The Abuse Scandal Rocking Australia’s Special Operations Forces

How changing military strategy may have led to misconduct.

The Australian military conducts training during exercise Talisman Sabre on July 9, 2015 in Rockhampton, Australia.
The Australian military conducts training during exercise Talisman Sabre on July 9, 2015 in Rockhampton, Australia. Ian Hitchcock/Getty Images

Recently, a series of disturbing allegations about the conduct of the Australian Army’s special operations forces in Afghanistan have made for gruesome domestic headlines. Individually, each claim is staggering: apparent execution of detainees; reported use of so-called drop weapons, planted to cover up unlawful killings; confirmed reports of commandos flying a Nazi flag on a combat patrol; alleged “blooding” of rookies, initiation rites in which newcomers were pressured to execute unarmed men. In one particularly sadistic case, a prosthetic limb was allegedly pilfered from the corpse of a dead Afghan, only to be repatriated and repurposed as a novelty binge-drinking implement. Taken together, the allegations appear to reveal a devastating collapse of standards within Australia’s special operations forces.

This is not the first time Australia’s Special Operations Command has been the subject of intense scrutiny. In the last two years alone, the Australian Defence Force has commissioned no less than three internal inquiries into culture and behavior within the command, each with its own separate framework: cultural, legal, and institutional.

The first of these investigations, led by a sociologist named Samantha Crompvoets, began as a more innocuous cultural study, a research drive into the negative impacts of what many within the Defence Department had regarded as an overtasking of Australian special operations forces in the post-9/11 era. Rumors had been circulating for years that a noxious climate of leadership failures, unaccountability, and even of criminal misconduct had made the Special Operations Command a greenhouse for systemic dysfunction. In particular, the so-called beret wars—the internal rivalry between the army’s various commando units—had reached critical mass, poisoning the good relations between each outfit and spurring unsavory competitions based on metrics such as kill counts.

When the digging was done, Crompvoets’s report seemed to suggest that the problems within the Special Operations Command were deep; in particular, that some soldiers had used illegal violence on operations and that a systemic values shift among both troops and their commanders had occurred. Soldiers were observing the laws of war only situationally, it appeared, sometimes adapting them after the fact to fit the circumstances of a violent engagement.

Presented with such alarming data, the Inspector-General of the Australian Defence Force, the military’s independent watchdog, began a second inquiry to examine any breaches of both Australian and international law. Since 2016, this quasi-judicial inquiry, led by Justice Paul Brereton, a New South Wales Supreme Court judge and Army Reserve major general, has been looking into credible evidence of what some within the Defence Department are quietly describing as war crimes.

Brereton’s findings are due to be released before the end of the year. In the meantime, however, and following a number of multiyear investigations by some of Australia’s finest reporters, details of some of the alleged incidents are beginning to see sunlight. Central to the most recent media reporting is one raid that took place on Sept. 11, 2012 in the village of Darwan, a remote farming community in northern Uruzgan province. During a manhunt for an Afghan soldier who was believed to have killed Australian troops, Australian forces arrived in UH-60 Black Hawk helicopters and shot at least three (and possibly more) Afghan civilians at close range, one of them after being kicked off a paanch, a high agricultural embankment.

Retired Cpl. Ben Roberts-Smith, who is a Victoria Cross recipient and the most decorated soldier in the Commonwealth, is also apparently suspected of battlefield misconduct. Roberts-Smith, who in 2012 was awarded a commendation for distinguished service for his part in developing and applying “lateral tactical concepts” as a patrol commander during combat operations in the Char Chineh district (where the village of Darwan is located), has been at the center of Afghanistan-related controversy for some time now, with many allegations revolving around his suspected involvement in the abuse and execution of detainees.

Although none of these allegations against him have yet seen the inside of a courtroom, it would be easy to surmise that momentum is building for something big. Sweeping organizational changes within the Australian Army, perhaps. A high-profile courtroom drama, maybe.

