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Customary Barbarity: Britain’s SAS in Afghanistan

The insistence that there is a noble way of fighting war, one less bloody and brutal, has always been the hallmark of forces self-described as civilised. Restraint characterises their behaviour; codes of laws follow in their wake, rather than genocidal impulses. Killing, in short, is a highly regulated, disciplined affair.

The failed wars and efforts of foreign powers in Afghanistan have destroyed this conceit. Lengthy engagements, often using special forces operating in hostile terrain, have been marked by vicious encounters and hostile retribution. Australia’s Special Air Services supplied a very conspicuous example. The 2020 report by New South Wales Court of Appeal Justice Paul Brereton on the alleged murders of Afghan non-combatants was an ice bath for moralists claiming they were fighting the good fight.

Known rather dully as the Inspector-General of the Australian Defence Force Afghanistan Inquiry Report, Brereton claimed that 39 alleged non-combatant murders were perpetrated by Australian special service units during their tours of duty. The report was inspired, in no small way, by the work of consultant Samantha Crompvoets, a sociologist commissioned by the Special Operations Commander of Australia (SOCAUST) to conduct a “cultural review” of the Special Operations Command in mid-2015.

Her January 2016 report makes grim reading, noting such endemic practices as body count competitions and the use of the Joint Priority Effects List (JPEL). The JPEL effectively constituted a “sanctioned kill list” characterised by tinkered numbers.

Units of the British SAS are now accused of almost identical practices, a point that will come as little surprise to some in the Royal Military Police. Titled Operation Northmoor, the RMP initiated a number of investigations in 2014 that covered 675 criminal allegations, some of which were said to have been committed by the special forces. In 2019, the Ministry of Defence closed the investigation claiming that there was no evidence of criminality.

The RMP team disputed the finding, and had to face an atmosphere of hostility encouraged by then Minister for Veterans’ Affairs Johnny Mercer. According to Mercer, the whole effort was a crusade by overly keen human rights lawyers keen to harass the MOD. In his sights was the solicitor’s firm Leigh Day, which was twice cleared of allegations of professional misconduct for their handling of compensation claims against the MOD over alleged incidents in Iraq.

A recent BBC investigation has revisited Britain’s military efforts, finding evidence of unlawful killings during 2010-11. One unit took its work so seriously as to be allegedly responsible for the deaths of 54 people over six months. The pattern of behaviour is markedly similar to those of the Australian special forces: detainees supposedly shot after producing a concealed weapon; the use of “burner” weapons rather than formal issue to do the deed. Institutional complicity is also alleged, with officers higher up the pecking order covering up the misdeeds of their subordinates.

The investigation also suggests that vital information was not shared with the RMP. A claim is made that General Sir Mark Carleton-Smith, director of the special forces, did not disclose to the RMP earlier concerns about unlawful killings, or the existence of a review into the squadron.

With these allegations come enormous impediments to accountability. The British government, captured by a Brexit atmosphere of exceptionalism, has busied itself with making prosecutions harder than ever. In 2020, the Overseas Operations (Service Personnel and Veterans) Bill was introduced to provide serving and former military personnel “more legal protection from prosecution for alleged offences resulting in overseas operations.”

The press release announcing the Bill went on to note the number of compensation claims against the UK Ministry of Defence – near 1,000 – for unlawful detention, personal injury and death. To this could also be added 1,400 judicial review claims against the MOD seeking investigations and compensation for a number of human rights violations.

Instead of seeing such figures as an instance of cultural blight and abuse in the UK military forces in their conduct of overseas operations, Defence Secretary Ben Wallace preferred a different reading. The “vast majority” of personnel had “acted in accordance with the rule of law and often at great personal risk” but had been “faced with the prospect of repeated investigations by inquest and police.”

The Bill became law in 2021. Under the law, prosecutors are discouraged from initiating actions in various ways. There is a general presumption against the prosecution of soldiers for overseas offences committed five years after the alleged incident. The original bill even went so far as to apply this presumption to all crimes bar sexual offences, though this was subsequently amended to exclude torture, war crimes, crimes against humanity and genocide.

