SYDNEY– Australian Defense Minister Stephen Smith Friday apologized to his Afghan counterpart for racist comments and videos posted by troops, saying they could result in some soldiers being sent home.
The military is investigating remarks aired on social networking site Facebook which reportedly disparage Afghans as “sand niggaz”, “dune coons” and “smelly locals”.
Other Facebook pages contain derogatory comments about Australian Prime Minister Julia Gillard and Foreign Minister Kevin Rudd.
Smith said he had spoken to his Afghan counterpart Abdul Rahim Wardak to apologize on behalf of Australia, which has some 1,550 troops based in Afghanistan’s restive Uruzgan province.
“I said, ‘I am ringing you minister because I don’t want this to lower our standing,'” he told ABC radio.
“He said that in his mind, in his own view it would not.”
Smith described the postings, one of which reportedly includes a video in which a soldier is heard to say a blast “scared the fuck out of that mufti” as a local flees an explosion, as appalling.
Other posts reportedly describe Gillard as a “fucking ranga” in reference to her red hair, while one contains a photo of a soldier with Rudd in which a comment refers to the foreign minister as a “tool”.
“I condemn it absolutely,” Smith said, adding that the Australian Defense Force would pursue the matter vigorously.
“And that includes the possibility of disciplinary proceedings. It also includes the possibility of people who are associated or involved with this, if they are in Afghanistan, being returned home.”
But former Australian Defense Force chief Peter Cosgrove said while the comments were “silly” and those involved should be counselled, any reaction needed to be kept in proportion.
General Cosgrove, chief of defence between 2002 and 2005, said the soldiers’ work in Afghanistan essentially contradicted the comments.
“Every time they go outside the wire they are targets and they accept that cheerfully,” he said.
“I think in Australia, across the board, there are racist elements, sadly. I don’t think the Defense Force is anything other than a microcosm of the wider society.”
The current head of the Australian military, Air Chief Marshal Angus Houston, conceded the videos were deeply embarrassing.
“This flies in the face of what we are trying to achieve in Afghanistan. We are trying to win the hearts and the minds of the people,” he said.
“I just hope the Afghan people appreciate that this is a minority, an act of insensitivity and act of stupidity.”
The development comes amid growing anger in Afghanistan given continuing civilian casualties, including the deaths of children and a relative of Afghan President Hamid Karzai, in military offensives led by foreign troops.
International forces have been battling a Taliban-led insurgency for almost a decade but are set to begin handing over control of security to their Afghan counterparts in July.
Australia is the largest non-NATO contributor of troops to the conflict and has lost 23 soldiers in Afghanistan since late 2001.