Blood Lust and Demigods: Behind an Australian Force’s Slaughter of Helpless Afghans

The findings of a four-year military inquiry paint a brutal picture of a special forces culture of rewarding the killing of innocents and prisoners and methodically covering it up.

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 four-year examination by the inspector general of the Australian Defense Force is groundbreaking in its scope. It is the first time that a member of the American-led coalition in Afghanistan has so publicly, and at such a large scale, accused its troops of wrongdoing.

The inspector general’s inquiry, which examined the period from 2005 to 2016, stopped short of calling the killings war crimes. But the highly redacted report singles out “possibly the most disgraceful episode in Australia’s military history,” and calls for the criminal investigation of 19 soldiers.

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 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.”

The findings reflect the painful legacy of a wrenching 19-year conflict that has defied resolution, as violence continues unabated across Afghanistan. Peace talks are deadlocked between the Afghan government and the Taliban, and the country’s fate has been made all the more uncertain since President Trump’s order to further reduce American troops.

Australia’s military reckoning presents a stark contrast to how the United States has examined its own actions.

Mr. Trump recently pardoned three service members for war crimes and other unlawful acts. His administration has tried to block the work of an international investigator examining allegations of war crimes. And while there has been no small number of accusations of battlefield atrocities by U.S. service members, few have resulted in formal investigations, with American military officials portraying any such misconduct as rare.

U.S. investigations, when they have occurred, have generally centered not on entire units, but on individuals like Staff Sgt. Robert Bales, who pleaded guilty to killing 16 civilians and is serving life in prison without parole. The focus on individuals has allowed special operations groups like the one at the center of the Australian report to avoid broader scrutiny.

The Australian defense ministry, by contrast, went so far as to terminate 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.

While some countries may use Australia’s forthrightness against it, “if they’re honest, they’ll recognize Australia is being searingly tough on itself,” said John Blaxland, a defense expert at the Australian National University, noting 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.

In a statement, the Afghanistan Independent Human Rights Commission said: “Only through a series of independent inquiries will we uncover the true extent of this disregard for Afghan life, which normalized murder, and resulted in war crimes. Only through further investigation, documentation and engagement with victims will victims’ right to truth and justice be met.”

Australia, a military ally of the United States for over a century, first joined American troops in Afghanistan shortly after they arrived in late 2001. Over the years that followed, more than 26,000 Australians have served in the country, including 3,000 special operations forces. The last combat troops left in late 2013, though several hundred support personnel remained.

The investigation into troops’ behavior was initiated in 2015 by the special forces commander at the time, Jeff Sengelman, who commissioned a confidential “cultural review.” Disturbing revelations of unlawful killings, “competition killing” and “blood lust” prompted the Army chief in 2016 to request that the inspector general conduct a formal inquiry.

Public awareness of potential abuses first emerged in 2017, when the Australian Broadcasting Corporation published allegations of unlawful killings of unarmed Afghan men and children after receiving hundreds of leaked Defense Force documents. This later prompted a raid on the office of the national broadcaster by the federal police and a failed attempt to prosecute the journalist who wrote the article.

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.”

Some special forces members carried weapons or equipment that could be planted on corpses to make them look like legitimate targets. This practice most likely originated from a desire to avoid scrutiny when soldiers killed legitimate yet unarmed enemy combatants, but “evolved to be used for the purpose of concealing deliberate unlawful killings,” the report found.

It also 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.

Professor Blaxland said the report’s findings reflected an ill-conceived national policy governing Australia’s involvement in Afghanistan that bred cynicism among some soldiers.

Australia had committed “military forces to open-ended missions without compelling strategy that made an erosion of moral compass possible,” he said.

“Of fundamental importance is the recognition by Australian politicians and the public writ large that we cannot take a cavalier approach to the deployment of armed forces and expect to sustain that over a decade without moral injury,” Professor Blaxland added.