“Particular weight” must be given by the prosecutor to a range of matters, such as “being exposed to unexpected or continuous threats, being in command of others who were so exposed, or being deployed alongside others who were killed or severely wounded in action.” It was imperative for the prosecutor to “have regard to the exceptional demands and stresses to which members of Her Majesty’s forces are likely to be subject while deployed on overseas operations, regardless of their length of service, rank or personal resilience.” If the prosecutor favours prosecution, another limitation must be negotiated. Any action against military personnel can only proceed with the consent of the Attorney General.

The UK authorities have also insulated themselves from civil claims based on harmful overseas acts that might arise in connection with the Human Rights Act. The time bar there is six years.

Given that the acts alleged in the BBC investigation took place over a decade ago, the prospect of genuine, fully committed prosecutions is almost impossible to envisage. An investigation of some shape or form is likely to happen, though it will be carefully managed to fail. Britain has shown, time and again, that the rich rhetoric of human rights can be uttered even as its soldiers butcher for Queen and country.

 

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16 comments

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  1. wam

    Christian soldiers believe only the other side commit atrocities in war. In this belief the poms have had a thousand years experience in avoiding acceptance of responsibility? They need laws to maintain such an imposing history. The fact that men and women are taught to kill without compunction is only a small step from murder. The fact that, after training and experience, the men and women receive inadequate or no debriefing is scary. There are thousand of Vietnam veterans for whom, 50 years later, alcohol is self medication. America, Britain and us, can ignore the dozens of atrocities and massacres in our history. Why? My favourites, as an americophobe: Wounded knee 1880. soldiers murdered unarmed men, women and children Bud Daju the picture is horrific https://rarehistoricalphotos.com/moro-insurgents-1906/ for which the soldiers were glorified by the president Chenogne executions No Gun Ri My Lai Abu Ghraib When white America acknowledge these crimes the society will change for the better. Will Neil James, the executive director of the Australia Defence Association, stated that “Australian soldiers have committed war crimes in previous wars but they’ve been in isolation and haven’t been systemic. The brereton report, 4 corners and Roberts-Smith suggest our war crimes are systemic in Australia’s armed forces.

  2. A Commentator

    This article is interesting, and even more so, when the facts it neglects to mention are considered –
    * The extensive evidence of countless war crimes currently being committed by Russia in Ukraine. There appears no doubt that war crime is an approved military strategy under Putin
    * The important role of our much pilloried free press in investigating and exposing war crimes. There is no such media capacity under Putin
    * The specific reports from the United Nations about Russia’s war crimes, for example here- https://news.un.org/en/story/2022/05/1118072
    I think it’s time for Dr Kampmark to get over his disdain for western democracy, and put the Putin regime under similar scrutiny

  3. Phil Pryor

    One wakes to observe a world in its doomed future, and obsessive primitive comment makes for further depression. No article needs to consider what it “neglects” for we all neglect everything outside our intent; even fixated fools do this. The world is theatened greatly by USA aggression, well illustrated in the murdering on so many, especially women and children, in Vietnam, Iraq, Afghanistan, many places, and to no gain for the politically perverted, supremacist, righteous, evangelically idiotic USA. Now we Australians are seeing our armed forces tuned up as mercenaries on the flank of USA future threats and aggression in our region, with our Northern Territory being effectively shaped as a huge USA base. We buy useless tanks, dud planes, failure destined helicopters and are sold a bullshit dream of submarines, so as to base nuclear USA subs here,all to corner us into being conscripted for future malicious plans, including war, when WE WILL BE a target, will be fried, eliminated and forgotten by our cynical “allies”. Now that the selfseducing Johnson has gone, UK opinion will fade and they will never remain fixated on old dreams of Imperial magnificence in a far flung empire long gone. NATO has been used to corner Putin and we are all horrified in this war against UKRAINE which migh never have occurred if Albright and her successors had not amplified USA dreams of exceptionalism. One day, Putin, Trump, so many political crooks, frauds, “dictators” and deviates will be punished suitably, in our dreams. Western democracy is still a good dream, but the puffed up politically perverted poltroons of the USA republican party want supreme power, not quite the same as adolf and josef had it, but there’s nothing they will not do to avoid democratic ways. Probably nobody commenting here would wish to live in Russia, the USA, many places we do not “know”. Let us comment in balance, be positive, and not whine about what was not said, not neglected, not relevant to the article or comment. Let us advocate punishment for all war crimes, ever, starting when.., 4000 B C?? Certainly in the last half century, the USA has committed murders leading to the deaths of over a half million innocent people. Let us include that with the current horrors in Ukraine which deserve investigation, charges, sentences, punishment, indeed.

