The Sunday Times alleges rogue SAS soldiers conducted what amounts to assassinations in Helmand Province. I’m not in the least surprised.
One of their reporters, George Arbuthnott has informed me that an incident I wrote about in SPIN ZHIRA corroborates some of their own findings with regards to one such alleged assassination in 2012. This took place in Rahim Kalay, a small, poppy dependent rural community east of Gereshk where the British had established a patrol base.
At the time the village was on the front line of the International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) counter-insurgency, making it a very dangerous and violent place to live. Abandoned by the Government of the Islamic Republic of Afghanistan shortly after the British withdrawal from Helmand in 2014, it now falls under Taliban shadow governance. Ironically, this makes it a much safer and less violent place to live.
The Sunday Times investigation has revealed that the Ministry of Defence are using the closure of the bogus Iraq Historic Allegations Team (IHAT) as an opportunity to shut down a completely separate Royal Military Police (RMP) investigation into the conduct of SAS kill/capture missions.
The IHAT enquiry squandered taxpayers’ money and amounted to a betrayal of British servicemen and women by the ministry responsible for safeguarding them. Based on my own experiences in Rahim, I believe the RMP investigation is warranted and should be allowed to proceed. Former Army Captain and MP for Plymouth Moor View, Johnny Mercer, agrees “We must be very clear that unlawful behaviour is not acceptable. I hope that my efforts to protect our servicemen and women from spurious claims have not been used as cover to legitimise unprofessional behaviour on operations.”
Even in war, soldiers are not above the law and it seemed to me that, all too often in Afghanistan, Special Forces were not subject to the oversight of the military chain of command or the law of armed conflict.
My account of the incident is reproduced below:
“It was an extraordinary tale but not an improbable one. Night raids were commonplace in Afghanistan and Haji was not the first person, nor would he be the last, to receive a visitation from Special Operations Forces in the middle of the night. As with everything in the secretive world of SOF it was difficult to know precise details. But a US military source told researchers for the Open Society Foundation in April 2011 that as many as 40 raids were being carried out every night. Jon Nagel, a former member of Petreus’ staff described them as “an industrial strength counter-terrorism killing machine”.
This sounded most impressive but Mr Nagel appeared to be fighting the wrong war. We were supposed to be conducting a counter-insurgency, not a counter-terrorism campaign. Perhaps I was splitting hairs but Mr Nagel really should have known the difference because his own boss had re-written the counter-insurgency manual to great acclaim and fanfare.
In it Petreus had mandated: “Legitimacy is the Main Objective.” Impressed, no doubt, by British military doctrine writers’ ability to use a dozen words where half that number would have sufficed he went on to state:
“The best counter‑insurgency campaigns integrate and synchronise political, security, economic, and informational components that reinforce governmental legitimacy and effectiveness while reducing insurgent influence over the population. COIN strategies should be designed to simultaneously protect the population from insurgent violence; strengthen the legitimacy and capacity of government institutions to govern responsibly and marginalise insurgents politically, socially, and economically.”
There was no mention of an industrial strength killing machine in any of the manual’s 242 pages.
Unsurprisingly night raids singularly failed to reduce insurgent influence over the population or to demonstrate the legitimacy of our cause. In fact there was plenty to suggest that they were having the directly opposite effect.
Towards the end of our tour a night raid in Rahim, conducted by a joint TF196 and Afghan Special Forces team, resulted in three brothers being gunned down in their compound in front of their wives and children.
Again I found myself in conflict with British Tier One Special Forces. TF196 insisted the men were insurgents, but this claim seemed highly improbable to me. The brothers’ compound was just a short distance from one of our patrol bases and any suspicious activity would almost certainly have come to our attention. Our own J2 Shop had nothing on the men. The general consensus from our analysts was that the SAS, while ruthlessly efficient as always, had directed their special talents against the wrong targets.
When I challenged a TF196 spokesman on their version of events he played their top secret joker once more. Speaking to me by phone from an undisclosed location he said the information was classified. As a known Taliban‑loving apologist and mere part‑time soldier I could not be trusted and had no authority to contradict elite tier one special forces. A short while later I received another telephone call from the charming colonel in Task Force Helmand ordering me to drop my line of enquiry. Although he remained amiable I detected a hardening in his tone.
The TFH top brass had silenced me, but the Rahim spin zhiras remained determinedly voluble on the subject. They steadfastly maintained the brothers’ innocence and were outraged at the brutal executions in front of the victims’ families. Emissaries were despatched to the patrol base threatening retaliation and demanding an apology and blood money for the relatives. The PB Commander was bitterly angry that the raid had gone ahead without his knowledge, destroying the work his own men had done over the previous six months to marginalise the Taliban and protect the population from insurgent violence.
Shortly after we completed our tour the Rahim patrol base was abandoned and Afghan National Security Forces ceded control of the area to the Taliban. Perhaps these events were not linked to the slaying of the supposed insurgents but, given the long memories of our Afghan hosts, this seemed unlikely to me. Our actions had done nothing to strengthen the legitimacy of the GIRoA government as the Petreus COIN Field Manual had directed.’
SPIN ZHIRA: Old Man in Helmand is the unauthorised, unvarnished and irreverent story of one man’s midlife crisis on the front line of the most dangerous district in Afghanistan where the locals haven’t forgiven the British for the occupation of 1842 or for the Russian Invasion of 1979. Of course, all infidels look the same so you can’t really tell them apart.
‘Brims with authenticity and dark humour.’
Patrick Hennessey, bestselling author of The Junior Officers’ Reading Club
Doug Beattie, bestselling author of An Ordinary Soldier
Dr Mike Martin, bestselling author of An Intimate War
‘A must read.’
Richard Dorney, bestselling author of The Killing Zone
‘The best book by a soldier concerning the Afghan War that I have read’
Frank Ledwidge, bestselling author of Losing Small Wars
SOLDIER The official magazine of the British Army
‘Not just for soldiers’
William Reeve, BBC World Service and Afghanistan Correspondent