive across the country checking up on people who lodged complaints to the AIHRC about alleged war crimes committed by Australia’s Special Air Service Regiment (SASR or, more commonly, SAS) during the war in Afghanistan. There have been numerous allegations of SAS troops shooting unarmed civilians, which have been made public by Australian military whistleblowers and others. There is also a public account by a U.S. Marine who claimed that he had witnessed a commando shooting dead an unarmed man who was already in their custody to make extra room in a helicopter ride.

Australia’s own military launched an internal four-year investigation to look into the allegations. In 2020, it released what is known as the Brereton Report, a damning account detailing what it called “possibly the most disgraceful episode in Australia’s military history,” making it the first admission of such behavior from the U.S.-led coalition in Afghanistan. The report found “credible evidence” of years of gross abuses, like commanders ordering junior officers to execute prisoners to register their first “kill,” as well as a pattern of extrajudicial killing and the murder of civilians in cold blood, implicating at least 25 soldiers in 39 murders.

In March, Australia made the first-ever arrest of a soldier on charges of committing a war crime, but critics say the inquiry into the military’s abuses purposely ignores the conduct of higher-ranking officers who knew, or should have known, what was happening under their command. Critics add that the trooper who was arrested is yet to set foot in court and that no further arrests appear to be forthcoming.

In May, Australia’s defense chief announced that the U.S. had warned him in 2021 that allegations of war crimes could lead to a suspension of its relationship with the SAS. The U.S. is Australia’s biggest security alliance partner, and the threat to suspend cooperation alludes to the Leahy Law, which prohibits the U.S. from using funds to assist foreign security forces when there is credible information that implicates them in human rights violations.

But Afghans like Bahai and the victims who witnessed what they say was wanton violence by the SAS say justice for them remains out of reach.

North of Tarin Kot, I accompanied Bahai to Kakarak, a small village nestled in the biblical Dorafshan Valley. His mission was to meet a young man named Esmatullah, whose father and brother were allegedly killed in cold blood by an SAS trooper more than 10 years earlier. Esmatullah lodged a formal complaint with the AIHRC but, like others among his compatriots, he has yet to see any accountability.

Upon arrival in Kakarak, we found the usual tending to the land, including poppy fields, which had sprouted red and white flowers despite an official ban by the Taliban. There is nothing easy or lucrative about this lifestyle, but at least things seemed peaceful. The sun was blazing and the river that ordinarily flowed through the valley had turned to a trickle, exposing a bed of pebbles and sand where a group of boys played a game of cricket.

Esmatullah, who estimated his age to be 23 according to his birth certificate (an unreliable record in Afghanistan), recalled having a very different childhood from the boys who played around us in the fields. Esmatullah’s formative years were filled with watching military patrols, raids and, occasionally, firefights.

“They were terrifying,” he recounted to me and Bahai, referring to the presence of the foreign troops who occupied his village. It didn’t take long for him to differentiate among the Dutch, the Americans and the Australians, he explained. Within the latter, one group stood out: the SAS, easily recognizable by their uniforms and camo face paint.

Esmatullah remembered how they would descend upon his people. Big, burly operators jumping out of Black Hawk helicopters, rotors manically swirling the dust on the fields. Esmatullah used to call them the “red beards” for the color frequently seen in their facial hair. Then, one day, which Esmatullah says must have been sometime in 2012, he found himself transformed from spectator to victim.

“It was like the apocalypse,” he said, recalling what would quickly unfold as an infamous and fatal raid. “It was noon, and we were in the house. I remember it was spring and raining. The sky was dark.”

All of a sudden, a loud explosion shattered the house and the gunfire began. “We were covered in blood and tried to leave the house, but they [SAS troopers] were up on that hill, firing at us and telling us not to leave the compound,” he said, gesticulating across the valley toward where it happened.

“I didn’t know where I was. Then the Australians came from over there,” he continued, pointing toward a dusty alley. Esmatullah did not know why the Australians raided his village on that day or why they appeared to zero in on his family’s house.

“It was chaos; everyone was screaming,” he said. Then, an SAS trooper shot dead his father, Mohammad Issa, and older brother, Ahmatullah, in front of him.

“One big Australian guy came toward me with his gun, and my sister just kicked him. She grabbed me and dragged me out of there,” he recalled, continuing to describe how rough the troops were; how they shoved him and his family around. They shouted orders in English, sometimes in Dari, but Esmatullah and his village folk understood neither language. The women and children had already gone into hiding at the neighbor’s house, but one older sister saw their father get shot, and in the frenzy of the moment she ran toward Esmatullah and grabbed him. Together they took shelter at a neighbor’s house until the raid was over. Before nightfall, foreign forces bombed the already damaged family compound to rubble.