  4. A Commentator

    If there is to be a discussion about war crimes, it seems to me that the magnitude of those currently being committed is a reasonable starting point
    This is particularly the case when war crime appears to be the approved military policy

  5. Phil Pryor

    Reasonable, relevant, current, capable of being investigated and recorded now…but war crimes have never ever been well handled, if at all, with smoke screens, denials, elimination of witnesses, evidence, and sheer ill will. The USA has never signed up to effective international law bodies, including international courts. Putin will not co-operate, Nobody ever does…

  6. A Commentator

    Did you read the report from the UN site I linked? Can you find an equally UN damning report regarding the military actions of any other country?
    Being anti western democracy is no longer “left” or “progressive”
    Those that are anti western democracy now includes a coalition of conspiracy theorists and apologists for Putin’s fascist brutality
    People’s reputation is based on the company they keep

  7. Phil Pryor

    Yes and yes.., but, you’d have compiled long reports on this war criminality area vital to you, so, what have you gathered on USA criminality in just three, Vietnam and other Indo-Chinese areas, in Iraq, In Afghanistan? Condense each, if you wish, to a hundred pages or two, for now. Then we might collaborate with others on war crimes areas of concern, limiting that if you wish to the last two centuries, or no more than five. Before exhausting this pointlessness, we’d be terminally frustrated. (Vlad will go, one day, and good riddance.)

  8. A Commentator

    As I said, you’re welcome to post a similar United Nations statement on war crimes by a western democracy.
    Are there any such official, damning statements?

  9. Phil Pryor

    United nations statements. modern days, lacking guaranteed quantities, suffering from deficiencies of suppression, hard evidence, non-co-operation, deaths of vital people, are very essential but naturally inadequate, and I’m talking (jesting) about going back in time immemorial. War crimes successfully prosecuted over time barely exist, as so often the “winners” cover, bury, suppress, move on, repeat. Who prosecuted the Huns, let alone the official catholic church? We might as well seethe, seach, comment, but…

  10. Michael Taylor

    A BBC investigation discovered that British SAS committed war crimes in Afghanistan and Dr Binoy has, as many other around the world would have done, written about the investigation.

    We may compare it to other related incidents throughout time and history, but this is not what this article is about.

    It would be no different to me writing about the injustices suffered by our First Nations People only for someone to come in and shout “But what about Putin? Why are you ignoring his war crimes?”

    Or about Hitler invading Poland… “But what about Putin?”

    Or the British cruelty in Scotland that led to the Battle of Culloden… “But what about Putin?”

    Or the land clearing in Australia that threatens the koala habitat… “But what about Putin?”

    This is becoming very tiresome. Dr Binoy is clearly living rent free in someone’s head.

    It’s a pity that almost all of Binoy’s articles are being hijacked because of one person’s obsessive dislike of him.

  11. A Commentator

    I consider my comment to be restrained and balanced.
    Dr Kampmark has made no comment on the Russian invasion of Ukraine since his “comic book villain” statement
    He writes about a range of other war crimes that are less current and significantly less likely to result in international catastrophe
    You’re welcome to delete my comments on this thread if you consider them to be unreasonable.

  12. Michael Taylor

    AC, “restrained and balanced” comments discuss/debate the article. “Restrained and balanced” comments do not attack the author.

  13. A Commentator

    This was hardly me at my most critical… “I think it’s time for Dr Kampmark to get over his disdain for western democracy, and put the Putin regime under similar scrutiny”
    There is no international catastrophe due to the behaviour of the SAS, there is no resulting threat of nuclear war or widespread famine
    I think it is reasonable to identify those differentiators in the context of an article about war crimes
    But as I said, please delete my comments if they are unreasonable

  14. Michael Taylor

    There is no international catastrophe due to the behaviour of the [insert topic here] there is no resulting threat of nuclear war or widespread famine.

    Please be sure to post that comment under every article we publish.

  15. Phil Pryor

    Michael, we have stayed out, silenced, polite, to allow a thick dickskull, a fixated fool, a narrow nitwit, an unobservant untermensch, a shabby scheisskerl, a loose loony, to parade his (it’s ) obsessive microstaring, to absorb him utterly…

  16. Michael Taylor

    Yes, Phil, he certainly knows how to ruin a discussion.

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