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The worst form of defence
The village of Surkh-Murghab, in southern Afghanistan’s Uruzgan province, was one of the regular hunting grounds of the Special Operations Task Group, the collective special forces component of the Australian Defence Force presence, first deployed in 2001–02, then 2005–06 and again from 2007 to 2013.
Mohibullah, better known as Lalai, a farmer, who is around 35 now, was at home making tea when he first heard the sound of their helicopters approaching the village.
“When you hear one,” he says, “you can’t be sure how many there are.” By 2012, locals, who referred to the special forces as “bearded devils”, were aware of at least intermittent Taliban activity in the area, so Lalai stayed inside for safety’s sake. Soon afterwards, four soldiers – three Australian and one Afghan – forced their way inside his house. “I knew that you’re supposed to put your hands up in these situations. I put my hands up and they shot me here,” he says, pointing to his left bicep. Still standing, he continued slowly towards the soldiers until one, holding his rifle like a weightlifter clutches a barbell, rammed it into his face.
“Blood ran out as if under pressure,” he says. Two of his back teeth broke and his nose, he points out, is still bent. “From that day I haven’t eaten bread on the right side of my mouth.”
With Lalai then on the ground, a patrol dog was let off its leash. The dog jumped on his chest and chomped at his shoulder as a soldier stood over them. He was sure he was going to be shot again, but his wife, mother and a sister-in-law, also in the house, were hysterical. “If the women weren’t screaming, I’m sure I’d be dead.”
While Lalai credits his wife for preventing his death, he feels her presence during the attack also stripped him of his honour. “If I was killed outside it would have been okay, but inside, in front of the women – I can’t tolerate this.”
He was taken outside and walked to another part of Surkh-Murghab, where a further 30 men had been detained. One of Lalai’s nephews, Naqibullah, from the same village, was at the time in Tirin Kot (sometimes rendered “Tarin Kowt”), the capital of both the district of the same name and of Uruzgan province. He received a call from a friend when the raid began. Naqibullah was a member of the police special forces unit, known as Wakunish, which operated with the Australian special forces at the time. When he arrived, he recognised some of the Australians and approached, shook hands and spoke to them through one of their interpreters.
“They asked, ‘How do you know he’s not a criminal?’” recounts Naqibullah. “I said, ‘If he’s Taliban, I’m Taliban.’”
He saw dozens of men handcuffed. “I knew them all,” he says. “None of them were Taliban.”
Unlike many of the other detainees, Lalai was released and driven by relatives to hospital in Tirin Kot. He was given first aid and told to continue on to Kandahar city for further treatment. Before leaving, he presented at a human rights organisation to show staff his wounds and report his ordeal. In Kandahar’s Mirwais Hospital, the largest medical facility in southern Afghanistan, doctors counted “72 or 73 wounds”, many of which left scars still visible today.
Lalai told a doctor that he wanted to lodge a complaint against the Australians. The doctor scoffed sympathetically. “Even if you’re [Uruzgan’s police chief] Matiullah Khan they wouldn’t listen to you,” he said. “You’re just a simple man, forget it.”
The doctor was right. Lalai’s case was brought to the attention of command at Joint Task Force 633, Australia’s military mission for all of the Middle East and Afghanistan. An internal investigation into the incident suggested that Lalai had not been at home when he was attacked, as he claimed, but was running away, and that he had not been rammed with a rifle at all. According to the investigation, the Australian soldiers had acted professionally and in accordance with the laws of war. The matter was deemed closed and a commanding officer of JTF 633 saw no reason for further investigation.
In November last year, nearly nine years after he was shot and beaten, and mauled by an attack dog, he heard on the radio about the Brereton Report, the result of the inquiry by the Inspector-General of the Australian Defence Force into allegations of war crimes committed by ADF forces in Afghanistan between 2005 and 2016. He returned to the Afghan Independent Human Rights Commission in Tirin Kot to confirm to new staff the report he’d made in 2012.
“I’m so grateful to Allah that I survived the attack,” says Lalai. “Many villagers came to me and said, ‘We can’t believe you’re alive. Because when the Australians capture you, you never come back alive.’”
Abdul Malik wasn’t interested in reporting the murder of his son, Dad Mohammad, when it happened in 2012. It was a spring day, near their home, not far north of Tirin Kot. “I thought, They’ll kill me too, if I talk about my son,” he says. “They’ll kill me and my other sons. Just leave it to Allah.”
He wasn’t home the day Dad Mohammad was shot and killed in a wheatfield in the village of Dehjawze Hasanzi by a member of the Australian Special Air Service Regiment (SASR), operating as part of the Special Operations Task Group (SOTG). Dad Mohammad was around 20 at the time, and he and his wife had a young daughter and another on the way.
Video of the killing, first broadcast by the ABC’s Four Corners in March 2020, was recorded by an SASR patrol-dog handler. It showed Dad Mohammad, who had been taken to the ground by the dog, seemingly stunned, frozen. His bony legs are folded defensively towards his chest; he holds a loop of red prayer beads aloft as if they might ward off a trooper standing over him with an assault rifle. The trooper fires three rounds into Dad Mohammad and continues through the knee-high wheat.
The video of the incident wasn’t the first revelation of misconduct but it cast an immediate pall over the legacy of Australia’s military campaign in Afghanistan.
On November 19, 2020, a redacted version of the 531-page Brereton Report was released to the public, based on the four-and-a-half-year inquiry led by NSW Supreme Court judge and Army Reserve major general Paul Brereton.
Dad Mohammad’s killing and a handful of similar incidents documented by journalists, in addition to 23 cases identified in the Brereton Report (some of which almost certainly overlapped), came to define the Australian military’s legacy in Afghanistan, yet they represent only a fraction of the special forces’ alleged abuses.
Human rights organisations in Tirin Kot had established mechanisms for reporting abuses by parties to the conflict in the years following the Special Operations Task Group’s deployment in 2007, but even as isolated incidents began to form a pattern, few victims knew that such organisations existed, let alone what “human rights” were. As suspicion on all sides escalated with the intensity of the conflict, those who did know feared the consequences of reporting at all: being suspected of collusion with one side or the other was life-threatening. Many lived in villages more than a day’s drive away and couldn’t afford the cost of travel and lodging in Tirin Kot. Most of all, though, few believed in the prospect of justice.
