The People’s Republic of China has come under fire from the governments of Australia, France and New Zealand after Chinese Ministry spokesman Zhao Lijian tweeted out an illustration depicting an Australian elite special forces officer committing a war crime against Afghan civilians. The illustration made reference to a recently unveiled Australian government report which revealed members of the country’s Special Air Service Regiment brutally murdered at least 39 Afghan civilian men, women and children, sometimes by slitting their throats. After killing them they would plant weapons and phones on the bodies as a means of justifying the killings. Initially, the Australian government tried to cover up and downplay the atrocities. It was only after whistleblowers and local Afghan media began reporting on the allegations that Australia decided to open an inquiry into the claims in 2016.
China has been in the crosshairs of Australia for years now. As recently as 2019, Australia claimed it was going to “hold China accountable on human rights.” Now that it has been revealed without a shadow of a doubt that Australia has been mercilessly killing civilians in a country it has no right to be occupying, Chinese leaders are rightfully calling the Australians out on their hypocrisy. Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison has referred to China’s criticism as “truly repugnant” and is demanding the image depicting one of his country’s soldiers cutting the throat of a civilian be removed at once. According to Morrison and his allies, the image “diminishes [China] in the world’s eyes.” What’s becoming increasingly apparent is that the image depicting Australia’s horrific war crimes is eliciting more outrage and condemnation than the actual killings themselves. In the words of China’s Foreign Ministry spokesperson Hua Chunying, “The Australian side has been reacting strongly to my colleague’s tweet. Why is that? Do they think that their merciless killing of Afghan civilians is justified but the condemnation of such ruthless brutality is not?”
According to The Guardian, a group within Australia’s elite Special Air Services “killed and brutalized Afghan civilians, in some cases allegedly slitting throats, gloating about their actions, keeping kill counts, and photographing bodies with planted phones and weapons to justify their actions.” In the words of the senior researcher in Afghanistan for Human Rights Watch, Patricia Gossman, these horrific war crimes did not take place in the heat of battle. “It was part of a sick culture that essentially treated Afghans living in these contested areas as if they were all dangerous criminals – even the children – or not as humans,” said Gossman. The special forces operated as a gang with an initiation ritual which involved executing a prisoner as a first kill. The report makes it clear that this was a violent culture that was very much encouraged by patrol commanders and not random acts carried out by junior soldiers.
In one incident detailed in the inquiry, the Special Air Service regiment stopped and harassed 2 fourteen year-old Afghan boys. The SAS soldiers worried that the young boys could potentially be “Taliban sympathizers”, and so they slit both of their throats on the spot. They then placed the boys’ bodies in bags and threw them into the river like trash. On another occasion a civilian was shot dead all because there wasn’t enough room for him on a helicopter. Another civilian was used for target practice.
On December 1, The Guardian released an exclusive image it’d obtained of an a senior Australian soldier drinking beer from the prosthetic leg of a dead Afghan who was alleged to be a member of the Taliban. The soldier, who is still serving in Afghanistan, was photographed in a bar that was set up at an Australian army base in Tarin Kowt in the Uruzgan province of Afghanistan. The man’s prosthetic leg was apparently kept at the bar as a keepsake or trophy of war, and multiple soldiers were photographed posing with it. A member of the provincial council in Uruzgan, Hayatullah Fazly, slammed the Australian forces for the dehumanizing treatment of Afghans displayed in these images. “It is the most disgusting, shocking and horrific image I’ve seen,” said Fazly. “It is more painful when you consider that they were here to help us and make us feel safe. It’s shameful.” A spokesperson for the Afghan Independent Human Rights Commission, Zabiullah Farhang, said that the soldiers have no respect for the lives of Afghan people. “This is a true violation of international human rights and also it is a war crime,” said Farhang. “We ask the Australian government to hear and accept the demands of victims… [to help in] bringing the responsible to justice.”
Australia still has around 1,500 troops stationed in Afghanistan alongside the U.S. occupiers. Among them are some of the very soldiers who committed the gruesome atrocities detailed in the report. Instead of directing their anger and hostility towards China for calling them out on their admitted war crimes, Australian officials should work towards bringing their occupying forces out of Afghanistan so that such brutal killing of civilians done in their name never happens again.