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Military Justice for War Crimes in Afghanistan?

Australian Inquiry Shows Promise; UK Inquiry Reportedly Shut Down

A British soldier looks through the scope of a machine gun to observe an area in Kabul, Afghanistan November 26, 2016. © 2016 Reuters

It’s a familiar story: Soldiers blame the “fog of war” for civilian deaths. Sometimes it only takes one soldier with a conscience to reveal the truth, but it requires a government’s commitment to see justice done.

That commitment seems sorely lacking in the United Kingdom, whose military has been dogged by allegations of killing of citizens in Afghanistan. Australia – whose military has also been tarnished by horrific allegations in Afghanistan – should take note of the UK’s missteps as it tries to get to the truth.

Since early 2016, the UK authorities have investigated allegations that British Air Services (SAS) troops murdered at least 53 civilians between 2009 and 2011, snatching some from their beds, handcuffing and hooding them before shooting them dead.

Despite that, the inquiry into these allegations is being largely shut down.

The Royal Military Police (RMP) investigation, Operation Northmoor, reportedly started in early 2016 and was meant to continue through 2021, but was ordered closed down in February 2017, according to a recent report in the Sunday Times. The government wanted to avoid having “any of the detail getting into the press,” a military police source explained to the paper. The Ministry of Defence later claimed the decision had been taken by the military police.

The shutdown comes despite credible evidence against the SAS unit, senior military police and defense sources told the Sunday Times, which also disclosed that Northmoor had uncovered doctored reports blaming Afghan special forces partners for the killings.

On the other side of the world, an inquiry into abuses by Australia troops in Afghanistan – including the deaths of two children – is underway.

The Australian government inquiry began in September 2016, but has been carried out in secret, with details only emerging in recent media reports. Crucially important, it focuses on the entrenched impunity that often pervades the elite world of special forces “who operate with the belief that they are above the law.” A former officer described the killings as part of a “culture of recklessness” and indifference to Afghan life.

This is not the first time UK authorities have shown themselves unwilling to investigate and prosecute military figures for war crimes. Let’s hope Australia does better by transparently investigating all allegations of abuses, and releasing such reports to the public. 

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