Since word of the Brereton Report reached Uruzgan late last year, however, with renewed hope of justice and compensation, victims of SOTG operations began to come forward. The report investigated 57 incidents in detail, involving the killing of 39 people, and referred matters relating to 23 incidents to the Australian Federal Police for criminal investigation. Since then, staff from the office of the Afghan Independent Human Rights Commission in Uruzgan have fielded 38 claims of killings and abuse, with a total of 122 killed, including 28 women and children, and 40 injured. “Twenty to 25 of those are completely new cases that we weren’t previously aware of,” says Haji Abdul Ahad Bahai, the head of the commission office. During a trip to Tirin Kot in January, I also documented 10 cases and a total of 25 deaths previously unreported in the media.
For Abdul Malik, the father of the slain Dad Mohammad, the idea of coming forward had always been unimaginable. He hated the presence of foreigners, whom he saw as occupiers, despised the government and security forces they supported, and didn’t trust human rights organisations, which he assumed were in cahoots with the foreigners. Last year, after the footage of his son’s death was made public, Haji Abdul Ahad Bahai contacted Malik and asked him whether he’d like to register his son’s case. Even eight years on, Bahai says, “He was very angry. He [has] refused to meet us.”
I met Abdul Malik on the roof of a hotel in Tirin Kot. It was late January, the middle of winter, but the day was unseasonably warm, so we sat on a square of red carpet in the sun. He’d come begrudgingly, arriving with two brothers, local tribal elders I’ll call Haji Hassan and Atiq, who had travelled to Dehjawze Hasanzi – 10 kilometres north-east of Tirin Kot and under Taliban control – and convinced the reluctant Malik to come to the city to speak with me.
Abdul Malik is around 75, six feet tall and wears a felt kosai, the full-length winter cloak of the nomadic Kuchi Pashtuns. He carries a stick of blond wood, polished by years of wear, to help him walk, and his eyes are partially hidden by eyebrows like thorny brambles. His scorn for “the foreigners” is vicious and vile and socially permissible only because of his age and struggle. “Fuck their mothers. Fuck their wives,” he hisses at the first mention of the Australian forces, demanding his words be translated verbatim. “Every day, they were on our shoulders. They destroyed the dignity of all Pashtuns.”
Malik’s family is poor, even by Uruzgan standards. His grandfather settled the family in Dehjawze Hasanzi when he was just a boy, forgoing nomadic seasonal migrations for a sedentary, agrarian life in a cluster of villages between Tirin Kot city and the Baluchi Valley, where Australian special forces would conduct countless operations between 2006 and 2013. As Kuchis, Malik’s family arrived with only what was strapped to their animals, purchasing enough land to build a home but not enough to sow crops of their own. That assured a life of subsistence; of earning enough to survive but with little hope of prosperity.
Dad Mohammad was the second of Abdul Malik’s eight sons and four daughters. He was born with a condition that caused stunted growth in his right leg; as an uneducated male who would rely on manual labour for his future livelihood, it was a serious disability. His father cast him as a black sheep, but his younger brother, Jamshid, was more sympathetic.
“Previously, he was unable to walk,” says Jamshid, who is now around 26 and spoke to me by phone from Dehjawze in January. “I took him for treatment and [a doctor] corrected his disability. When he became able to walk, we were so happy.” The leg continued to give Dad Mohammad trouble, though, and required treatment every few years.
For his family, Dad Mohammad’s murder represented a nadir in their attitude towards the invaders. Around two years before Dad Mohammad’s death, Abdul Malik’s eldest son, Sayeed Mohammad, a farmer, had also been shot and killed, along with several others, while running from another raid in Dehjawze. To the Australians, they were, as the Brereton Report noted, “squirters”; young men, or “fighting-aged males”, who, regardless of their affiliations, preferred to risk being shot running for safety than surrender to the treatment they knew awaited even the most submissive among them.
Atiq, the tribal elder from the nearby village of Surkh-Murghab, remembers Sayeed Mohammad’s killing. “Whenever there was a raid,” he tells me, “it was like a fireplace. Anyone who got close would be burnt. Whether you stopped or ran, they’d shoot you.”
According to Jamshid, at the time, the family saw the killing of his eldest brother as the cost of being Afghan. “We saw this as war,” he says. “We didn’t know we should register the case.”
After the killing of Sayeed Mohammad, Jamshid, then 16 or 17, was studying at a madrassa in the hope of becoming an Islamic scholar, and was himself detained by Australian special forces. “When I was first arrested,” he says, “there were Taliban in our area, from our village. Of course I was sitting with them, but I wasn’t fighting with them.
“[The Australians] tied us with rope, covered our eyes. They tied us like a row of camels, one in front of the other. We were 11 [detainees]. They took the rope under our legs to the next person. We … were walking for 15 minutes … then [they] put us on the helicopters and took us to the airport.” It was the airfield in which all Australian forces and civilian personnel were based in Tirin Kot, and where the special forces had their own compound, Camp Russell. There, Jamshid tells me, he was subjected to days of sleep deprivation. To keep detainees awake, “there was a small room with a sponge mattress, and every five minutes you had to move it from one side of the cell to the other”.
Dad Mohammad disapproved of his younger brother’s interactions with the local Taliban, even if Jamshid was still too young to join them formally. “He didn’t like the Taliban,” Jamshid says. “I was prepared to sit with the Taliban; he wasn’t interested.”
Uruzgan was a major Taliban hub. The group’s founder and emir, Mullah Mohammad Omar, grew up in Deh Rawud district, southwest of Tirin Kot, as did other key figures, including Mullah Abdul Ghani Baradar, the Taliban’s deputy leader who is currently heading a delegation in fitful peace negotiations with the Afghan government in Doha, Qatar.
In the spring of 2012, Jamshid travelled to Deh Rawud, where, like hundreds of thousands of itinerant workers across southern Afghanistan, he’d work for a fortnight scoring poppy bulbs and harvesting the opium resin for landowners. Days after Jamshid left, Dad Mohammad called to tell him that the government forces who had recently built an outpost in Dehjawze had come to their home. He, his brothers and some guests were harassed and beaten, Dad Mohammad said. One of the guests had a fistful of his beard pulled from his chin.
