A report into Australian war crimes details what Afghans have known all along

A report into Australian war crimes details what Afghans have known all along
Comment: It shouldn't have taken a report into Australian war crimes to foreground the trauma Afghans have been reporting for years, writes Emran Feroz.
6 min read
03 Dec, 2020
'Operation Enduring Freedom' officially came to an end on 28 December 2014 [Getty]
I remember an elderly man in rural Afghanistan describing the killing of a teenager from his village. "They just appeared and cut his throat without any reason", the old man said monotonously. The victim was the son of a local farmer, unaffiliated with any militant group. Even worse, he was completely unarmed. Evidently, this was not enough to prevent him being murdered in cold blood. This was just a single account shared by yet another faceless Afghan in rural Afghanistan, invisible to the indifferent eyes of our world.

It was neither the first, nor the last time I heard such stories. Since then, I have heard many similar accounts told and re-told throughout the country. Over the last two decades, countless atrocities have been conducted by western soldiers all over Afghanistan multiple times. It's almost impossible to recall them all.

Yet sometimes, the truth cannot be suppressed. 

Recently, the Australian military confirmed that its elite SAS units were responsible for war crimes in Afghanistan. Between 2005 and 2013, at least 39 Afghan civilians were brutally murdered by soldiers who considered their deliberate attacks some kind of perverted sports game.

It took years to reveal a tiny part of the SAS's crimes in Afghanistan, and it's only a small segment of the whole picture

In doing so, they completely dehumanised their Afghan victims, regarding them solely as game. The practice was known as "blooding", in which soldiers marked their first, real kill. The fact that the people being killed were not armed assailants but unarmed civilians already in custody was irrelevant in the aim of achieving this first "milestone". People were tortured and shot. Throats were cut. 

Perhaps the village of that elderly Afghan who once shared his story with me was a place visited by some of these Australian troops playing their hunting game.There is also a high chance that the village was attacked by other western troops who have occupied Afghanistan since late 2001. 

One thing should be clear: Such incidents must not be seen as isolated exceptions. The Australian journalists who revealed some of the crimes underlined that there was a systematic pattern, and that many, including higher officials, knew of those gross violations and even participated in them. 

A recent Guardian investigation focusing on another instance of "misconduct" by Australian soldiers includes a picture of a senior Australian special forces soldier drinking beer out of the prosthetic leg of a dead, alleged Taliban fighter at a secret bar in Afghanistan. According to some soldiers who have been interviewed, such practices were widely tolerated by officers at high levels and even involved some of them. 

Read more: Afghan officials say 34 killed in separate suicide bombings

At the moment, all eyes are on Australia. It is important, however, that we do not forget that the elite Special Air Service (SAS) was almost a miniscule part of the larger international "Operation Enduring Freedom", as the operation formally launching the "War on Terror" in Afghanistan was labelled at the time. Since then, Afghans have been bombed from the air, hit by insurgent suicide attacks on the ground, or by attacked by drones. They have been dragged off to black sites and to Guantanamo Bay to be held and tortured indefinitely without charge. Some - as is now becoming more apparent - were murdered for sport. 

It is a well-known fact, not just among Afghans, that American and British troops were responsible for war crimes too. When the US military and the CIA tortured and murdered Afghans inside their black site torture rooms, they implicated themselves. When American drone pilots hunted Afghan children and dehumanised them by characterising them under the all-encompassing label of being "military-aged males" or "enemy combatants" before killing them by pushing the button, they became guilty too. All of this happened on a daily basis. It took place so often that it is sadly almost impossible to recall all atrocities. 

Other countries such as Germany also murdered Afghans deliberately. When German Colonel Georg Klein gave the order to bomb dozens of civilians in the northern province of Kunduz in September 2009, he employed different tactics to the Australian soldiers, but at the end of the day it led to the death of more than 150 civilians. He apparently considered all of them "terrorists". Later, it was revealed that Klein had violated NATO's rules of engagement.

Voices like those of the elderly man, appear to not count as long as they are not confirmed by privileged western observers

In 2012, Klein was promoted to the rank of general by the German army. All of his superiors, politicians and military officials, rejected the view -- the fact -- that he is a war criminal. Klein's victims were not compensated, and they did not receive any apology at all.

"Imagine how my clients reacted when they heard about Klein's promotion", Karim Popal, a German-Afghan lawyer, told me. Popal is representing the victims' families. While Klein was defended and promoted, Popal was haunted and defamed by German media and politics. He was even described as a Taliban supporter. "Standing up against western troops is always difficult", he recalled. 

Obviously, Popal was right. It took years to reveal a tiny part of the SAS's crimes in Afghanistan, and it's only a small segment of the whole picture. Other countries such as the UK or the United States, which has rejected any kind of independent investigation for years and even blacklisted members of the ICC (a court it does not accept), are not interested in any kind of legal investigation or prosecution.

The Afghan government of President Ashraf Ghani in Kabul, whose officials downplayed the SAS's systematic terror against Afghan civilians by describing it merely as "misconduct", is also to blame. This is partly because stronger criticism would delegitimise the current regime in Kabul which owes its very existence to the armed invasion and occupation misleadingly labelled Operation "Enduring Freedom".

The vast majority of war crime victims will remain both voiceless and faceless

In addition, reluctance to confront the truth stems from the fact that the regime's own soldiers and militias are responsible for very similar crimes, and that Kabul's security apparatus has turned into a corrupt military-industrial complex which is spreading state terrorism itself. 

Such crimes are not new in Afghanistan. Similar atrocities took place during the 1980s when the Red Army occupied the country. Many of the war accounts from the time are similar to what we see today. Rape, torture and murder happened on an industrial scale, in a campaign designed to flush the rural heartlands of the country of its inhabitants, most of which has not, and probably will never be accounted for. 

One of the main reasons for this is the fact that Afghan voices, like those of the elderly man, appear to not count as long as they are not confirmed by privileged western observers, journalists or activists. The Afghan's agenda is always seen as biased and one-sided. That's to say, they are either seen as ideological cheerleaders for a western invasion of their country, or as directly affiliated with the government that itself owes its existence to the military machine of the West. As long as this perception does not change, the vast majority of war crime victims will remain both voiceless and faceless. 

Emran Feroz is a freelance journalist based in Germany and the founder of Drone Memorial, a website that lists the victims of drone strikes.

Follow him on Twitter: @Emran_Feroz

Opinions expressed in this article remain those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of The New Arab, al-Araby al-Jadeed, its editorial board or staff.