Australian Defence Force Chief General Angus Campbell has warned of uncomfortable days ahead for the nation’s military as it braces for further prosecutions of former soldiers for alleged war crimes in Afghanistan.
Campbell, the nation’s most senior military official, also described an apparent major intelligence leak from the United States Defence Department as a serious incident that could have damaging consequences for America and its allies.
Former SAS soldier Oliver Schulz last month became the first Australian serviceman or veteran to be charged with the war crime of murder over the alleged killing of an Afghan man in Uruzgan province in 2012.
The Office of the Special Investigator (OSI) – established after the Brereton report found credible evidence to support allegations that 39 Afghan civilians were unlawfully killed by Australian special forces soldiers – has said it is investigating between 40 and 50 alleged offences.
“I think and believe that in the circumstances, it’s really important to support the people who are involved, but to recognise that if we have failed as an organisation then we need to face that,” Campbell said during an appearance at the Lowy Institute think tank on Tuesday.
“So you won’t see me trying to gloss over these things. And I think there could be some very, very uncomfortable days coming forward. That is a matter for the OSI, a matter for the courts.”
Campbell said there might be other arrests besides Schulz, and the Defence Force would ultimately be better off when the full truth of what happened in Afghanistan was told.
Rather than protecting his personal reputation or that of the Defence Force, Campbell said he was focused on ensuring the nation’s service members were instilled with the appropriate values and behaviours.
“That’s what builds reputation,” he said.
The Brereton inquiry, which released its report in 2020, found evidence that Australian soldiers had participated in the unlawful killing and cruel treatment of prisoners, and referenced one redacted incident it described as “possibly the most disgraceful episode in Australia’s military history”.
‘You won’t see me trying to gloss over these things.’
Defence Force Chief General Angus Campbell
During a court appearance in Sydney last month, Schulz was granted bail under strict conditions including depositing a security of $200,000, living at his home in regional NSW, not leaving home between 10pm and 5am, and reporting daily to police.
Magistrate Jennifer Atkinson said it was unlikely a trial would begin until 2024 or 2025.
“In my view, it’s a fairly strong case, given what I’ve seen, but it’s early days,” Atkinson said during the hearing. “I find exceptional circumstances exist to justify bail.”
Asked about the unauthorised release of an estimated 100 top-secret US Defence documents over recent days, including detailed accounts of the training and equipment being provided to Ukraine in its fight with Russia, Campbell said it appeared to be a serious leak.
“The issue of maintaining security of information is critical to the development of national capability and to the trust and confidence across allies and partners,” he said.
“I am not, obviously as a military officer, someone who believes all information should be free and I do believe that there is a national interest in the protection of some information.
“This is a potentially damaging release of material and it is something that I would in no way wish to encourage.”
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