A few days later, Jamshid learnt of his older brother’s death. Though the video of the incident doesn’t indicate that either Dad Mohammad or his family’s house were specific targets, Jamshid and his father both suspect the Afghan government forces provided the information to the Australians that led to Dad Mohammad’s killing. “Maybe there were a few [ Taliban] in the village,” says Abdul Malik, “but the weak people in the villages, they would take money to spy – to make them feel powerful. The spies used the Australians to kill … They handed the soul of Uruzgan to the Taliban.”
Malik returned home the morning after Dad Mohammad was killed, to find his other sons waiting to bury him. “Before my son’s death,” he says, “I thought I’d never grow old. I was a strong man, but after his death I grew old very quickly.”
He saw little distinction between the soldier who killed his son and the human rights organisations to which a handful of victims and family members of similar attacks had begun reporting their cases. “I couldn’t tolerate sitting with them,” he says. And so, with Dad Mohammad’s wife and two infant daughters under his family’s roof, and with no prospect of justice, Abdul Malik put his son’s death behind him.
Jamshid decided to stay in Deh Rawud. “I was scared and didn’t want to go to my home,” he says. He was also enraged. “I can’t show you my heart, to describe how I felt, but if you lost someone and you faced the people responsible, what would your reaction be? My reaction was to take up a gun.”
The Uruzgan office of the Afghan Independent Human Rights Commission (AIHRC) was opened in 2009 by Haji Abdul Ahad Bahai, himself from Uruzgan and known locally as “The Chancellor”, and Dr Abdul Ghafar Stanikzai, a medical doctor from Logar province in eastern Afghanistan. The property, in a residential compound off Tirin Kot’s main road, is made up of three small buildings surrounding a central concrete courtyard, and is rented from the Surkh-Murghab tribal elder brothers Haji Hassan and Atiq.
The brothers, also former Taliban commanders who served under Mullah Baradar before 2001, elicited the kind of respect and influence that transcended political affiliation. Like many Afghans, their loyalties changed over the years and their pasts do not discredit them in the eyes of government supporters today. Haji Hassan is older and has more white in his beard than Atiq, but they both have George Clooney eyes and wear the black paaj, the distinct, scrunchy turbans foreign soldiers saw as synonymous with the Taliban but which, in Uruzgan, are ubiquitous on both sides of the frontline.
It wasn’t long before Haji Hassan began to see the staff at the human rights commission as more than tenants. In February 2009, a raid conducted by Australian special forces targeted a home in Surkh-Murghab. The soldiers were looking for a suspected insurgent, but the intelligence on which they were acting was flawed. Six civilians were killed, including four children, a teenage girl and a man who had fired on the soldiers in defence of his family; four others were wounded. The soldiers responsible for the deaths, which have been widely reported, were later cleared of wrongdoing by the ADF’s Director of Military Prosecutions.
After bringing the incident to the attention of the commission, Haji Hassan says Stanikzai “encouraged me to continue recording such cases”.
“Because I was able to go everywhere,” he says, “to places Dr Stanikzai couldn’t go, I was like a bridge” between the commission and the people outside the city.
Haji Hassan remembers Stanikzai telling him, “Maybe sometime in the future, we will be able to publicise these cases. You and I know, but no one else is aware of the brutality.” He and his brother spent several nights talking it over with Stanikzai. “Eventually,” says Haji Hassan, “I decided that, yes, this is my responsibility.”
Stanikzai remembers Haji Hassan coming to the office the morning after raids north of Tirin Kot city. “I wasn’t from the area,” he says, “so we needed others like [Haji Hassan] to document the cases in these areas.” Stanikzai nurtured relationships with elders in other districts as well, especially those where Australian special forces were most active, such as Deh Rawud to the south-west and Khas Uruzgan to the north-east. He pushed Bahai, his boss in Tirin Kot, to allocate a portion of his budget to ferrying complainants to and from their villages so he could record their claims. In the early days there was no Australian to whom incidents involving ADF soldiers could be reported. Instead, Bahai would simply file his reports with the commission’s special investigations team in Kabul, which would forward the reports to the Australian embassy. But, says Stanikzai, “it was rare that we’d get any feedback”.
Few victims of wrongdoing by Australian forces were aware of the AIHRC at the time. Mohammad Omar Sherzad, Uruzgan’s governor in 2010–11 who resumed office in 2020, concedes the system at the time was flawed. “I did receive some claims,” Sherzad tells me, “but we didn’t have the capability at the time to investigate.”
In 2010, as part of an effort to expand support to the governor and courts in Uruzgan, an ADF legal officer began conferring with the recently established AIHRC office, bolstering support already provided by AusAID, then the development agency of the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade (DFAT). Stanikzai recalls that it was “a positive step”.
While Haji Hassan was the bridge between the commission and the people living in the battlefields north of Tirin Kot, Stanikzai, who spoke English, was the conduit to the Australians.
“I don’t know how the Australian chain of command works,” Stanikzai admits, “but every incident we were informed of – even small ones – we presented them to the [ADF] legal officers … The [Australian] commander[s] in Uruzgan were definitely aware of the operations and their outcomes. They knew because they acknowledged the incidents, but came up with alternative reasons for their outcomes.”
Other human rights groups who fielded allegations in Uruzgan at the time confirmed this for me.
According to Stanikzai, the obfuscation was not the work of ADF legal officers, whom he remembers fondly. One, former major David McBride, who first met Stanikzai in 2011, is now awaiting trial in Australia on charges related to the leaking of documents subsequently published by the ABC relating to ADF attempts to cover up potential war crimes.
Asked via text whether there was any way Special Operations Task Group command could have been unaware of the patterns of behaviour described in the Brereton Report, McBride is emphatic: “No. Impossible.”
He cites how “operational reports and returns showed large numbers of Afghan deaths with little change in expenditure of ammunition or more missions. We were suddenly killing more people – with the same amount of missions and same [amount of] ammo. Less battles, more death. Could it mean prisoners were being shot?” McBride asks, rhetorically. “No questions were ever asked … Many SAS operators expressed concerns from 2007 to 2012. It was impossible that they were all considered fantasy until 2017.”
