Sydney (Reuters) – Australia’s defence chief said on Wednesday the United States warned him in 2021 that allegations Australian special forces soldiers killed prisoners and civilians in Afghanistan may trigger a law prohibiting assistance from the United States.
The United States is Australia’s biggest security alliance partner.
Chief of Defence Force, Angus Campbell, told a parliamentary committee that he had received a March 2021 letter from the United States defence attache in Canberra outlining the U.S. concern.
A four-year investigation, known as the Brereton report, found in 2020 that Australian special forces allegedly killed 39 unarmed prisoners and civilians in Afghanistan. Australia referred 19 current and former soldiers for potential criminal prosecution as a result.
Campbell, responding to questions by the committee, confirmed he had received the letter from the U.S. defence attache, and it said “that report, because it had credible information of allegations of what the United States would call gross violations of human rights, may – may – trigger Leahy Law considerations with regards to the relationship between the United States Armed Forces and a partner unit or organisation”.
There was no immediate response to a request for comment from the U.S. Embassy in Canberra.
Campbell said the unit in question was either special operations command or the special air services regiment. An Australian soldier had his posting adjusted as a result of the “the question of whether Leahy Law issues may be, may emerge”, he added.
Leahy Law prohibits the U.S. government from using funds or assisting units of foreign security forces where there is credible information of gross violation of human rights.
According to a U.S. government fact sheet, assistance can be resumed if a government takes effective steps to bring those responsible to justice.
Campbell said the defence minister at the time and current Defence Minister Richard Marles were not aware of the letter.
Australia’s military involvement in Afghanistan began in September 2001 and continued until mid-June 2021, the longest engagement by Australia in an armed conflict.