War Crimes and Evasion
The Brereton Report released this month has outlined the perpetration of criminal activity and brutality by members of the Australian Defence Force (ADF) against the Afghan people. The report focuses on the period between 2005-2016, seeking to investigate rumours of murders and torture of civilians and those who posed no threat to defence personnel. It found ‘credible information’ on the unlawful killing of at least 39 Afghans and recommended criminal investigation on the cases that were most likely to withstand prosecution. Many from across Australia have expressed their shock at the immorality of the Special Forces at the centre of these crimes, and at the atrocities outlined in the Brereton Report.
But I would contend that this widespread shock is a reflection of the privilege of being largely sheltered from the reality of war and violence, and this within itself is a revelation of far deeper misgivings that have become normalised in our collective identity – a revelation that beckons further scrutiny. As the perpetrators of aggression – as a nation that has chosen to wage war upon those in a distant land – we are exposed to war only through carefully controlled narratives designed to sanitise and disguise the true brutality of war and to eclipse the preceding layers of injustice that enable these wars to arise. This distortion reveals at its heart a world defined by an increasingly devastating imbalance of power, amongst the most important spoil of which, is control of the ideologies and norms that shape our realities.
It is worth pausing a moment, to peer past these narrow and constructed confines, designed to keep us oblivious to broader and deeper layers of failure and injustice. It is a confinement that has kept our perspective and understanding of the crimes outlined in the Brereton Report within a thin slither of analysis that is far too narrow and uncontextualised to allow for the necessary reckoning of the travesties that have occurred. Importantly, the bulk of our collective response so far – which has been seemingly seamlessly skewed towards elevating perpetrators perspectives while neglecting victims – is at risk of reinforcing and widening the destructive gulf between the powerful and the voiceless. If left unreckoned with and unseen, this chasm threatens to derail any meaningful notions of justice.
As an Afghan born migrant to Australia, I welcome the actions of the ADF and of the Government in the pursual of the allegations of criminality that the Inquiry has reported, but I am not surprised by the findings. Afghans have long been aware of the findings within the report, both in Afghanistan where civilians bear the brunt of the violence, and within the diaspora community connected globally.
But much like the ‘discovery’ of the ‘New World’ of European maritime explorers in the fifteenth and sixteenth century of places that had been inhabited by Indigenous populations for millennia, this story is being understood, written and owned as a revelation by those who possess a disproportionate balance of power in our world today.
For centuries, the norms which underpin the notion of power that defines our present realities, have been set by a Euro-American master narrative that, since its discovery of the New World, realised the enormity of the wealth and resources that could be redirected to itself. The eighteenth-century Industrial Revolution that underpins the contemporary wealth of Europe and its settler colonies, was itself funded by earlier imperial conquests that funnelled wealth and power en masse in forms such as silver, slaves, cotton and sugar into the global north.
Alongside this devastating redirection and with advances in knowledge and capability, came an increasingly sophisticated, and increasingly critical, capacity to control narratives – a necessity to facilitate the widespread acquisition of land, eradication of people and acquisition of resources. Controlling narratives arises through a dual function of both having the power to create myths, while simultaneously blocking the narratives of others from emerging. This form of power leans heavily on the creation of the “other” – those rendered so subaltern and so irreconcilably dehumanised, that their conquest, erasure and alienation becomes morally sanctionable. This othering depends on the myth of the inevitability of the need to control people who have been positioned as inferior, passive and lacking in self-determination.
Although slavery has been abolished and most of the world formally decolonised, the very same imperial cycle of dominance and erasure is the notion of power that persists to this day, though in ways that are less overt and more disguised. Today, the US led militarisation of the world, and of its own nation through aggressive policing, unfolds dangerously shrouded in a language of maintaining national security and spreading democracy, while omitting the degree to which this foreign policy is largely driven by domestic political needs. Needs that are increasingly inseparable from corporate interests and dominant capitalist structures.
This militarisation is an approach that enables the same outcome as colonisation once did – the seizure of land and control of regional affairs, the erasure of the people whose lands have been occupied, the redirection of resources and wealth, and the control of global narratives.
And as a former colony itself, with a largely denied imperial past still abounding, this same pattern of power animates Australia’s sense of nationhood. It is what enables us to unquestioningly enter into theatres of war, where this centuries-long stratification of power gushes out as physical, violent realities.
When understood through this broadened lens, the brutality described in the Brereton report ceases to be shocking and appears more like the inevitable consequence of the adhered to vision of power that has disconnection and dehumanisation at its core.
It is this very shadow that also looms above our heavily skewed response to the report, which has for the most part, neglected the Afghan voice while elevating the concerns of those with a disproportionate level of power – even when they have acted with impunity as the perpetrators of aggression. There has been extensive consideration around the mental health strains placed on personnel, on the potential failures of the chain of command, or on the consequences of stripping awards and decorations. And virtually every condemnation is followed by a need to highlight the rogue nature of the crimes and to outline the overwhelming professionalism, morality and integrity of the military presence in Afghanistan.