But it wasn’t only the ADF that discounted or ignored claims of unlawful behaviour. Stanikzai says that in “most of the meetings we had [with ADF legal officers], a DFAT political adviser was also present”.
McBride confirms this, saying that DFAT representatives also largely disregarded claims of potential war crimes from Afghan victims. “When the AIHRC and the [International Committee for the Red Cross] representative had issues to raise, they first sought permission from DFAT to bring them to the [ADF] legal officer,” he says. But, if complaints came from sources in the field other than the human rights organisations, ADF legal officers would be circumvented. “Apart from a notable few,” McBride says, “DFAT didn’t really believe anything Afghans said … If DFAT considered an allegation baseless, there was not much the legal officer could do.”
McBride says it may have been that DFAT personnel “simply didn’t have the information at hand to crosscheck things as they weren’t within the military structure and weren’t able to get access to patrol records”.
DFAT declined requests for interviews with personnel who worked in Uruzgan at the time, asking for questions to be emailed instead, to which answers were never provided. Past and present DFAT staff contacted independently declined to speak on the record.
“I don’t think they were necessarily complicit,” McBride says. “I think if you scratched the surface they would say, ‘Well, our job is to keep the minister happy, not act as policemen.’”
Another explanation for DFAT’s failure to act on claims of abuse by Australian special forces could be that individuals purporting to be with DFAT, and who were present in some of the meetings, were in fact members of an Australian spy agency using DFAT as cover. Several sources with first-hand knowledge of the matter said an agency’s infiltration of DFAT was a poorly kept secret on the base.
Stanikzai also noticed trends in the way his reports to the ADF would be handled. “When raids happened in faraway districts, the feedback we’d get claimed the killing was lawful,” and that civilian deaths had occurred “in the heat of battle” or despite compliance “with the rules of engagement”, he says.
McBride is more blunt. “[N]o credibility at all was given to [the] Afghan version of events. They were all considered to be Taliban agents [or] cynical people on the make.”
In cases that occurred close to the city where there was strong evidence and witnesses available, Stanikzai says the Australians “would ask the police chief or the governor to deal with the family”. Sometimes the Australians would pay some money, in the hope that it “would make the issue go away”.
McBride saw the way allegations of criminal behaviour were handled as evidence that the priority wasn’t actual success in Uruzgan but rather “about [the] perceptions of the Australian public, only”.
“As long as the Australian public didn’t know or ask, nothing should be done. Only if an incident was raised by the Australian media or in parliament – as occurred three times in 2012 – would the chain of command in Australia ask for an investigation in Afghanistan.”
As Stanikzai began to feed the accounts coming in from the districts to the ADF’s legal officers, with the help of Bahai and Haji Hassan, he was earning trust within the communities. “Building trust and proving our independence was key.”
It was when Bahai travelled outside Uruzgan in 2012 that Stanikzai was able to put that trust to the test. “It was a very high-threat area, but [Haji Hassan] convinced me we’d be okay,” he says of an area where an Australian raid had caused civilian casualties. He left his voice recorder and camera behind and took only pen and paper, to avoid raising suspicions that he was a spy working for the Australians. “I was very upfront with the people. I told them, ‘Yes, I am [speaking with the foreigners], yes, I’m meeting with [Uruzgan’s police chief] Matiullah Khan. But would you prefer to leave these incidents unreported?’” No, they’d tell him.
Stanikzai also stressed the limits of his powers, “because when I’d return, they’d expect results”. But he faced many difficulties in convincing victims to report their cases at all. Few knew to whom they should complain, and for those who did, phone networks were poor and roads connecting Tirin Kot to the districts were dangerous, in poor condition or non-existent. Those who made the effort to travel to Tirin Kot often did so weeks after family members had been killed or injured. Few had smartphones for taking photographs or knew to collect evidence. When Stanikzai was granted access to some locations, people from the villages were angry and afraid and wouldn’t allow him to take photographs either.
The greatest obstacles, however, were more visceral. People living in Taliban-controlled areas feared being locked up by the police – guilty by association – if they came to the government-controlled city. They also worried about returning home. “If someone is perceived to have received assistance from the Australians,” Bahai says, “they’d be killed [by the Taliban].”
Allegations against the Australians began to pile up. Between 2010 and 2013, in response to complaints Stanikzai had lodged with the legal office, the AIHRC was provided with inquiry officer reports for around two dozen cases, some signed by Australian commanding officers of the multinational mission then known as Combined Team Uruzgan, including colonels, or by deputy commanders from Joint Task Force 633, including one-star generals or their equivalent. Most, if not all the reports absolved Australian forces of any wrongdoing. It has since been established that the reports were based almost entirely on the self-serving accounts of the special forces soldiers involved. (It is not clear why officers of CTU, which was not in command of the Special Operations Task Group, were responding to claims of wrongdoing against the group). The constant denial of wrongdoing compounded the acrimony developing towards the Australians. It also exacerbated an underlying distrust in the Afghan government and its fledgling judicial system, to both of which the Australians were inextricably linked. “People were hopeless,” says Haji Hassan. “They never thought justice would be done. It was an imaginary idea, justice.”
On November 19 last year, Chief of the Defence Force General Angus Campbell released a redacted version of the Brereton Report. It stated that “there is credible information of 23 incidents in which one or more non-combatants or persons hors-de-combat were unlawfully killed by or at the direction of members of the Special Operations Task Group”, and listed a total of 39 unlawful killings committed by 25 members of the SOTG.
A week prior, Shaharzad Akbar, the chair of the AIHRC, received a letter from General Campbell alerting her to the report’s forthcoming public release. Akbar, who works out of a spacious, top-floor office with a view over the mountains that encircle the capital, Kabul, had provided information on a handful of cases – including Dad Mohammad’s – to the Australian Federal Police, who were investigating independently of the Inspector-General of the Australian Defence Force (IGADF).
Akbar instructed staff at the commission’s Tirin Kot office to contact victims who had registered their cases over the years. On the day of the report’s release, Abdul Ghafar Stanikzai, who had by then left the AIHRC and resettled in Adelaide, also mobilised. He transcribed Campbell’s televised address into Dari and Pashto, and sent it to radio stations in Tirin Kot. He also called Haji Hassan, with whom he’d remained friends since leaving Uruzgan.