According to reports that later became public in Australia, that year was the peak of “rogue” operations in the SAS. Another alleged incident was the killing in the village of Sola of an imam and his adult son, later identified as Haji Raz Mohammad and Abdul Jalil, respectively. Many of these episodes, which resonate with Esmatullah’s description of events, took place during the hunt for Hekmatullah, the Afghan National Army sergeant who admitted to killing three off-duty Australian soldiers at a patrol base on Aug. 29, 2012 (and boasted that he would do it again if given the chance). The SAS had deployed several times searching for him in Uruzgan before he was arrested in Pakistan in February 2013. In what rights activists say was a pattern of seeking revenge through extrajudicial justice, SAS troops would allegedly follow tips with little verification of claims and, once they arrived at a suspect’s home, would shoot to kill even when no one posed an immediate threat or danger to them.

“My father wasn’t a Talib, nor had he fought somewhere. He was a shoemaker busy with his shop,” Esmatullah lamented. “Why didn’t anyone just go ask the village elders? Didn’t they have interpreters? They could have just imprisoned us. Instead, they killed these people, then bombed everything we had. Why?”

Since Esmatullah lodged his complaint in 2020 on the heels of the Brereton Report, no one from the Australian government or its armed services has reached out to investigate his claims. Nor has anyone contacted Bahai, who registered the complaint through AIHRC.

New Lines reached out for comment to the Office of the Special Investigator, which is tasked with probing Australia’s alleged war crimes. A spokesperson stated that the office does not “comment on individuals, allegations or whether they are the subject of investigation.”

Both Bahai and Esmatullah view the official silence as a continuation of Australia’s smoke-and-mirrors campaign; a culture that whistleblowers and rights groups say enabled the alleged war crimes in the first place. Skeptics of the inquiry claim that Afghans like Bahai and Esmatullah are trying to fleece the Australian government for a payout by submitting false testimony, a charge that both men vehemently deny.

“I didn’t change a word, not for anyone,” Bahai said, referring to Esmatullah’s statement and all the other witnesses he interviewed. “We did our jobs.”

In Sydney, the Australian whistleblower and former military legal officer David McBride sat in his home, dressed in a pressed linen shirt and white framed reading glasses. Despite his relaxed appearance, McBride lamented that he is living in a kind of purgatory.

“My career has been ruined and I’ve got no money,” he told me, dryly, during an online interview over Zoom. “They [the government] have taken my passport.”

McBride served two tours in Afghanistan before blowing the lid on the Australian military’s conduct there. From 2014 to 2017, he leaked internal military documents to Australia’s national broadcaster, the ABC, which revealed what appears to be the military’s ongoing and systemic whitewashing of suspicious and extrajudicial killings.

Now he is facing a trial by a civilian jury in November for five charges, including unlawfully communicating military information, theft of Commonwealth property and unlawfully disclosing a Commonwealth document. If convicted, he could spend the rest of his life in prison.

“I don’t know if I’ll be coming out of that courtroom or going to jail,” he said.

But what continued to infuriate McBride — perhaps more than even his own prosecution, is Australia’s refusal to investigate anyone further up the chain of command. The Brereton Report suggests that senior commanders should be given a “blanket exemption” from responsibility, while recommending criminal investigation into anyone below the rank of patrol commander. New Lines spoke to four officers, all of whom had deployed multiple times to Afghanistan, including retired Maj. Stuart McCarthy, who supported McBride’s contention that key military figures engaged in a campaign of cover-ups and scapegoating. The officers say that ground missions were closely monitored, both on base and remotely, and that the military top brass openly discussed their real-time monitoring of operations on the ground.

McBride continued: “It seems like the bigger bastard you were, the more medals you got, and they didn’t want that to come out. It’s very embarrassing for them to say, ‘Well, you know, we were basically encouraging people to shoot civilians, make up a story, because we weren’t going to look at it closely and didn’t care.’ That was the message we wanted and of course, that created the cycle. I thought, ‘Wow, that worked well, like the rat getting the cheese.’ They kept repeating that action.”

A group of former (non-SAS) officers and military lawyers have prepared a case for command responsibility to the International Criminal Court (ICC). The Australian army veteran and independent Sen. Jacqui Lambie filed a formal request asking the ICC to exercise jurisdiction over investigating the allegations and introduced the document to Australia’s Senate on June 20. Lambie has accused the military’s senior leadership of throwing junior officers “under the bus,” while refusing to take any responsibility for their own failure to act.

“Leadership knew this went beyond patrols. It went up the chain. Everyone knew. And still our government is silent,” Lambie told the Senate during the heated public session. “I am giving you a second chance to get this right and fix this mess,” she added.

Lambie’s ICC letter is based on a doctoral thesis, “How Long the Shadow? Command Responsibility for War Crimes in Australian Law,” written by the renowned international legal expert and Australian national Glenn Kolomeitz, who spoke to New Lines about the allegations.