But a bigger question might be, what is the coherence of this integrity in a space that is overwhelmingly bred by failures of the human spirit? The overall toll of war is one of injustice and deprivation – not of valour. For those who might be inclined to argue the validity of the war in Afghanistan as a war against terror – even in its genesis, during the heat of the response to the September 11 attacks, there was shaky to no legal justification or UN approved mandate to invade Afghanistan. The protagonists of the attacks were not from Afghanistan, and there had been no serious attempt at resolution through dialogue. And as unveiled in the release of The Afghan Papers by The Washington Post in late 2019, the war efforts were from very early on aimless, lacking in coherent policy, driven by public lies and from behind a façade of ideologically driven narratives of patriotism, liberation and democracy. Admittedly, many Afghans in the early days of occupation by foreign troops may have welcomed their presence as a bulwark against Taliban incursions and brutality. But this soon descended into the nightmarish reality of a triangulation of aggressions against Afghan civilians from all sides – from the Taliban, from their own Government and from the foreign troops whose incidents of war crimes and impunity rapidly grew.
Beyond the specific war crimes like those outlined in the Brereton report, for Afghan civilians, the war has been destructive on many other levels, all attributable to, and further amplifying, the gaping imbalance of power that underwrites our world. While military losses have been carefully tallied by occupying forces, there is no official count of the Afghan dead or injured spanning the entirety of the almost two decades of occupation period. A report released by the UN this year approximated that since 2010 (when tallying began, over eight years after the start of the war) 100, 000 Afghans had been killed or injured. Further, according to a “conservative estimate”, a report released this year by Brown University for the first time tallying the number of people displaced by the war on terror, reveals that 5.3 million Afghans have been internally or externally displaced. Behind each of these statistics, are people, who have been experiencing first-hand the decimation of war, long before their suffering has been compiled into a formalised report. To draw upon morality in a space designed to devastate, is intelligible only when our perspective has been distorted and skewed.
This disfigured morality has engulfed even paths for justice. So far, justice has been carved out in terms of compensatory sums paid to families and the possibility of eventual criminal prosecutions. While compensation will no doubt alleviate the difficulty of the often-impoverished lives of the families of victims, it is far from offering a complete and humanised notion of healing and closure.
Further, the report itself highlights the spectacular failure rate of successful criminal prosecutions of allegedly offending troops. Examples from other nations like the US, UK, Canada, and the Netherlands all reveal a trend towards charges (even those that are widely able to be substantiated) being dropped because of the difficulty in finding ‘proof’ so long after crimes have occurred, or because of overwhelming consideration given to mental health duress of soldiers, or because of sweeping presidential pardons of convicted war criminals.
Supporting this ability to avoid consequences for criminality, is a legal framework designed systematically to favour foreign perpetrators – armies of war lawyers were deployed alongside soldiers in the war on terror to devise paths of maximum destruction with limited liability, and trials that do eventuate take place on the home turf of those at the centre of allegations and often in arenas sympathetic to troops.
Continuing to distort the path for justice, is a notable absence of the presence of victims and of the voices of their families and loved ones. It raises the spectre of a paternalistic and politically convenient notion of justice, that erases the victims even further. The truth is that many of the Afghans who have had their loved ones unlawfully killed by Australian forces, may not even know that this Inquiry has taken place. While part of the approach to justice has been to apologise to the Afghan Government and to engage authorities, we have little idea about the perspectives of the civilian victims – some might reject an evasive chance at justice, that after years of inaction, only splits open newly sealed wounds, while others might want their chance to be heard and to heal. That Afghans have so far been redacted from a path of justice that is instead being decided for them, and which seems so far to concentrate on absolving the sins of aggressors, is yet another manifestation of the crippling imbalance of power animating the war in Afghanistan, and our world.
Our world today has been pushed to the brink, because of the very power imbalance that lies at the heart of the war in Afghanistan and the tragedies formally outlined in the Brereton Report.
The atrocities outlined in the report are but one strand in an overall web designed to eviscerate, exclude and disconnect us from ourselves, one another and the natural universe from which we descend.
We cannot interpret them as isolated incidents derived from personal or organisational failings, and nor should we see them through the narrowed perspective of our own world view, disproportionately tipped in our favour.
Our discussions must push us to extend ourselves into an acknowledgement of the more complete dance of the layers of injustice that have given rise to this reality. We must bring in the voices of Afghan civilians, and where it cannot be the victims’ families, then representative civilian groups who can bypass any corruptions within the Afghan Government. We must hear and see them in all their multiplicities, and do so outside of the skewed and paternalistic view that has become so naturalised within us. The path to justice for Afghan victims cannot be a replication, or amplification, of the human failings that enabled these atrocities to first occur.
And for ourselves, as a nation that has chosen war and with a history of imperialism that remains unreckoned with, my hope is that we choose this moment as a catalyst to unmask – to strip past the confining layers of narratives designed to keep us separated, elevated and absolved. The need for a more nuanced, deepened and broadened understanding of our histories and of our present is the call of our times. This is our collective moment to respond, to shift and reframe, and to create realities from an undercurrent that acknowledges the extent to which we are each echoes of one another, our fates intertwined. From this space, the potential for justice, and the breadth of our horizons, simultaneously and drastically expand.