Australian war crimes and racist fantasies in Afghanistan

Australians continue to believe they are fighting a good war in Afghanistan, despite mounting evidence to the contrary.

Australian and British troops stand at attention during an ANZAC day ceremony at Camp Armadillo in Afghanistan on April 25, 2008 [Reuters/Omar Sobhani]

Last week the distressing details of a four-year inquiry into the Australian Defence Force’s war crimes in Afghanistan were finally released to the public. The country grappled with the scale of the violence: at least 23 deadly incidents; 39 Afghan civilians, including children, killed; at least 25 Australian soldiers of the Special Air Service Regiment (SAS) involved.

The report described a savage practice of “blooding”, where young special forces soldiers were instructed by senior commanders to make their “first kill” and a “culture of secrecy”, where witnesses remained silent and murderers covered up their crimes by planting weapons and radios on dead bodies.

While the details of the crimes have been widely reported on, there has been a curious reluctance in Australia to explain the violence and trace its racist origins. The local media coverage of the revelations had a defensive tone.

Military, academic and mental health experts appeared on Australian TV screens to buffer the allegations by speaking of the integrity of the military and concerns over the impact on the image and morale of the defence forces. Australian officials and commentators tried to present the war crimes as an act of a few “bad apples” just as their American counterparts did with the uncovered torture and murder at Abu Ghraib prison in Iraq.

Even when the horror of the war crimes was on full display and the sheer scale of the war crimes and depraved practices undeniable, white innocence was still desperately gasping for redemption.

But what struck me the most as an Afghan living in Australia watching this fiasco unravel was how the coverage of the inquiry on Australian TV ended with the promotion of a mental health helpline for members of the military and their families. This, in a year of protests against uniformed men terrorising civilian populations and basking in impunity taking place around the world.

The tone deafness was incredible and the narcissism – diabolical. Absent in the media coverage was any concern for the victims and the feelings of Afghans and Afghan Australians. Many of us carry the scars of war and many were certainly retraumatised by these findings.

Army Chief Angus Campbell did offer an apology to Afghans on the day of the report’s release. But he also curiously repeated the report’s conclusion that these crimes did not occur in the “heat of battle”. That is, we have 39 illegal murders and an untold number of others which must be “legal”, as they occurred in what the Australian army decided was the “heat of battle”.

This is how the spellbinding fog of the so-called “war on terror” transforms civilians into “collateral damage” or suspect terrorists, monsters into heroes, freedom fighters into terrorists and terrorists into Muslims. The racial economy of the “war on terror” has made Black and brown lives cheap, disposable, not worth acknowledging or grieving. More than half a million people have been killed in Afghanistan, Pakistan and Iraq in the “heat of battle”, but the gruesome details of their murders will not make it into any report.

This normalisation of violence by the West in certain parts of the world creates spaces where practices like “blooding” – the merciless murder of civilians and detainees as a rite of passage – flourish. It is where the slaughter of defenceless people as a bonding ritual to make white men into warriors is deemed acceptable. It is where white men, drunk on their own saviour fantasy, come to see themselves as all-powerful, as untouchable.

But why “blooding”? There is something primal about the word. It has a dehumanising effect, reducing locals to animals to be sacrificed for a higher purpose – a manifest destiny – in a coming-of-age ritual. “Blooding”, “warrior culture” and “Zulu” – the name some SAS units adopted – are steeped in histories of colonial violence.

Australians should be intimately familiar with these themes. After all, this nation has a prolific history of “blooding” rituals, dispossession and naked violence against native populations.

Today the white men return to the former imperial frontier to pursue boyhood ideals of adventure, discovery and unbridled aggressions. Afghanistan is not a graveyard of empires as the mythology insists, it is where the imperial imagination is set free to act out its darkest fantasies with no legal or moral restraint.

And just like in colonial times, when white men went after trophies, including human ones, today they collect body parts of dead Afghan civilians and their prosthetics to use as drinking vessels.

The desire for possession of body parts, even plastic ones, is a dark pathology, especially when they are snatched from a land covered with landmines and inhabited by so many broken bodies, where prosthetic parts are inaccessible to many. I wonder about the Australians who witnessed the theft of a dead Afghan man’s prosthetic leg or knew where it came from, but nevertheless, relished drinking beer from it.

I think about the mutilated face of Aisha Mohammedzai, the Afghan girl who appeared on the front cover of Time magazine in 2010, who was then flown to the US and offered a plastic nose. Plastic body parts are powerful commodities in Afghanistan: white men can give them as a gift and can take them away as punishment.

Perhaps the even more insidious part of this story is how the white men can kill at will, mutilate corpses, steal body parts and still come away feeling like heroes.

Indeed, despite the reports of war crimes piling up and murder of civilians spiking, the overarching Western narrative of the Afghan war has continued to present Western armies as saviours.

The war in Afghanistan has been considered the “good war”, unlike the invasion of Iraq which some eventually denounced as the “bad war”, the one built on lies. One has to wonder, however, how the anti-war movement came to believe that the same people who lied to us about Iraq somehow had the best of intentions in Afghanistan.

There is nothing that makes Westerners feel more powerful than the official rationale for the invasion of Afghanistan: going to war for the sake of Muslim women, to protect them from Muslim men.

But people forget that the original justification was not the protection of Afghan women. The US and its allies initially declared they were invading as an act of self-defence because Afghanistan was harbouring al-Qaeda and its leader Osama bin Laden, who was accused of ordering the 9/11 attacks.

But none of the conditions for self-defence were sufficiently met to secure legal approval. There was no ongoing armed threat against the US by the time of the invasion, the Security Council did not meet in time to sanction it, Afghanistan was not an aggressor nation, harbouring bin Laden did not warrant a military intervention and the Taliban was actually open to negotiate.

Once the war began, America and its allies were in murky legal territory and they knew it. The motives for the war quickly shifted from self-defence to defending Afghan women and removing the Taliban. The new paradigm of militant humanitarianism (responsibility to protect) became the cover-up narrative for the illegal origins of the war.

This humanitarian pretence has disarmed Afghans of the right to self-defence and self-determination. The idea of the “good war” has been so tenuously guarded that the plight of Afghan women has become dogma and Afghan political will that does not align with the humanitarian paradigm and its vision for the future of the country has been automatically labelled a threat.

As evidence of horrendous war crimes mounts, Westerners, including Australians, continue to hold on to the racist fantasy that they are fighting a “good war” in Afghanistan, that they have the moral right to demarcate the boundaries of the battleground, that they can decide who is a civilian and who is Taliban.

In “the heart of darkness”, these delineations do not really mean anything, they are mere cloaks for monsters and the nations that birth them. For many Afghans, this is the real revelation of the Australian inquiry.

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial stance.