“A window had finally opened,” says Haji Hassan. “It was my dream that one day the world would find out [what we knew].”
On local radio stations in Uruzgan, presenters encouraged victims who’d yet to report allegations of abuse to register with Haji Bahai at the AIHRC. “At that time, few people knew who the AIHRC or the [International Committee for the Red Cross] were,” says Bahai. But since local radio relayed the news about the Brereton Report, a colleague of Bahai’s at the commission said “people are coming every day”.
As it became apparent that renewed hope of justice and compensation was spurring victims to come forward, many for the first time, Shaharzad Akbar sent Alim Azizi, the head of the commission’s special investigations team, to Tirin Kot to assist in documenting the claims. The resulting AIHRC report, to be sent to Chris Moraitis, the director-general of the newly established Australian office tasked with investigating and prosecuting the alleged war crimes, details 38 cases – seven of which the commission says need further investigation – that plausibly account for the death, injury or cruel treatment of 162 civilians at the hands of Australian soldiers in Uruzgan. Moraitis had not received the report at the time of writing.
The Australian SOTG wasn’t the only international special operations outfit stationed in Uruzgan before 2013. US Navy SEALs also operated in the province, mostly in the far north, and conducted similar types of missions. The SOTG was, however, the largest special forces mission in Uruzgan throughout the period, and David McBride, the former ADF legal officer, says “the locals were pretty canny and could tell whether it was US or Australians”. They even knew the difference between Australian commandos and SASR. “When they said ‘Australians did this’… I can’t remember a single example where it didn’t turn out to be accurate.”
In the course of my research, I conducted interviews with dozens of alleged victims of abuse and relatives of those killed by Australian forces in Uruzgan between 2007 and 2013, all of whom registered or re-registered their cases with the AIHRC after the release of the Brereton Report in November.
Some of the incidents documented involve behaviour that, if proven, would constitute war crimes, while others describe incidents that, without knowledge of the perpetrators’ intent and despite resulting in the deaths of civilians, could plausibly be characterised as mistakes. It is likely that regular Australian soldiers (not SOTG) were responsible for the death of a civilian in one incident. In total, I documented 10 cases previously unreported in the media. Because of the redactions in the publicly released version of the Brereton Report, it is almost impossible to know whether any of these cases appear in it. However, none of the survivors or family members of victims I spoke with were asked to provide testimony for IGADF investigators who travelled to Kabul to interview Afghan witnesses for the inquiry, which suggests these 10 cases may not be included in the report.
Three hours east of Tirin Kot, in the sparsely populated district of Chinartu, is a cluster of villages known as Langar, through which Australian military convoys would occasionally pass during missions into the district. A single road runs alongside a river on the valley floor, and there is only one way in and one way out – perfect terrain for Taliban ambushes.
In 2009, Bismillah, who has never had more money than was required to survive, lived in Langar with his wife and their eight children. Even today, he doesn’t own a mobile phone; there has never been mobile service in Langar anyway.
At around 2pm on November 18 that year, Bismillah was working on his family’s land. A neighbour, Haji Mirza, says Taliban fighters came to Bismillah’s house to position themselves for an attack on an approaching convoy, opening fire with automatic weapons when it came within range. The Australian forces, who were partnered with soldiers from the Afghan National Army, fought off the assault from the road. It ended as quickly as it had begun. “You know the Taliban,” says Haji Mirza. “They hit and run. They attacked and then fled the area.”
When the ambush erupted, Bismillah took cover in his father’s home, which was closer to the field than his own house. The convoy remained on the road after the firefight ended and Bismillah remained at his father’s house. Two or three hours later, as dusk was settling into the valley, a single, loud explosion echoed through Langar. The Australian and Afghan soldiers stayed overnight, and villagers remained in their homes.
Early next morning, Bismillah left his father’s house and walked across fields and irrigation canals towards home. He was stopped by Afghan soldiers who asked where he was going. “This is my house,” he said, before explaining where he’d been the previous night. “When I entered, I saw my two cows and a calf lying dead.” Inside the house, “everything was destroyed. Corn and wheat flour were spilled on the floor. Sheets and mattresses were torn, and windows broken.” The soldiers must have searched the house during the night, he thought.
He walked out another door and into a separate section of the yard. “Then I saw my family… Their bodies were torn to pieces. There were pieces of flesh in the trees.” Noor Agha and Jan Agha, six-year-old twins, were dead. So too were his daughters Kafia, seven, and Shakira, eight, as well as his second youngest son, Mir Agha, three, and his wife, Saadia. Two boys were critically injured but alive. Ismatullah, 12, and Samiullah, who was only six months old, were carried from the house and transported back to a medical facility in the Australian base in Tirin Kot.
After four days, Bismillah was summoned to the entrance of the airfield in Tirin Kot, where he was handed Samiullah’s tiny, lifeless body. Ismatullah, meanwhile, had been transferred to Mirwais Hospital in Kandahar. Shrapnel from the airstrike had caused internal injuries and blinded him in both eyes. One leg was so badly damaged it required a below-the-knee amputation. It took two years for Ismatullah to succumb to his injuries. An eighth grave was dug in a small cemetery in Langar that now houses Bismallah’s entire family, along with a macabre ornament: a fragment of the missile that put them there. Amnesty International’s crisis team weapons expert viewed photos of the fragment and identified it as part of an American-made Lockheed Martin Hellfire guided missile.
The next thing to fall from the sky in Langar was an Afghan National Army propaganda flyer, a copy of which Bismillah keeps among the medical receipts, scans and X-rays from Ismatullah’s treatment. Below a photograph of an Afghan soldier carrying an infant child are three lines of Pashto script: “The Afghan National Army is here to assist you and your family.” Bismillah tells me the doorway behind the soldier and the shovel resting against the wall in the photo are his. The photo must have been taken by a soldier the morning after the airstrike. The child in the soldier’s arms is six-month-old Samiullah, who didn’t survive the week.
