Australia imposes alcohol ban on military over Afghanistan war crimes scandal

In the wake of revelations about heavy drinking at a covert pub in Afghanistan by Australian special forces, defence chiefs in Australia have enforced a comprehensive ban on alcohol during military operations and exercises. The ban replaces previous “advice” that had been openly flouted by elite troops during Australia’s military involvement in Afghanistan, where allegations of war crimes have surfaced.

According to The Australian newspaper, the decision comes as part of an ongoing investigation into war crimes within the Australian defence force, which uncovered instances of excessive drinking by special forces personnel in Afghanistan, pointing to a lax disciplinary culture within the esteemed Special Air Service (SAS).

A number of SAS members are currently facing accusations of 39 murders. A dedicated war crimes unit is currently gathering evidence for potential prosecutions.

Under the newly issued directive, deployed defence force personnel are explicitly prohibited from consuming alcohol in war zones and during exercises. The only exception to this rule may be made for “non-warlike operations,” where a maximum of two alcoholic drinks per person may be allowed on national holidays such as Australia Day, Anzac Day, and Christmas Day. However, even this concession requires a thorough risk assessment to be submitted 21 days before the event.

Obtained through freedom of information laws, the directive, seen by The Australian newspaper, stresses that alcohol consumption during “warlike operations” will not be sanctioned, with the exception of communal wine used for religious purposes. Operational commanders have been instructed to enforce this ban by conducting random and targeted breath tests.

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Those found to have a positive blood alcohol level during random tests will face administrative action, potentially resulting in their removal from ongoing operations, exercises, or activities. Individuals who refuse alcohol testing must be immediately removed from their workplaces and will be barred from accessing weapons, ammunition, and vehicles.

The existence of a pub named the Fat Lady’s Arms within the SAS base in Afghanistan was revealed in a war crimes report by Justice Paul Brereton, released in November 2020. The report, commissioned by the inspector-general of the Australian Defence Force, featured photographs of soldiers participating in drunken fancy dress parties at the establishment, even drinking from a prosthetic leg taken as a macabre keepsake from a deceased Afghan. The report highlighted the pub’s existence as evidence of “organisational blindness” and compromised ethical leadership.

A former member of the 2nd Commando Regiment expressed deep concern over the excessive drinking and revelry within the SAS. They stated that while they were engaged in week-long patrols, SAS soldiers were engaging in dress-up parties. The true extent of the pub’s activities was not fully grasped at the time.