Minister Suspected UK War Crimes in Afghanistan

Richard Norton-Taylor reports on an inquiry in London examining the conduct of elite Special Forces troops in Afghanistan between 2010 and 2013, including the killing of 33 people in 11 night raids in 2011.

U.K. Minister for Defence People and Veterans Johnny Mercer arriving for a U.K. cabinet meeting in London on Feb. 7, 2024. (Simon Dawson / 10 Downing Street)

By Richard Norton-Taylor
Declassified UK

Britain’s most senior military figures took part in a concerted attempt to suppress allegations that SAS troops [Special Air Service] committed war crimes in Afghanistan.

And a government minister who successfully campaigned to protect soldiers from prosecution believed some of the allegations were true.

This is the remarkable evidence about a “culture of omerta” – a code of silence, originally attributed to the Italian mafia – within Britain’s Special Forces that emerged last week at an independent inquiry in London.

It is examining the conduct of elite SAS troops in Afghanistan between 2010 and 2013, including the killing of 33 people in eleven night raids in 2011.

[Related: UK Probing Alleged Afghan Murders by its Soldiers

The inquiry has already heard from one senior unidentified British Special Forces soldier who believed SAS troops deliberately falsified post-operation reports to cover up what they had done.

The revelations only emerged after a £10 million internal Defence Ministry investigation, Operation Northmoor, failed to discover evidence of SAS wrongdoing and was shut down.

Parliament then passed the 2021 Overseas Operations Act, denying relief to victims of unlawful killing after just six years. 

And only months ago the government introduced the Northern Ireland Troubles (Legacy and Reconciliation) Act, which restricts criminal and civil investigations for Irish victims of British army operations.

Johnny Mercer MP, the minister for Veterans’ Affairs, led the campaign to pass these laws and railed against “tank-chasing lawyers” who brought claims against the MoD.

But speaking to the SAS inquiry this week, he admitted to having long-held concerns about the conduct of U.K. Special Forces in Afghanistan “and from other operations”.

‘Something Stinks’

British soldiers deploying to Kabul to assist in the NATO withdrawal on Aug. 13, 2021. (Ministry of Defence, Wikimedia Commons)

After Mercer became a defence minister in 2019, the MoD reluctantly showed him a secret memo written by a Special Forces commander in 2011 citing “rumours” among elite troops about the SAS “conducting summary executions of supposed Taliban affiliates”.

It said: 

“One of my team, an officer, has been told by an individual from [the unit allegedly responsible] that there is in effect an unofficial policy amongt the [SAS unit] to kill wherever possible fighting aged males on target, regardless of the immediate threat they pose to our troops.

“In some instances this has involved the deliberate killing [of] individuals after they have been restrained by [SAS soldiers] and the subsequent fabrication of evidence to suggest a lawful killing in self defence.”

Mercer was told by then Army Chief Sir Mark Carlton-Smith and then Director of Special Forces General Sir Roland Walker that the allegations had been thoroughly investigated and were untrue.

Mercer said repeated assurances did not set his mind at ease, with Special Forces commanders giving him “implausible” versions of events. 

The assurances, now shown to be false, were repeated by the then Defence Secretary Ben Wallace. 

Mercer told Wallace that he did not believe Generals Carlton-Smith and Walker. “I think my words were ‘something stinks’,” Mercer told the inquiry.

Roland Walker in December 2021. (UK Government, Wikimedia Commons, OGL 3)

He said that when he challenged Walker about being told there was no video footage of Special Forces operations – critical evidence relating to the allegations – the general lent back on his chair and shrugged. Walker will take over as head of the British army later this year.

It was “implausible” that no video existed, Mercer said, explaining how “full-motion video became a statutory requirement to conduct these operations after a particular operation in I believe it was around 2006 that didn’t go too well. It is literally a go/no-go criteria.”

Mercer wrote to Wallace in 2020 after detailed allegations about SAS killings appeared in The Sunday Times

He complained: “I have continually down-played these allegations in public …That was clearly a mistake.”