It took more than a decade for Bismillah to report the airstrike that wiped out his family. “Previously,” he says, “I wasn’t aware there was any commission or anyone to report to.” Since the publication of the Brereton Report, however, elders in Langar had begun to talk about attacks against families like his again. “I always wanted justice, and so I decided, finally, to come to Tirin Kot to find someone to tell.”
In June 2012, Australian forces had appeared in the village of Qalai Qala, in the Deh Roshan area north of Tirin Kot city. They were there, alongside an Afghan partner force, to secure the area prior to the construction of a road and a police outpost. Soldiers went house to house conducting search operations. The matriarch of one of the homes was Ferozha, a widow then in her early sixties who lived with her four adult sons and their families.
The first time the soldiers came to her home, they apprehended three of Ferozha’s sons. A decade on, inside a meeting room at the AIHRC, she hides tears behind a black chador as she describes the chaotic encounter involving the soldiers and her sons.
“I was trying to prevent their arrest,” she tells me. “I just hugged [my sons]. They had to beat us to separate us.” She describes pleading – “please, my brother” – and reaching to stroke one of the foreigners’ beards, a customary Afghan gesture for imploring mercy or charity. The soldiers eventually lost interest in their detainees and left without them.
“I boiled milk with oil,” Ferozha says, for her sons. “I said, ‘You’re injured, this will help.’ ” They debated travelling to Tirin Kot to have their injuries treated. The following morning, two of the men went to the city while another, Amanullah, left to work in his shop in Chora bazaar, 45 minutes north. Ferozha stayed home with her eldest son, Hamdullah, who was around 27 at the time, along with his wife and their two youngest boys.
Sometime around midmorning, a small group of men from the village appeared at the gate to their home. Their hands had been bound with plastic cable ties by the Australian soldiers, who, Hamdullah said, were outside and wanted to ask him some questions. The soldiers were tall and broad. Some had tattoos on their unsleeved arms and camouflage paint on their faces: typical of special forces style. Hamdullah complied, walking outside, followed by his mother and his two young sons. Ferozha was again desperate, hysterical. “Eventually,” she says, “Hamdullah convinced me it was okay, so I left him alone.” They led him away.
As time passed, Ferozha became concerned. “I became very worried,” she says. “Running without a scarf, I went to the mosque, shouting to the people, ‘Where is my son?’” She returned home and went to the area in the compound where they housed their animals. She saw the shape of a body beneath a cotton patu, or shawl. Bloodied feet in sandals poked out from one end. When she removed the patu, she saw Hamdullah, partially clothed, with what she thought were gunshot and stab wounds.
“Then I lost consciousness,” she says. “My family told me there was only one bullet wound to make the pain less [for me].”
Amanullah, who was at his shop in Chora, answered a phone call from a neighbour in Qalai Qala soon afterwards. “Your mother asked for you to come home,” he was told. “Your brother has been killed.” Amanullah says his brother had suffered a gunshot wound to the head and that some of the stab wounds were around his genitals.
Ferozha and her remaining three sons and their families were too afraid to return to the house. They rented another and, over the following days, the brothers only returned to the house where Hamdullah had been killed to feed their animals. The Australian troops remained in the village while the construction continued. On the day before the Australians left Qalai Qala, Amanullah and his mother say, their house was destroyed by fire. They believe it was started by the same soldiers who executed Hamdullah in the animal yard. “We lost everything. They destroyed the house of five women,” Ferozha says of herself and her four daughters-in-law.
A week or more later, Amanullah and his brothers reported what had happened, first at the governor’s office, then to the National Directorate of Security – Afghanistan’s intelligence agency – then at the airfield where the Australians were headquartered, and finally, on October 1, to the AIHRC in Tirin Kot. But they were sceptical about the prospect of justice. In December, when the AIHRC’s special investigations team travelled to Tirin Kot, the family gave their testimonies once again.
“[Hamdullah] was a taxi driver,” says Amanullah today. “He wasn’t with the Taliban. No members of our family were with the Taliban. How could we submit our complaints with the governor, NDS and the commission if we are with the Taliban?”
When the war came to Uruzgan in late 2001, it was where its residents lived – whether in Tirin Kot, district centres or rural valleys – as much as their political, tribal or ideological affiliations that would determine their experience of the two decades of conflict that would follow. The same can be said for much of the country.
According to the World Bank, up to 72 per cent of Afghans are thought to now be living below the poverty line; the vast majority of those live in rural areas, where Taliban control or influence is strongest. (In 2017, the World Bank estimated that 97 per cent of Uruzganis lived rurally.) Regardless of one’s feeling towards the Taliban, or fear of the international military operations and airstrikes they attracted, moving to a more secure area under government control was rarely an option for Afghans living in rural areas. Those who did often resorted to settling in squalid squatter-camps on the outskirts of provincial capitals or Kabul. The only other option for survival was to stay on their land and acquiesce to the Taliban as their authority increased. Some who remained in the districts appreciated international attempts to win them over with the construction of new roads, schools and hospital buildings, but as symbols of international benevolence started to crumble, the darker mnemonics of the foreigners prevailed.
Abdul Ghafar Stanikzai says that “people are so poor in these rural areas that they don’t have the choice to move to the city if they’re in an area afflicted by fighting”.
“Yes, the Taliban came to villages and fired on foreign forces and conducted operations; [the villager] knows they’re Taliban and that one might be a big commander, but what can he do? He can’t move because he’s poor. He can’t report it because he’ll be killed.”
When speaking with Uruzganis in private, Stanikzai often sensed antipathy towards the Taliban. Even those who came to the commission to report civilian deaths would, on some occasions, be gleeful if a Taliban commander had been killed during the same operation. It suggested to Stanikzai that the majority living in areas under Taliban influence or control only supported them in so far as it was required to avoid their wrath, to survive.
Uruzgan’s Governor Mohammad Omar Sherzad believes the Taliban’s weaponisation of Australian atrocities was as effective at turning Uruzgan’s residents against the government as the atrocities themselves. “There’s no doubt that foreign forces made some mistakes and committed some crimes,” he tells me in his Tirin Kot office in January, a knock-off Rolex on his right wrist and an unmoving plastic prosthesis extending from his left sleeve. But, he says, “the Taliban use the Australians’ brutality as a provocation to recruit and to turn the people against the government”.