“We need to have a very, very strong case,” Kolomeitz said during an interview in May. “And I think we do.”

Like McBride, Kolomeitz served two tours in Afghanistan as a legal officer, including with the SAS. He has become a leading authority on international war crimes prosecution, including with the ICC, and his portfolio currently includes Ukraine.

He rejects the military’s official finding that no one beyond the units in question knew about suspicious killings, lamenting what he says has been a chilling effect on allies who work closely with the Australian Defence Force.

“Even junior officers, people in communications roles, electronic warfare roles have all said they had been hearing stuff. Commanders too,” he recalled. “Well, mate, you’re a commander … you have a duty to inquire.”

And that is the basis for the ICC referral — that commanders, in particular those who were in charge of Australia’s Middle East operations, should face criminal command responsibility, as stipulated in Article 28 of the Rome Statute at the ICC, which states that “military commanders are held criminally responsible for crimes committed by armed forces under their effective command and control.”

Australia is a signatory to the Rome Statute.

Also problematic is the fact that the overseer of the military’s internal inquiries, Gen. Angus Campbell, served as one of the commanders during the 20-year war in Afghanistan and is himself under scrutiny for failure of command.

Back in Uruzgan, Afghans like Bahai said they knew firsthand that the Australian military was not telling the truth. “We gave them the reports. They had it all,” Bahai said as we prepared to ride in his Toyota to leave the valley toward our next destination: a farm in the village of Dehjawze Hasanzai.

Upon arrival there, we walked up a sloping dusty track lined by high mud-brick walls that opened onto an expanse of green fields and orchards. It was unbelievably peaceful, save for the sound of a far-off spluttering pump of the farm’s irrigation system and the giggles of children who played nearby. As Bahai recalled, the contrast between Uruzgan in wartime and in peace could not be starker.

It was 11 years prior when he visited this same farm and met a young farmer named Gul Mohammad, or Jamshid for short. Now the farmer had grown into a Taliban commander and a Mawlana Saeb — a low-ranking religious authority. Boasting a thick, bushy black beard that matched his dark eyes, Jamshid sat down with us to tell his story.

“God gave me a brother and we are blessed to now have a martyr,” he said, pointing amid the silver wheat blades by the dirt path where he recalled his brother, Dad Mohammad, being shot and killed. It happened in 2012.

The identity of Dad Mohammad’s alleged shooter has become public. He is the 41-year-old former SAS trooper Oliver Schulz, the only SAS soldier to be arrested so far by the Australian authorities since allegations of war crimes began to surface over 10 years ago. He was charged with murder in March, though no trial date has yet been set.

Critics are pushing for more arrests and accountability, pointing to how the official Australian Defence Force’s version of events contradicts the testimony of civilians, whose stories, supported with evidence, are coming to light almost a decade later. For example, the internal military inquiry concluded that Dad Mohammad had been carrying a Taliban radio and “tactically maneuvering” in a way that posed a direct threat to soldiers. But video footage of the event, leaked online five years after it happened, shows Dad Mohammad lying on his back, quiet and not resisting, clutching red prayer beads when he was shot three times in the chest at point-blank range.

“Every day, planes were landing here,” Jamshid continued, sitting under the shade of a tree. “We couldn’t even go out for a piss on our own land.”

Jamshid contends that Dad Mohammad’s murder was no secret — it happened in broad daylight, in front of dozens of Australian and Afghan witnesses who promptly complained to the AIHRC.

“They have video of many of these things … and there were a dozen people there,” Jamshid continued, describing just how many testimonies of these events exist. “They have all our words. All they [Australians] are doing now is wasting our time and pissing us off.”

Indeed, McBride said the arrest and the internal report was just the tip of the iceberg. “We had 20 suspicious deaths [in 2012] and they didn’t investigate one of them,” he told me. Among those suspicious deaths was the killing of a handcuffed Afghan farmer, Ali Jan, in the village of Darwan on Sept. 11, 2012, during the hunt for Hekmatullah. (The alleged incident appears to be a different one from what was reportedly witnessed by the U.S. Marines.) Eleven years later, Australia’s most decorated living veteran and former SAS Cpl. Ben Roberts-Smith has been implicated in the alleged war crime. This happened, ironically, during a defamation lawsuit brought by Roberts-Smith against Australia’s Fairfax Media, which had published damning reports about his alleged misconduct in Afghanistan.

In June, a federal judge found “substantial truth” to allegations that Roberts-Smith had called defamatory, even though Australian law is often friendly to the plaintiff in such cases. The judge said that there was significant evidence to support claims that Roberts-Smith murdered the “unarmed and defenceless [Ali Jan] by kicking him off a cliff and procuring the soldiers under his command to shoot him.”