Less sensationally but perhaps more importantly, this public exhibit of the macabre has also spurred another discussion about accountability and command and control within Australia’s special operations forces—with particular focus placed on the outsized freedom allowed junior-level operators. This topic is the subject of a third inquiry led by David Irvine, the former head of both ASIS and ASIO (Australia’s foreign and domestic intelligence agencies, respectively) who is perusing the possible institutional failures that might have allowed for gross misconduct to occur.

Presumably central to Irvine’s mission will be a thorough interrogation of leadership within Australia’s special operations forces, especially the preference for “faster, flatter, flexible” (as opposed to top-down) decision-making. Per the in-vogue thinking among many Western special operations forces units, the “gardener approach,” which involves pushing authority further down the chain and nurturing a climate where subordinates can function with “smart autonomy,” can lead to better outcomes for troops on the battlefield.

Undoubtedly, there are many real-world advantages to this agile command style. The contemporary battlefield involves split-second decisions of so-called strategic corporals, or squad-level leaders whose individual actions can have drastic theater-level repercussions. For the modern special operations forces commander, as retired Gen. Stanley McChrystal, who was the U.S. commander of Joint Special Operations Command, presciently pointed out in his book, Team of Teams, the overbearing approach no longer works. The commander-gardener “cannot actually ‘grow’ tomatoes,” McChrystal explained; he or she “can only foster an environment in which the plants do so.”

Based on the allegations linked to Australian special operations forces however, horizontal decision-making and the abdication of certain command responsibilities can also lead to the blossoming of very poisonous plants indeed.

For example, as Australia’s Special Air Service Regiment came into its own as a mature military force equipped for war in the 21st century, insiders have remarked on the emergence of a so-called NCO mafia—a phenomenon which saw junior noncommissioned officers channeling their best Big Man instincts to form what one whistleblower described as “clusters.” Per these accounts, the in-group clusters took to controlling the flow of information up and down the chain of command, effectively securing free rein when away in the field. In certain instances, enlisted junior leaders took to developing and prosecuting their own “target packs”; influencing the medal allocation process through revised patrol reports; and even, in some cases, to covering up grisly details about some operations.

The existence of such “clusters” in the special operations forces greenhouse is now uncontroversial—or at least well-acknowledged—in Australian defense circles. In his contribution to the army’s own special operations doctrine, then-Lt. Col. Ian Langford (who commanded the special operations task group at the time of the assault on Darwan) publicly acknowledged the problem. “An intimate bond among those who belong to the ‘selected group’ is generated through shared hardship and danger,” he wrote of his soldiers in a research paper published by the Defence Department’s Directorate of Future Land Warfare in 2014. “This sense of separation from the military mass encourages the emergence of SF units that are more akin to militant clans than military organisations. If unchecked, arrogance or aloofness bred from a culture of élitism develops… [This] nurtures an unassailable belief that ‘only those who have done it know, or can be trusted, or more dangerously yet, can give direction.’”

Thanks to the cloistered barracks, the privileges of protected identity status, and the redacted mystique wielded by “badged” soldiers (members who have passed through special operations forces’ various selection rituals), Australia’s Special Operations Command has long existed as an army within an army—a sub-group with distinct customs and traditions within the ADF’s broader organizational edifice.

Such secretiveness is to be expected for a military force that is occasionally tasked with sensitive missions. Given the nature of these latest allegations however—and given that these incidents do not appear to have occurred in isolation—it seems that there is a serious problem here. Something is disastrously amiss, be it with the beret wars or the gardener approach and the resulting devolution of command and control.

It is true, of course, that when pared down to the level of the barrel and butt-stock, individual crimes of war are committed by individuals, not entire organizations. The behavior of some, or even the deviant behavior of many, should not be read as an indictment against all. Such exonerations apply especially to those whistleblowers who have exposed a very dark garden to sunlight.

For now, though, the matter is in hands of Justice Brereton and David Irvine. If this succession of inquiries was indeed set up to ascertain the facts as well as to deliver justice, then one hopes it will be served.