After brutal war crimes, what does Australia owe Afghans?

In 2013, the Australian government paid a PR company AUD 277,000 ($203,000) of taxpayer money to buy up advertising spots on TV, radio and print publications in Afghanistan, Iran and Pakistan. A portion of the funds also went to distributing 20,000 notebooks with Australian government advertisements on the front and back covers to Afghan secondary school and university students.

“Advertisements” is a misnomer. The campaign, which ran for several years and included hundreds of thousands of dollars more in spending, was not advertising Australia. It was designed to put people off Australia. It showed Afghan refugees, played by actors, being sent to prison camps in Pacific islands, and weeping family members (also actors) discussing how they felt cheated by their asylum-seeking relatives.

In one video, a son asks his father for money to pay smugglers to get him to Australia. The son is caught and deported to a camp in Manus Island. “I was a fool to have believed his words,” the father says. “[My son] will spend many years there with no work or money.”

Australia, according to the campaign, was off-limits to Afghan refugees. And those refugees, the campaign implies, were only going there to make money.

At the same time that the advertising campaign to stop refugees in Australia was in operation, Australian soldiers were conducting a different campaign to create the kind of atmosphere that usually breeds refugees.

On January 7, 2013, Australian troops arrived in a village in Uruzgan province, in the centre of Afghanistan. There they encountered an imam, who was unarmed, sitting with women of the village and teaching their children. The soldiers’ interpreter asked the imam his name, which was Sher Mohammad. It is an extremely common name in Afghanistan. It was also the name of a member of the Taliban who was on a list of targets. The soldiers pulled the imam, who was not affiliated with the Taliban, to a stable next to his home and murdered him.

This incident was one of dozens documented by authorities in Canberra earlier this month in a government inquiry investigating “rumours of serious misconduct by Australia’s Special Forces in Afghanistan” between 2005 and 2016.

“Serious misconduct” is another misnomer. As the report goes on to note, many of the incidents, including the one above, if proven, would constitute war crimes. Other, particularly egregious incidents include junior soldiers being instructed to shoot prisoners in order to practise killing, as well as the planting of weapons near bodies to frame unarmed Afghans. In all, as far as Australian authorities have been able to gather, Australian forces may have murdered at least 39 Afghan prisoners and civilians. At least two were tortured.

Tragically, 39 is not a relatively high number in a discussion about murder victims in Afghanistan. In just the first three weeks of this month, 163 civilians have been killed in Afghanistan by the Taliban and other terrorist organisations. Afghanistan does not track figures for domestic murders and other homicides, but they occur frequently.

For the living, however, it matters who is doing the killing. The Australian soldiers’ mandate in Afghanistan is to protect civilian lives. Their failure to do so – their insistence, in the cases noted in the report, on doing otherwise – gives fire to the Taliban’s argument that that mandate is a lie. It is the kind of abuse by foreign powers that helped give rise to the Taliban in the first place. It is the kind of abuse that the Taliban is likely to use as leverage in its negotiations with the Afghan government over how to share power in Afghanistan in the years ahead.

What the Taliban will care little about, but the world ought to be deeply concerned with, however, is the juxtaposition with Australia’s policy towards Afghan asylum-seekers.

There are many in Australia who are sceptical that Afghans arriving at their shores are fleeing horrific conditions and targeted killings. That is why Canberra’s policies of turning asylum-seekers away and deporting them to camps in Pacific Islands have endured for so long. They have endured in spite of repeated claims by humanitarian organisations that the camps’ existence constitutes an abuse of human rights. Now the voters and policymakers who approved of the camps must face the reality that Afghans are fleeing something truly terrifying. They will know it to be true because their own country was part of the terror.

Afghans will know that they have been betrayed by those who were meant to protect them.

What happens now? What do the soldiers who committed these acts deserve? What does Australia deserve? What do Afghans – victims and their compatriots – deserve?

“Deserve” is, in some sense, another misnomer. It is the emotional weight attached to the logic of justice. And there are two approaches to justice in the context of crimes, including war crimes: retributive justice and restorative justice. Punishment to deter future crime and restitution to make victims whole again. The national conversation in Australia must contemplate both.

Australian soldiers, it must be said, have done good work in Afghanistan. In the same period covered by the government inquiry, 40 Australian soldiers gave their lives for the sake of Afghanistan’s security. Australian taxpayers have given upwards of $1 billion in aid to Kabul.

What the Australian Special Forces accused of these war crimes have done, obviously, must not be allowed to happen again – for the sake of international rule of law and also for the integrity of Australia’s military. The crimes that have been alleged are among the most severe in international criminal law. In the absence of a more general international tribunal for war crimes in Afghanistan – something the International Criminal Court has expressed a desire to see, but which is highly unlikely to ever happen – the full force of Australian law should be felt.

But what Afghans should see is more than restitution for victims’ families (whom Canberra should spare no effort in finding). They should see an acceptance of the reality of their plight from Australian authorities, and a revival of the conversation among the Australian public about Canberra’s refugee policy. Part of the restitution owed to Afghans is the restoration of Australia’s true values, and its role as a beacon of freedom and a place of refuge.