Young soldiers were "blooded" by shooting prisoners, and fleeing women and children were considered legitimate targets, a damning inquiry into Australia's Afghanistan operations has found.
A four-year investigation by Inspector-General of the Australian Defence Force, Paul Brereton, examined allegations of war crimes by special forces in Afghanistan.
Having interviewed more than 400 witnesses and examined tens of thousands of documents, Justice Brereton found there was credible evidence of 23 incidents in which a total of 39 Afghan nationals were unlawfully killed.
The families of those killed, mostly between 2009 and 2013, will be compensated without waiting for any criminal prosecutions.
Justice Brereton identified 25 current or former ADF personnel accused of perpetrating one or more war crimes.
A few of the Afghan nationals killed were not participating in hostilities, while the majority were prisoners of war.
"None of these are incidents of disputable decisions made under pressure in the heat of battle," the report said.
"The cases in which it has been found that there is credible information of a war crime are ones in which it was or should have been plain that the person killed was a non-combatant."
Dozens more allegations investigated could not be substantiated.
Justice Brereton found credible evidence some soldiers carried "throw downs" such as weapons and military equipment to make it appear the person killed was a legitimate target.
As well, there was evidence junior soldiers were required by their patrol commanders to shoot a prisoner in a practice known as "blooding" to notch up their first kill.
The inquiry has recommended the chief of defence refer 36 matters to the Australian Federal Police for criminal investigation.
The matters relate to 23 incidents and involve 19 individuals.
Justice Brereton placed the greatest blame on patrol commanders, believing they were most responsible for inciting or directing subordinates to commit war crimes.
"It was at the patrol commander level that the criminal behaviour was conceived, committed, continued, and concealed, and overwhelmingly at that level that responsibility resides."
Chief of the Defence Force, Angus Campbell, blamed a "self-centred warrior culture".
He personally apologised to the Australian public and to his Afghan counterpart.
"To the people of Afghanistan, on behalf of the Australian Defence Force, I sincerely and unreservedly apologise for any wrongdoing by Australian soldiers," he told reporters in Canberra on Thursday.
"The killing, the unlawful killing, of civilians and prisoners is never acceptable. It is my duty and that of my fellow chiefs to set things right."
General Campbell accepted all of the 465-page report's recommendations.
He will write to the governor-general requesting he revoke the meritorious unit citation for Special Operations Task Group, who served in Afghanistan between 2007 and 2013.
As well, the second squadron Special Air Service will be disbanded, with a new squadron under a different name to take its place.
Individual soldiers could be stripped of their medals or face disciplinary action.
Defence Personnel Minister Darren Chester said it was important the actions of a few did not stain the reputations of the more than 39,000 personnel who were deployed to Afghanistan.
"For the overwhelming majority their service was in keeping with the values we expect as a nation, and the high standards they demand of each other," he said.
© AAP 2020