SAS in Afghanistan: Politicians must be able to probe allegations that UK Special Forces committed war crimes – Stewart McDonald

Government documents reveal that Special Forces commanders themselves raised concerns about a ‘deliberate policy’ to shoot unarmed men dead during night raids

This week, the Defence Secretary announced to the House of Commons that members of the UK Special Forces are currently under investigation for allegedly committing war crimes in Afghanistan. In making this statement, Ben Wallace put an end to the untenable farce of the UK Government refusing to “confirm or deny” events which have appeared on the front pages of newspapers, and which were the subject of a prime-time BBC Panorama documentary. One BBC headline last year simply read “SAS unit repeatedly killed Afghan detainees”.

Yet even as Wallace broke with the UK Government’s infamous “no comment” policy regarding anything to do with the Special Forces, he was careful to clarify that “such confirmation should not be seen to alter the longstanding position of this government, and previous governments, to not comment on the deployment or activities of the UK Special Forces”.

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This would be news to the late Margaret Thatcher, who stood in front of the whole House at Prime Minister’s Questions in 1980 and celebrated “a brilliant operation, carried out by the Special Air Service with courage and confidence”. It would also be news to the MPs throughout the early parts of the same decade who stood in the chamber and freely discussed SAS activity in Northern Ireland and the Falkland Islands.

This so-called longstanding policy is not only a recent development – one of the House of Commons’ very own “invented traditions” – but an anomaly among our military allies that should be consigned to the history books. In 2015, President Barack Obama announced that around 50 US Special Forces personnel were being deployed to Syria while Australian Prime Minister Tony Abbott stated that 200 Australian Special Forces members had been cleared to deploy to Iraq.

Sometimes this candour makes a mockery of the tight-lipped UK Government. In 2016, for example, it was revealed by an American newspaper – presumably briefed by someone from the US intelligence community – that “alarm bells sounded at the Pentagon and the Ministry of Defence in London” after Russian aircraft bombed a military base used by US and UK Special Forces in Syria. This was just one year after David Cameron promised Parliament that the UK would not deploy ground troops in that country.

While the work of the SAS is understandably highly sensitive and secret, the UK Government can and must do more to allow parliamentary scrutiny of their activities. For the good of our democracy and for all those who serve in uniform, disclosures about SAS activity cannot continue to be made public via press headlines about war crimes or near-death experiences. The current “no comment” policy, combined with a total absence of any form of democratic oversight, is serving nobody’s interests – especially not those who serve in the armed forces.

Elected politicians must have the opportunity to understand and question government policy decisions. Indeed, as noted by Dominic Grieve, who was Attorney General and a chair of the UK Parliament’s Intelligence and Security Committee, “in a modern democracy, having areas of state activity that are not subject to any scrutiny at all by parliament is not a very good place to be”. Yet this is precisely where we are.

Margaret Thatcher praised the actions of the SAS in ending the Iranian Embassy siege in London in 1980. But politicians also need to be able to talk about allegations of wrongdoing made against the UK's Special Forces (Picture: PA)Margaret Thatcher praised the actions of the SAS in ending the Iranian Embassy siege in London in 1980. But politicians also need to be able to talk about allegations of wrongdoing made against the UK's Special Forces (Picture: PA)
Margaret Thatcher praised the actions of the SAS in ending the Iranian Embassy siege in London in 1980. But politicians also need to be able to talk about allegations of wrongdoing made against the UK's Special Forces (Picture: PA)

This was confirmed to me in 2020 following my adjournment debate on UK Special Forces in Iraq and Afghanistan. During that debate, the UK veterans minister told the House that “there have been allegations made by a small number of people associated with operational units involved in the incidents that have been alleged”. Documents released six months later by the Ministry of Defence on the instruction of the High Court showed that this was not true.

They revealed that grave concerns were raised not only by those people the minister cited, but also by multiple individuals up and down the chain of command – both verbally and in writing. Furthermore, allegations were recorded from outside the armed forces by Governor Mangal, then governor of Helmand Province, that “four innocent civilians were killed by [coalition forces]”. So serious were these concerns that the Afghan Partnering Unit withdrew its support for British operations.

The same documents also revealed that UK soldiers raised concerns of a "massacre" in the aftermath of one raid; that Afghan soldiers partnering with British Special Forces described two men being "assassinated" after being detained and a further two being shot as they ran away; that Special Forces commanders raised concerns about a “deliberate policy” to shoot unarmed men dead during night raids; and that, in his remarks to me, the minister, Johnny Mercer, gave plainly false information, I suspect unknowingly, to Parliament.

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When equally abhorrent allegations were made in Australia regarding unlawful killings by Special Forces personnel, a judge-led inquiry found "credible evidence" that members of its Special Forces were responsible for the unlawful killing of 39 people, using planted weapons in an attempt to justify shootings. The Chief of the Defence Force accepted all 134 recommendations of the report and Australia declared that it would reform its Special Forces.

It is simply no longer plausible for the UK to hide behind its blanket “no comment” policy on Special Forces, which, over the years, has been questioned by the Intelligence and Security Committee, the Foreign Affairs Select Committee, the Defence Select Committee, and the Public Administration and Constitutional Affairs Committee.

It is long past time for the UK to follow our military allies in the US, Canada, Australia, France, Denmark and Norway and bring in institutionalised mechanisms that would allow the UK Government to provide information about its Special Forces, or for legislatures to scrutinise their activities in an orderly fashion. Those who serve in uniform are ill-served by a political policy that shrouds them in secrecy. Democratic oversight of Special Forces is the norm in western democracies and finding an appropriate way to bring such oversight into our own institutions should not be beyond our imagination.

Stewart McDonald is SNP MP for Glasgow South



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