UK’s special forces at center of Afghanistan war crimes inquiry: MoD confirms

Britain’s ministry of defense on Wednesday confirmed for the first time that UK special forces are at the center of a war crimes inquiry.

Britain’s defense minister Ben Wallace said on Wednesday in a written statement to parliament that the independent investigation into allegations of extrajudicial killings by British soldiers relates to special forces previously accused of unlawful deaths.

Wallace said the inquiry, which was launched in March, was “now reaching the stage of substantive hearings, and I can confirm that the allegations relate to the conduct of UK Special Forces”.

He said the confirmation that special forces were involved “is made in the exceptional circumstances of this inquiry”.

“Outside of this very specific context, 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,” he said.

The defense ministry had previously argued that the inquiry should restrict from the public “any evidence or documents or words or passages of documents, that tend to confirm or deny the alleged involvement of United Kingdom Special Forces in the operations that are to be investigated”.

But on Monday, less than 48 hours before they were due to argue their case in front of the chair of the inquiry, Lord Justice Haddon-Cave, lawyers for the defense ministry wrote to the inquiry saying the ministry “proposed to abandon that part of their application”.

The reversal means that evidence of involvement of UK special forces in the alleged unlawful killings in Afghanistan can be discussed openly in the inquiry hearings and reported publicly.

A long-running investigation by the BBC uncovered evidence clearly indicating that one SAS unit operating in Afghanistan in 2010 and 2011 killed 54 people in suspicious circumstances in one six-month tour.

Other countries’ special forces have also faced allegations of unlawful killings in Afghanistan.

In Australia, a 2020 military investigation found special forces personnel “unlawfully killed” 39 Afghan civilians and prisoners, revealing allegations of summary executions, body count competitions and torture by Australian forces.

Last months, lawyers in the UK, representing bereaved families in Afghanistan, told the inquiry that British soldiers may have killed 80 civilians in a policy of terminating all fighting-age men.

A Guardian report stated Sunday that concerns made by senior army officers in emails from the time, included a warning that “there appears to be a casual disregard for life”.

The lawyers also said that the summary killings were conducted by three separate British SAS units that operated in Afghanistan between 2010 and 2013. Until Wednesday, the defense ministry refused to confirm special forces were the focus of the inquiry.

The lawyers’ report stated that one of the elite soldiers is believed to have “personally killed” 35 civilians in Afghanistan on a single six-month tour of duty as part of an alleged policy to terminate “all fighting-age males” in homes raided, “regardless of the threat they posed”.

Civilians were also reportedly often killed after allegedly producing weapons when separated from their wider family by SAS soldiers. However, the report stated that there were five incidents where the number shot dead exceeded the number of weapons found.

In December last year, UK ministers announced the creation of a statutory inquiry, led by appeal court judge Lord Justice Haddon-Cave into alleged killings of civilians in Afghanistan. This came after growing pressure in the wake of a string of investigative reports and civil cases, which alleged that elite British troops repeatedly killed civilians in Afghanistan in cold blood.

UK military police launched Operation Northmoor in 2014, an investigation into allegations of more than 600 offenses by British forces in Afghanistan, including the alleged killing of civilians by the SAS. In 2017 the ministry of defense said no evidence of criminality was found.

However, the lawyers for bereaved families argue that in the years that followed, there was “a wide-ranging, multilayered and years-long cover-up” involving senior officers, officials and a range of inquiries. It has also been claimed that “in direct defiance” of an order not to delete information, staff at the special forces headquarters “permanently deleted an unknown quantity of data” shortly before military police investigators arrived to examine it.