There is little doubt a pattern of unlawful behaviour undermined any good being done by those focused on development and reconstruction. It created an impassable chasm of suspicion and distrust between the people and not only international military forces but also much of the development and humanitarian cadre working independently of them, and the government they were all there to support.
“Australia’s contribution to Uruzgan was exceptional,” says Stanikzai. “It was these military operations that undercut all this work.” He cites the Australia-funded Malalai Girls School in Tirin Kot – “the first girls school in Uruzgan, and it’s still running” – “plus all the [health] clinics now operating, the roads in Tirin Kot, justice [reform]…” But the impact of a small minority of soldiers within the Australian special forces – and officers who enabled the conduct to continue – is inescapable. Stanikzai says the ire of those who lost non-combatant family members during special forces operations was compounded when the ADF claimed their brother, father or son was a Taliban fighter, facilitator or spotter.
The obfuscation was conscious and deliberate. The first published account of the 2012 killing of Dad Mohammad in the Dehjawze Hasanzi wheatfield was in Chris Masters’ 2017 book on the Australian special forces in Afghanistan, No Front Line; it portrayed a well-executed prosecution of a legitimate target. “[O]ne spotted with an ICOM [radio] continued to sprint for an aqueduct,” a passage reads, referring to Dad Mohammad. “[He] was shot dead. The ICOM was recovered along with a phone linking him to” another target. However, the video footage of the incident broadcast by Four Corners – and, according to journalist Mark Willacy, the rest of the video that wasn’t broadcast – depicted something far less flattering, and it exemplified, before the release of the Brereton Report, the kind of barbarity Uruzganis had been complaining about for years but which had never been taken seriously.
By email, Masters acknowledges that the documentation on which some of his reporting for No Front Line was based was flawed. “We now know the inquiry officer reporting was poor … My sense is they weren’t eagerly covering up but more kept in the dark by [the special forces]. They were rarely allowed to visit incident sites,” he says of the inquiry officers, “and became over reliant on the word of the operators. There was also a lot of mistrust in the claims of Afghans, an attitude now shown to be seriously flawed.”
Although Dad Mohammad’s younger brother Jamshid was already showing an inclination towards the Taliban, the way he saw it, the killing of his brother left him without a choice. “He never had any relationship with the Taliban,” says Jamshid of his brother. “They kill this innocent person with such brutality – what do they expect us to do?
“When I lost my brother and finished my work on the harvest, I started my new work [with the Taliban]. When I turned 20, I became a fighter.”
For Jamshid – who required a fatwa issued by a Taliban judge to be permitted to speak to me – it’s unlikely that any benefits the Australians brought to Uruzgan could ever have supplanted the enmity rising in him. “They didn’t build Afghanistan,” he says, “they built animosity home by home. All those NATO forces destroyed the country. They turned Afghanistan to rubble. There’s no one who wasn’t affected. Some people are injured, some are mad, some are disabled, others are dead.”
While such effects likely compelled only a small fraction of Uruzganis to take up weapons against the foreigners, animus toward the special forces in the province was almost universal. “The Australians,” says Atiq, Haji Hassan’s brother, “were known for their long beards and killing.”
It’s a distinction that few among the special forces are likely to debate. T, a retired air force joint terminal attack controller who asked to be identified only by his first initial, was attached to the 2nd Commando Regiment on several rotations with special forces, including Rotation 17, during which Dad Mohammad was killed by an SASR trooper. He says, defensively, “We were on ‘kill/capture’ missions … I had nothing to do with anything else.”
T believes that if the ADF is now punishing its personnel for carrying out the mission they were tasked with, the government should be held responsible for setting them up to fail. “They … deployed us,” he says. “We were ‘kill/capture’, and you sit there wondering why we were killing or capturing people?” He says that, in his experience, their targets were always killed or captured within their rules of engagement – the set of directives that comply with the international laws of armed conflict but are specific to particular combat engagements. However, in his interpretation, naming missions as “kill/capture” exculpates killing without discretion in spite of the laws. Asked several times whether there was ever talk of special forces units or individuals breaking these rules, T refused to answer, except to say, “I think you’re putting words into my mouth.”
The Brereton Report, he says, “is a piece of rubbish” based on interviews with “Afghanis [sic] who are known liars” and special forces members who “were shit at their job” and ostracised as a result. The latter had “an axe to grind”.
The disconnect between the perceptions of defenders of the Special Operations Task Group and those who lived in their hunting grounds is hard to reconcile, but the rancour created by the special forces within the population ensured a deadly dynamic. The more special forces killed unlawfully and abused, the more the population feared and reviled them, and the more they became inclined to sympathise with the Taliban, regardless of how they once regarded them. And, hence, the more the SOTG saw the entire population as its enemy.
“The brutality of the Australians encouraged people to protect the Taliban in their homes,” says Jamshid. “If there was fighting and the Taliban were in trouble, civilians might want to protect them inside their house. It was [the Australians’] brutality that encouraged this behaviour. Even the civilians would want to fight them after a while.”
Since Australian troops left Uruzgan in December 2013, their understudies in the Afghan National Security Forces have had the unenviable task of securing the province. In 2016, the Taliban conducted a major offensive, capturing large swathes of territory and almost overrunning Tirin Kot. Government forces managed to push the incursion back to the city’s outskirts but have been unable to retake territory beyond. Governor Sherzad says that during his initial period in office, between 2010 and 2011, “the government controlled a large area. We were connected to the districts and to Kandahar.” Now, the government only controls the provincial capital and small, symbolic outposts in the seven district centres, which are only safely accessible by helicopter.
On the government frontline in Kotwal, just a couple of kilometres north of Tirin Kot city, Ahmad Shah commands a small outpost at the edge of a raised plateau overlooking Deh Roshan, the broad area that includes villages such as Dehjawze and Surkh-Murghab. The outpost is wretched. An armoured Humvee sits on blocks; two of its tyres are flat and there doesn’t appear to be much will, or supplies, for repairs. A metre-high arguile, for smoking hash, is the centrepiece of the main sitting area; the men are dishevelled, weary and, in some cases, stoned.
