What the explosive testimony of a minister reveals about Britain’s war in Afghanistan – and its rogue special forces

Frank Ledwidge

The Guardian

Tue 12 Mar 2024 09.00 EDT

The Afghanistan inquiry is getting into gear at the Royal Courts of Justice. Led by the judge Charles Haddon-Cave, this public inquiry was convened to investigate about 80 killings allegedly committed by the SAS in Afghanistan between 2010 and 2013. Proceedings took a dramatic turn last month when the minister for veterans’ affairs, Johnny Mercer, gave evidence.

It was astonishing to watch. Mercer stated that he had heard from “trusted sources” shocking accounts of serial murder and attempted cover-ups by SAS personnel in Afghanistan. Once he became the minister for veterans (part of the Cabinet Office), he expressed his deep concerns about them to the then defence secretary, Ben Wallace, who asked him to get to the bottom of these well-publicised allegations. Mercer made great efforts to do so.

Mercer didn’t want the allegations to be true; he said that he tried to find evidence to disprove what he had been told. But after extensive discussions with senior officers, he was forced to conclude that information was being withheld from him (the counsel to the inquiry, Oliver Glasgow KC, suggested he was being lied to) and that there was “something not right here”. “I don’t want to believe it,” he said, “but at every stage I have tried to find something to disprove these allegations but I have been unable to.” Mercer painted a picture of a combination of offhand arrogance from senior officers and a lack of interest and accountability on the part of ministers. When a serving minister states under oath – as Mercer did – that he had “very little faith that the MoD had the ability to hold itself to account”, we have a serious problem, whether the reason for it is dishonesty, ignorance or incompetence.

One major problem is that special forces are seen, and see themselves, as untouchable. It was the same in Australia. Until, that is, the 2020 Brereton inquiry, in which Australian special forces soldiers were found to have committed dozens of murders of unarmed Afghan detainees and civilians. After publication of the report, the head of Australia’s special forces, general Adam Findlay, summoned his troops and delivered an address. In it he blamed the many war crimes committed by his units on “poor moral leadership” and “self-righteous entitled prick[s]” who believed the rules of the regular army didn’t apply to them. In other words, a culture of impunity.

This culture goes right to the top. Mercer’s evidence indicated that if senior military officers don’t want ministers to know something about special forces because it is embarrassing or reflects badly upon them, they can stonewall or gaslight and expect no further action or scrutiny. All of this demonstrates with crystal clarity the dangers of having an important part of our armed forces acting without continuous and effective democratic oversight.

UK special forces, including the SAS, claim a unique position in Britain’s defence and security structures. They are accountable only to two people: the defence secretary and the prime minister. This is unlike GCHQ, MI6 and MI5, which are all subject to some degree of scrutiny by the elected members of the intelligence and security committee of parliament (ISC) – composed of nine security-cleared members drawn from both houses of parliament. All of those organisations deal with matters at least as sensitive as the SAS and similar units. The ISC is a largely trusted and respected component of the national security framework. The army, navy and air force, including highly secret and sensitive strategic capabilities such as the nuclear deterrent, receive effective and often robust supervision from the House of Commons defence select committee.

Most of our major allies, such as Denmark, Norway and France, place their special forces under some form of oversight. The US firmly places them under congressional and government accounting office supervision. Reports on accountability in Britain, including one in 2023 commissioned by a cross-party group, have urged action. In 2018, Malcolm Rifkind, the former defence secretary and chairman of the ISC, echoed the view of many when he said: “It is unanswerable that there should be some form of oversight of special forces.” No remotely convincing reason for the UK’s uniqueness in this respect has been presented in parliament or elsewhere. As always, the answer is “no comment”.

The SAS are reported to be operating in 19 countries including Syria, from where a murder allegation emerged on Tuesday. Up to 50 of them are said to be operating in Ukraine. It is clear that this small force of only a few hundred are overcommitted and overstretched, and often given inappropriate tasks that other troops could do as well or better, such as certain forms of intelligence gathering, training or advising on planning and strategy. Of course, without democratic oversight, prime ministers or the ministry of defence can commit special forces as much as they like without debate, scrutiny or control. This is now becoming dangerous. Any renegade behaviour in Ukraine – against nuclear Russia – could have disastrous consequences for us all. Effective oversight mechanisms are vital. Right now, we don’t have them.

Frank Ledwidge is a barrister and former military officer who served in the Balkans, Iraq and Afghanistan. He is the author of Losing Small Wars and Investment in Blood

What the explosive testimony of a minister reveals about Britain’s war in Afghanistan – and its rogue special forces