SAS ethics 'deeply compromised' by Afghanistan failings
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SAS ethics 'deeply compromised' by Afghanistan failings

A former head of Australia's special forces expressed fears that some of the nation’s most elite SAS Regiment and Commandos soldiers were “deeply compromised” ethically and their command "not fit for purpose".

In a blistering secret briefing, the then Special Operations Commander Major General Jeff Sengelman attacked a collapse of leadership, "tribalism", government policy that exhausted special forces through multiple deployments to Afghanistan, and a failure by individuals to take responsibility for their actions.

The report went to the then recently appointed defence force chief, Angus Campbell who seized on Mr Sengelman’s advice to commission a major quasi-judicial inquiry into “rumours” of alleged breaches of the laws of armed conflict involving special forces in Afghanistan between 2001 and 2016.

Mr Sengelman warned that “those who feel threatened at the prospect of transparency, personal accountability and the evidence of inadequate standards” would resist any reform attempts.“Cumulatively, these reports convey a sobering insight into our Command that for many starkly contradicts the public image and reputation many unconditionally hold,” he said.

“Every member of the Command who values their integrity" should support reform, "because we are all responsible to ensure the organisation walks the right path.

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"On that journey, we should not doubt that our Army, our Defence Force and the nation will support us. As Commander I am and will remain ultimately accountable for everything the command does or fails to do.”

The March 2016 report, which does not identify any individual soldiers, marks the first time a senior military insider has canvassed in writing the gravity and credibility of the allegations against some of the nation's most elite soldiers.

Former Special Operations Commander Jeff Sengelman.

Former Special Operations Commander Jeff Sengelman.

Fairfax Media obtained the report as part of an ongoing investigation into allegations special forces soldiers went rogue and committed war crimes in Afghanistan.

It reveals Mr Sengelman’s belief that there had been “a pattern of sustained unacceptable behaviour by some of our personnel.”

Fairfax Media has earlier this year revealed how a small number of special forces soldiers allegedly brutalised Afghan detainees or participated in the summary execution of prisoners of war.

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The Sengelman report makes clear that special forces’ command believe the allegations facing a small number of operators are more than mere rumours.

It describes how senior special force officers “uncovered and responded to substantial evidence of governance, accountability, leadership and behavioural shortcomings” in 2015, when Australia had mostly withdrawn its contribution to the nation’s longest war.

“Analysis of this evidence indicated systemic failings across the command, primarily in leadership and oversight at all levels, including the headquarters,” Mr Sengelman wrote.

“Our response required urgent action, together with considerable courage and candour to confront and resolve our challenges.”

Evidence ... suggests that the personal and professional ethics of some have been deeply compromised

Major General Jeff Sengelman

The urgent action referred to included the ongoing inquiry commissioned by Mr Campbell and being conducted by NSW Supreme Court Justice Paul Brereton under the auspices of the defence force Inspector-General.

The Sengelman report also referred to the findings of a completed 2015 inquiry by defence consultant, Dr Samantha Crompvoets, revealed by Fairfax Media earlier this year.

That report found that some members of Australia’s elite special forces allegedly committed war crimes in Afghanistan amid a “complete lack of accountability” from the military chain of command, including engaging in alleged “unsanctioned and illegal application of violence on operations” that extended to a “disregard for human life and dignity”.

Conservative media commentators and a small number of ex-military officials criticised Dr Crompvoets’ report on the basis it was written by a military outsider, and was politicised.

However, Mr Sengelman, a career military officer who declined to comment for this story, offered an assessment that was even more damning than Dr Crompvoets. His report revealed the existence of “multiple assessments” in 2015 “into identified shortfalls.”

“A growing body of actual and anecdotal evidence from the past decade suggests that the personal and professional ethics of some have been deeply compromised,” the report states.

The report said Mr Campbell had ordered Mr Sengelman to “identify and remediate what was then disturbing and extensive evidence of governance and behavioural lapses”.

“What I initially found were systemic failings. These failings included; a normalised deviance from process, tribalism, trust deficits, responsibilities disproportionately matched to accountabilities and a bias that favoured responses to the symptoms rather than the causes.”

The report also appears to attribute some blame for special forces’ problems to successive Australian governments who dispatched the SASR and Commandos on mission after mission in Afghanistan while the NATO-led coalition they were a part of struggled to find a cohesive strategy.

“Continuous operations coupled with domestic high-readiness demands had fatigued and distorted the organisation, its processes and many of its collective behaviours,” Mr Sengelman found.

“Our proud culture of mission focussed mind-sets … and self reliance to do more with less, combined with sustained high operational tempo for over a decade, transformed healthy organisational attributes to chronic and destabilising ones.”

Mr Sengelman outlines his commitment to reform and accountability, describing the “journey of change” that he was implementing with the support of Angus Campbell. But senior military leadership is not spared in his scathing assessment.

“So many of the issues that have recently come to light within the Command that are not positive can be linked back to weak leadership and a lack of accountability. I judge this to be the most significant causal factor underpinning the challenges confronting the Command.”

“I know that some may be tempted to dismiss the less positive aspects of what is being revealed here as unfairly tarnishing all with the failings of a few. That would be a mistake. Cumulatively these matters are directly relevant to all of us, as our capability and reputation are shared.”

Nick McKenzie is an investigative reporter for The Age. He's won seven Walkley awards and covers politics, business, foreign affairs and defence, human rights issues, the criminal justice system and social affairs.

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