There is "credible information" to substantiate allegations that Australian Special Forces troops unlawfully killed 39 prisoners and civilians during the Afghan conflict, a four-year inquiry into alleged Australian war crimes has found.
Australian Defence Force (ADF) chief Angus Campbell apologized to the people of Afghanistan "for any wrongdoing by Australian soldiers," ahead of the release of the damning report on Thursday.
The inquiry by the Inspector-General of the Australian Defence Force (IGADF) investigated 57 incidents and heard from more than 400 witnesses.
It uncovered "deeply disturbing allegations of unlawful killings" and inhuman treatment of detainees in Afghanistan from 2005 to 2016.
Justice Paul Brereton "found there to be credible information to substantiate 23 incidents of alleged unlawful killing of 39 people by 25 Australian Special Forces personnel, predominantly from the Special Air Service Regiment (SAS)," Campbell told reporters in Canberra.
Campbell said some of the 25 are still serving in the Defence Force.
He said none of the killings could be "described as being in the heat of battle."
"These findings allege the most serious breaches of military conduct and professional values."
The report uncovered a "shameful record" of a "self-centred warrior culture," and "toxic competitiveness," which led to some of the troops "cutting corners, ignoring and bending rules."
The inquiry said junior soldiers were coerced to shoot a prisoner to achieve the soldier’s first kill, in an practice known as "blooding."
It also found evidence of "throwdowns," where soldiers would try to cover up the crimes by planting weapons, radios and grenades next to the bodies of Afghan civilians to make it looks like they were "enemy killed in action."
The inquiry looked into the period between 2005 to 2016. The report states that some of the incidents took place in 2009 and 2010, with the majority occurring in the latter years of 2012 and 2013.
The report recommends a total of 36 matters, relating "to 23 incidents and involve a total of 19 individuals" be referred to the Australian Federal Police (AFP) for criminal investigation.
"I have accepted all of the Inspector General’s findings and a comprehensive implementation plan is being developed to action his 143 recommendations and any additional measures necessary," Campbell said.
The IGADF also recommends compensating the victims and their families, potentially cancelling the individual medals for those concerned, and revoking the Meritorious Unit Citation to the entire Special Operations Task Group.
A compensation plan
Campbell said he would be "engaging with the Afghan government as quickly as possible," to develop a compensation plan.
"But it needs to be done correctly and it needs to be done in a way that allows and creates the effect that we are seeking, which would be to support those families."
Last week, Prime Minister Scott Morrison announced that a special investigator's office would be set up to determine whether to prosecute the "disturbing conduct" alleged in Brereton's report.
"Given the likely allegations of serious and possibly criminal misconduct, the matters raised in the inquiry must be assessed, investigated and where allegations are substantiated, prosecuted in court," Morrison said.
Campbell said individuals involved in alleged unlawful criminal conduct will be referred to the new special investigator.
"With regard to individual and collective accountability, individuals alleged of unlawful criminal conduct will be referred to the office of the special investigator," he said.
"Individuals alleged to be negligent in the performance of the duty will be managed through administrative and disciplinary processes."
Morrison called Afghan President Ashraf Ghani ahead of the report's release to express "his deepest sorrow over the misconduct by some Australian troops" and told him investigations would be conducted to ensure justice.
Australia's foreign minister Marise Payne had also written to her counterpart in Afghanistan to apologize for the misconduct identified by the inquiry, Afghanistan's presidential palace tweeted late Wednesday.
In the letter, Payne said Defence Force chief Angus Campbell was "considering the inquiry’s extensive findings and recommendations and will make public statements subsequently."
Australia deployed troops to Afghanistan after the September 11 attacks on its ally the United States in 2001. Around 1,550 personnel currently remain in the country.