David Collenette, who served as Canada’s defence minister in the 1990s, believes the wide-ranging allegations against Australian troops in Afghanistan are reminiscent of the Somalia crisis his nation faced at the time he assumed office.
Former Canadian Defence Minister David Collenette, who disbanded his nation’s special forces regiment in the wake of a war crimes row similar to the one now implicating Australia, has told The Guardian that the extreme step was the only way to “turn the ship around” and resolve systemic cultural issues in the country’s military once and for all.
The politician referred to the so-called Somalia affair, in which soldiers from Canada’s elite Airborne Regiment were revealed to have tortured and killed a 16-year-old Somali boy, Shidane Arone in 1993, during the UN peacekeeping mission in the embattled African country.
The soldiers posed for horrific “war trophy” pictures alongside Arone, drawing ire among the public and prompting a comprehensive inquiry. The latter also shed light on recurrent instances of soldiers dropping racist comments and taking part in ruthless hazing rituals.
Much akin to the Brereton inquiry, Canada’s own probe revealed systemic cultural and organisational woes among the Airborne Regiment’s ranks, which David Collenette, who became Canada’s defence minister in 1993, moved to disband to deal with the issues. In particular, he transferred its three parachute battalions to other regiments.
Speaking to the British edition, Collenette explained he had come to believe that starting from scratch was the only way to address the long-standing problems the military had been grappling with, adding that it all happened in combination with a series of organisational and cultural reforms.
Collenette said that in Canada’s case, the cultural issues were so acute that repair or reform of the special forces regiment would have been insufficient to resolve the crisis.
“I’m not saying that just because Canada did it, other countries have to follow our lead”, he said, drawing attention to how his nation managed to deal with one of the darkest chapters in the North American country’s military history:
“But if you’re looking at the experience that we had, where there were … war crimes that ended up in convictions, and that it revealed a systemic problem with the institution from which the individuals came, then it seemed reasonable that, if you didn’t think you could really change the culture, then you needed to take a fresh start, which is what we did and it’s actually worked out”.
In the meantime, no further Canadian government – Conservative or Liberal – has attempted to re-establish the Airborne Regiment in the intervening years, with Canadian soldiers successfully deployed to high-intensity theatres, including Afghanistan, and with all of their reputational damages fixed, Collenette suggested.
Brereton Inquiry & Follow-up Report
In late November, Canberra published a redacted in-depth document, dubbed the Brereton Report after lead investigator judge Paul Brereton, about how its military force committed war crimes during the war in Afghanistan from 2005 to 2016. The inquiry found that some 39 Afghan civilians or prisoners of war had been unlawfully killed by Australian soldiers, Chief of the Defence Force Angus Campbell said.
Dr Allan Orr, an expert in counter-insurgency who served as a consultant to the Coalition Counter-Insurgency Academy in Iraq during the war, has argued the entire Special Air Service regiment must be disbanded after the Brereton Report, saying its continued existence is likely to further propel terror-recruiting campaigns and jeopardise future counter-insurgency efforts.
Orr says, as cited by The Guardian, that the failure to take decisive steps in response to the Brereton inquiry places Australian soldiers at risk, shattering trust in them, including at the UN level, and putting them in danger during would-be operations in other Muslim nations.
Last month, days after the redacted version of the report was unveiled, the Australian Army fired 13 servicemen, with more sackings expected, especially following The Guardian Australia’s publication of a chilling photo of an alleged Australian special forces soldier drinking beer out of the prosthetic leg of a dead Taliban soldier in a bar.