Mercer said it was “completely unacceptable” for a minister to have been allowed to tell the House of Commons that reports of the executions were untrue when senior military figures knew such a statement was “incorrect”.

The director of special forces, the head of the army and the defence secretary had “not done their job that was incumbent upon them with their rank and privileges in those organisations”, Mercer said.

He claims to have received a direct account from a serving member of the Special Forces who had been asked to carry a “drop weapon”, a reference to the practice of planting a non-NATO firearm on a body to falsely suggest the unarmed victim had posed a threat.

Despite saying he wanted to help the inquiry get to the truth, Mercer repeatedly refused to tell the chairman Sir Charles Haddon-Cave who his source was.

‘Perils of Disclosure’

North door of the Ministry of Defence headquarters in London. (Harland Quarrington, Defence Imagery, Flickr)

After a discussion about the allegations leading to Operation Northmoor, the inquiry heard that Peter Ryan, director of judicial engagement policy at the MoD, warned of the “perils of disclosure”. 

Ryan continued: “Given the ongoing and prospective legal challenges on a wide range of issues, it is quite possible that ministerial records would be put into the public domain…so bland is often best.”

In extraordinary evidence that will not do himself any favours in the MoD, Mercer told the inquiry: 

“The MoD was terrible at investigating itself. There were things that happened…in the course of my work on IHAT [the investigation into abuse of Iraqi prisoners by British troops in Iraq] and Afghanistan, clearly cases like Baha Mousa [the Iraqi civilian killed while in the custody of British troops] were brought to my attention, clearly unacceptable behaviours, and I had very little faith that the MoD had the ability to hold itself to account.”

This week’s evidence should lead to renewed pressure to break down the wall of official secrecy that gives the country’s Special Forces protection greater even than that enjoyed by the security and intelligence agencies.

The inquiry’s lawyer put it to Mercer that: 

“One of the other items you identify as a layer of implausibility was the fact that the number of persons killed significantly and repeatedly exceeded the number of weapons found on target.”

Mercer responded: 

“We never needed to be here today…it’s a crying shame, because this could have been cleared up years ago with facts like that coming out: double the bodies to weapons.”

These facts that could have been obtained through a simple freedom of information request or parliamentary questions – were Special Forces not immune from such transparency mechanisms.

The inquiry continues.

Richard Norton-Taylor is a British editor, journalist and playwright, and the doyen of British national security reporting. He wrote for the Guardian on defence and security matters and was the newspaper’s security editor for three decades.

This article is from Declassified UK.

5 comments for “Minister Suspected UK War Crimes in Afghanistan

  1. John Manning
    February 27, 2024 at 14:02

    While Britain is writing laws to protect its soldiers who committed crimes against Moslems maybe it could add another to protect WW2 veterans who committed crimes against Jews. Are Europeans naturally hypocrites or is this something we get taught.

  2. wildthange
    February 26, 2024 at 21:03

    We pretend wars are somehow humane and such things are just isolated incidents and continue on rewarding wars as heroic use of persons who happen to be under orders and are also themselves victims of the system of warfare for profits rather than peace.

  3. Em
    February 26, 2024 at 11:19

    To Richard Norton-Taylor:

    Now that the poisoners themselves are beginning to recognize what they have killed, and what jeopardy may lie ahead for them, because of how their poison has spread to deathly epidemic proportions, they are starting to show fear and concern for more than just themselves, but for the future of their own progeny in this long ongoing inhumanity.
    This comment applies only to those that the shoe fits, otherwise it is of no relevence, and may be ignored!

    Free truth! Free Julian Assange, today, without further clandestine obfuscation of government lies and criminality, in the name of public security!

  4. Vera Gottlieb
    February 26, 2024 at 10:41

    The Anglo/Saxons…again and again

  5. YesXorNo
    February 26, 2024 at 08:38

    See also the revelations by David McBride for the Australian SAS, and equivalents in Canada for their SAS.

Comments are closed.