Also, the special operations chatroom logs that unfold in real time and are visible up the chain of command show that Roberts-Smith and other SAS soldiers falsely reported that Ali Jan and at least two other Afghans were Enemy Killed In Action (EKIA). The logs further indicate that there was a surveillance drone monitoring the entire operation in real time.

In a separate account, also reported by the Fairfax media outlets for whom the judge ruled in favor, Roberts-Smith is said to have killed one of two Afghan men discovered hiding in a tunnel. According to the report, the victim wore a prosthetic leg. The report added that the SAS unit then took the prosthetic leg back to their base bar, The Fat Lady’s Arms, where Roberts-Smith encouraged other soldiers to use it as a novelty drinking vessel.

New Lines has confirmed with defense sources that Roberts-Smith was additionally involved in the raid on Sola in which Raz Mohammad and his son were killed. Afghan witnesses attested that the pair were civilians executed in cold blood. After the raid on Aug. 31, 2012, Hamid Karzai, Afghanistan’s president at the time, brought the allegations directly to the Australian government and demanded a formal inquiry. Australia’s then-Defense Minister Stephen Smith (no relation to Roberts-Smith) rejected the call and maintained that the dead men were insurgents.

The veterans involved in the ICC referral say this is relevant because the Sola killings occurred only two weeks before Roberts-Smith allegedly kicked Ali Jan off a cliff. The annex to the ICC referral states that Karzai’s complaint makes it clear that “higher commanders and superiors including [then-Chief of the Defence Force] David Hurley and Stephen Smith did know or should have known that war crimes were committed at Sola on 31 August 2012.” The report continues: “Their astonishing failures to respond with reasonable and necessary measures from that moment … means [sic] they are criminally liable for alleged crimes resulting in the deaths of at least one and possibly three or more non-combatants at Darwan on 11 September 2012.”

According to McBride, there is another piece to this puzzle that appears like a cover-up by the top brass. In his view, it started in earnest just a few months after Ali Jan’s killing, when Australian and international journalists started asking questions. At that time, Roberts-Smith was already a recipient of the Medal for Gallantry and had won the Victoria Cross the year before. He was Australia’s most high-profile soldier and the face of the SAS, rolled out by interest groups, politicians and prime ministers to sell an unpopular war. McBride contends that neither the Defence Force nor Canberra wanted their poster boy tarnished by allegations, so they purposely went looking elsewhere.

“The ADF was trying to charge anybody and everything, even people who had clearly just been defending themselves,” McBride continued. “I thought, ‘Something is up.’ And what I suspect is they needed scapegoats.”

His suspicions were compounded in April 2013, when high-ranking officers including Hurley suddenly issued a new directive, warning troops they could be charged with “the war crime of murder” if they killed someone not directly participating in hostilities.

“If they knew nothing, then why the sudden change?” McBride asked exhaustedly, his voice croaking.

He said it was the killings at Sola — made public by Karzai — that forced the Australian Defence Force’s senior leadership to issue the warning.

“The problem is, I’m in the middle, and I could see it and I wasn’t going to accept it. We can’t put innocent people in jail [to appease] the press, nor could we pin medals on serial killers,” he said.

McBride will attempt to bring these officers with him to court in November to prove that command knew about the killings, but Commonwealth prosecutors are already blocking his defense under the guise of “national security.”

As for the ICC, the office of Chief Prosecutor Karim Khan has confirmed to New Lines that it has received Lambie’s letter but said it would not comment further.

Khan has already faced criticism, including from Afghan activists and rights groups, for what they say is his prioritizing allegations against the Taliban while dismissing calls to investigate Australia, the U.S. and other allies.

The Brereton Report has also raised uncomfortable questions in the Netherlands: Dutch forces were partnered with Australia in Uruzgan until the Dutch withdrew in late 2010. One Dutch media report reveals that in 2010, an intelligence officer complained that Australian forces had extrajudicially detained, tortured and killed a man they suspected of involvement in a bombing that killed two Dutch marines. According to the report, Dutch intelligence officers had already interrogated the man and cleared him, but he was picked up by Australian forces three weeks later and killed under suspicious circumstances. (The Dutch government has so far refused to launch an inquiry into the allegations.)

As things remain stalled, former SAS trooper Schulz is yet to set foot in a courtroom, and Roberts-Smith has not been formally charged with crimes. Only McBride, the whistleblower, faces the prospect of spending time in prison, which he says he is ready for.

“I have to gather up all my courage,” he said. “I went into this with my eyes open. But I do say to myself, it’s always been about change. And possibly the best way that’s going to happen is for me to be put in jail.”

As for Bahai, he remains hopeful. “If people didn’t have hope for justice, they wouldn’t bother lodging complaints,” he said. “They know these countries — Australia, U.S.A., Netherlands, abide by and enforce the law, unlike what we had here.”

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