Ahmad Shah, their commander, joined the police under Hamid Karzai’s government nearly 20 years ago. A bandage covers his left hand where he took a sniper’s bullet four months ago. The situation on the frontline is so fragile, he says, and recruits so few, that he hasn’t had a chance to return to Kabul to have a second steel surgical pin removed. “I pulled the other one out myself,” he says.
To say Ahmad Shah’s is a thankless task is an understatement. Of his seven brothers, three have been killed and two disabled working for the police. He is now one of two primary breadwinners for his entire extended family.
“The Australians increased our enemy,” he tells me. “Now, if we speak to the villagers, they turn their backs on us.”
Jamshid explains that while foreign forces are in Afghanistan and supporting the government, he makes no distinction between them. “The only difference is that the Australians came from a long way away and they didn’t allow me to live my life,” he says.
“The Australians turned Pashtuns against one another,” his father, Abdul Malik, says. “They left, but they left animosity between us. They destroyed our dignity.” His only solace seems to come from the promise of revenge, from Jamshid, and from Pashtuns, who “are zealous people and Allah appreciates this”.
Jamshid says Abdul Malik was less fervent in the past. “My father was broken,” he says. “He wasn’t happy that I’d joined the Taliban. He [had been] hopeful that I’d become a religious scholar. But he was also angry about his son’s killing.”
The two didn’t see one another for five years after Dad Mohammad’s death. Jamshid stayed away until after the 2016 offensive that saw the Taliban take control of Dehjawze and the surrounding area. “Now,” he says, “all the village is Taliban. Only the city is controlled by the government.”
Jamshid is married and has three sons and a daughter. For the Taliban, he leads a dalgai, a group of between 40 and 50 fighters. He is described by one man who knows him as having “fearsome eyes’” and “long, dirty hair” beneath a “huge turban”. “He looks as though he’s been living in a cave for many years”, says another. “He’s brutal, but he’s good to the people in his area. He’s done well for them and so he’s highly respected.”
Like most Uruzganis, Jamshid heard about the Brereton Report on the radio. As a known Talib, though, reporting to the human rights commission in Tirin Kot was out of the question. Abdul Malik was reluctant, too; wary of being arrested upon entering government territory, and sceptical there was any point in relaying his story at all. “I didn’t want to come [to the commission],” Abdul Malik says. “[But] people tell me this is the struggle of Uruzgan.”
Haji Hassan collected him from Dehjawze and drove with him to Tirin Kot. “There is no sign on the commission’s office,” Haji Hassan says, then refers to himself and his brother Atiq. “We are the sign.”
The publication of the Brereton Report was an important and unprecedented event for the small group of Afghans who’ve spent more than a decade trying to draw attention to the atrocities they documented. Their names and work have attracted little recognition. Abdul Ghafar Stanikzai says he’s most happy for the families of the victims. “After all these years,” he says, “the families’ sadness and grief has almost gone but now they realise they’re not forgotten.”
Yet Stanikzai acknowledges that the Brereton Report also stirred “disappointment, grief, anger and expectations of what the Australian government will do in response”.
David McBride, the retired ADF legal officer, believes the report is a continuation of the pattern of denial that enabled the alleged war crimes to take place in the first instance. “I believe it was deliberately structured to only consider which corporals did the killing,” he says, “and to completely ignore the larger questions of whether we deliberately rewarded questionable conduct, failed to do due diligence [and] deliberately delayed the process so to ensure we would be long gone from Afghanistan before any hard questions were asked.” McBride also believes questions regarding the “covering up” of intelligence from “international … agents and [surveillance] drones that proved war crimes” were overlooked by the Inspector-General of the ADF.
In Uruzgan, expectations that the report, which made recommendations regarding prosecutions but doesn’t mandate them, are mixed but generally low. Most who recounted stories of killings and abuse to me would prefer justice to be served under an Islamic sharia system, but they understand that’s unlikely and would accept prosecutions under the Australian system, providing sentences are severe.
Word of the epidemic of Australian veteran suicides has also reached Uruzgan and is seen as linked to the conduct of special forces and as a kind of divine intervention. “People say that the Australian soldiers have gone mad,” says Haji Hassan, “that many have killed themselves. There is a sense of justice in that.”
One of Brereton’s recommendations pertains to compensation payments. “If Afghans have been unlawfully killed by Australian soldiers …” the report reads, “then Australia should compensate their families.” Compensation payments for accidental or wrongful deaths, injuries and property damage have been implemented widely by international forces in Afghanistan. Payments, however, are rarely accompanied by disciplinary measures against those responsible.
According to the Qur’an, “compensation is for mistakes”, says Abdul Malik. “I don’t know about [Australia’s] system, but I hope for the harshest punishment they can impose.”
For Jamshid, too, forgiveness or mercy is out of the question. “I want that soldier to come to me,” he says. “They’re not accepting the Qur’an, so we can continue the case under their law, and if death is a punishment under their law, I’d be very willing to do the killing myself.”
Having heard the stories of victims, attended burials and sheltered through numerous Australian raids himself, Atiq, the brother of Haji Hassan, has learnt to expect little. “First, I don’t trust that they’ll help the people or act on the report. Second, they won’t be able to help all the victims because there aren’t just  of them … This figure doesn’t represent even a fraction of the reality.” Still, he sees the report not only as an admission of wrongdoing by the Australians but as an acknowledgment of the suffering imposed and discord stirred by the worst elements within the Special Operations Task Group. “Maybe it will pressure other countries to do the same,” he says. On January 25, the Inspector General of the US Department of Defense indicated that it planned to commence an investigation into whether its special operations forces are conducting war within the department’s laws of war requirements.
The older Haji Hassan is circumspect. “At least something good has come: that they’re asking for forgiveness. And we can forgive them, but Allah will not.”
In Uruzgan, though, the appetite for forgiveness, even eight years after the SOTG departed, is the priority of few. “There was not one person who was spared from their actions,” says Jamshid. “They gave the people no choice,” he says, but to fight back. “Even after one hundred years we will be looking for the chance to take revenge.”
With two sons lost to the Australians and another dedicated to avenging them, the vitriol that roils Abdul Malik is the product of the few of his many years spent with the special forces, as he says, “on our shoulders”. The brutality of the Australians is undeniable, he says. “Can you cover the sky with two fingers?”
Contributed reporting by Aziz Tassal
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