Gallant Work

Tom Stevenson

In July 2022, the BBC and the Sunday Times published an investigation into war crimes by British troops in Afghanistan. They presented striking evidence that UK special forces – primarily SAS units – were responsible for dozens of extrajudicial executions in Helmand, and that these crimes had been covered up. Despite some early attempts to brush off the allegations, they have now prompted an official inquiry, chaired by Lord Justice Haddon-Cave.

Around eighty victims have been identified. British soldiers would arrive in the middle of the night, order everyone out of a residential compound, and then force their target to accompany them inside before shooting him dead. Afterwards they would claim the victims were armed, or make use of ‘throw downs’ (planting weapons on bodies), as a thin justification for the killings. Already detained men were said to have pulled grenades out from behind curtains, or Kalashnikovs from under tables and blankets, giving the British soldiers no choice but to shoot them.

Countries that purport to hold democratic values do not like admitting that they run death squads and carry out night-raid executions. So instead they talk of special forces on ‘deliberate detention operations’. But there is a limit to the concealing power of language when you are flying helicopters into mud-brick villages and killing people in front of their families.

In February 2011, a British lieutenant colonel received a report about a night raid that had resulted in eight Afghan men being shot dead by British special forces. He noted how peculiar it was that yet another group of men who had already been detained and searched had somehow procured weapons before they were killed. ‘If we don’t believe this, then no one else will,’ he wrote, ‘and when the next Wikileaks occurs then we will be dragged down with them.’

The cover stories were unimaginative because this was business as usual. According to the testimony of one senior officer, ‘fighting-age males were being executed on target inside compounds, using a variety of methods after they had been restrained.’ Investigations by the military police at the time – Operation Northmoor and Operation Cestro – excluded ‘systemic issues’, even though special forces headquarters appeared to have destroyed evidence before the military police investigators arrived. Of around six hundred alleged offences, none led to a prosecution.

In 2020, emails were presented to the High Court that proved there were concerns in the military hierarchy in 2011 that UK special forces units in Afghanistan appeared to be following a general policy to ‘kill fighting-aged males on target even when they did not pose a threat’.

The inquiry is just getting going and already there are signs of foot-dragging from the Ministry of Defence. The government has only just conceded in preliminary hearings that ‘UK special forces’ were even in Afghanistan, but not which special forces branches. It is also demanding that evidence sessions be held in secret. Before the inquiry started, the MoD complained that it was ‘irresponsible’ for the media even to report on the matter.

The response to the reporting of these crimes has been dismayingly predictable. The Times enlisted a former SAS soldier, Rusty Firmin, to defend British special forces as ‘too professional’ to commit war crimes. ‘For once and for all,’ Firmin wrote, ‘we should support our SAS for the gallant work they do.’ The historian Andrew Roberts argued that even if British special forces do occasionally commit war crimes, it was all part of the ‘sometimes grisly but still necessary business of doing violence on our behalf’. Further investigation, he added, should be avoided on the grounds that ‘there needs to be a point where the public’s right to be inquisitive stops.’

Special forces mythology is rich in talk of fancy equipment and rigorous training. But the need for secrecy means these small units can develop unusual internal cultures. And because so much of their activity is high violence, that internal culture can easily turn sour.

When it goes wrong, and supposedly elite professionals are marauding across remote countryside burning down houses and executing unarmed farmers with their hands in the air, their apologists like to fall back on the excuse of ‘rogue units’. But part of the point of special forces is that they are deliberately shielded from accountability: they’re supposed to be off leash. They’re ‘rogue units’ by definition. And if their superiors really didn’t know what they were doing, that implies the British Army is so incompetent that it was running death squads without realising it.

Admiration for special forces units usually comes from subcultures of military enthusiasts rather than the national political class as a whole. British leaders seem to have a particular interest in the SAS. As recently as last year the BBC aired a glamorous piece of propaganda based on its exploits in the Second World War. It seems that mediocrities who live very safe lives and find the idea of daring forays alluring must also believe that the men involved are moral stalwarts.

Britain’s juvenile reverence for special forces units is shared by Australia, which not coincidentally plays a similar role to the UK as an adjunct to US power. After the journalist Mark Willacy exposed war crimes by Australian special forces in Afghanistan, the Australian government conducted a four-year investigation. The findings were published in November 2020 as the Brereton Report. It found credible evidence of war crimes. A special forces unit was disbanded and investigations into Australian special forces continue. Earlier this year an Australian soldier, Oliver Schulz, was charged with the murder of a farmer in 2012 in Uruzgan. (The state has also chosen to persist with charges against the whistleblower and former legal adviser David McBride, who provided evidence of crimes to Australian journalists and is due to be tried in November.)

Britain still has not reached even this level of reckoning with its crimes, but perhaps the Haddon-Cave Inquiry will represent a move in that direction. It’s important that the inquiry is not confined to the actions of a few individual soldiers. Under Article 28 of the Rome Statute military commanders are responsible for crimes committed by their subordinates if they should have known about them.


  • 29 July 2023 at 5:22pm
    enfieldian says:
    There should be overwhelming public criticism of these horrors, but unfortunately, our political system does not include a proper opposition, so it’s usually down to brave individuals to do the job. Focussing upon the perpetrators of war crimes is important, but surely once you have agreed to undertake an aggressive war and occupy populated territory, it is inevitable that your forces will occasionally perpetrate crimes. The person primarily responsible for war crimes in Ukraine is Vladimir Putin; the person primarily responsible for British war crimes in Iraq and Afghanistan is Tony Blair.

  • 31 July 2023 at 1:25pm
    Patrick Cotter says:
    None of this is new and is form of an established pattern. Essential to the authority of a democracy to wage war is to do it without adopting the 'extrajudicial' killing behaviour of its enemies. Without being in any way an IRA sympathiser I would advise readers to consult the 'Shoot-to-kill policy in Northern Ireland' article on Wikipedia. Not to mention the account of the death of poor Jean Charles de Menezes. Historic amnesia by society at large is one of the enabling factors for these crimes.

  • 6 August 2023 at 1:24pm
    judgefloyd says:
    Anybody interested in the Australian situation which has a lot in common with the British one, should look up Ben Roberts-Smith, our most decorated living soldier. Thanks to bringing what is probably the most ill-considered defamation case ever, Roberts-Smith has been declared to be a murderer, a liar and a bully (the last term here meaning threatening other SAS members ).
    His case also attracted defenders of war-crimes using the old lines about the 'heat of war' and 'murder is bad, but...'