The investigation carried out by the Panorama BBC program of SAS unit accused of killing 54 detainees in Afghanistan in six months was utterly compelling. The death squads, what they were, seem to have made only superficial efforts to cover up arbitrary executions, presumably because they had been secretly vetted by senior officers.
A senior officer who worked at British special forces headquarters told the BBC the reports from the squadron were “genuinely concerned”.
“Too many people were killed in night raids and the explanations made no sense,” he said. “Once a person is detained, they should not end up dead. That this happened again and again caused alarm at HQ. It was clear at the time that something was wrong.
Internal emails from the time show officers reacted in disbelief to the reports, describing them as “pretty unbelievable” and referring to the squadron’s “latest massacre”. An operations officer emailed a colleague to say that “for what must be the 10th time in the last two weeks the squadron had sent an inmate back to a building” and he reappeared with a AK”.
The email reads: “Then when they came back to another A [building] with another B [fighting-age male] to open the curtains, he grabbed a grenade from behind a curtain and threw it at the c/s [SAS assault team]. Luckily, it didn’t trigger… it’s the 8th time it’s happened… You couldn’t make it up!
As concerns grew, one of the country’s highest-ranking special forces officers warned in a secret memo that there could be a “deliberate policy” of unlawful killings underway. Senior management became so concerned that a rare formal review was ordered of the squadron’s tactics. But when a special forces officer was deployed to Afghanistan to interview squadron personnel, he appeared to take the SAS version of events at face value.
The BBC understands that the officer did not visit any of the scenes of the raids or interview any witnesses outside the military.
I want to make another point about the night raids and execution of prisoners, many of whom were held on the most flimsy evidence provided by paid informants who were often personal or tribal enemies. In doing so, the SAS delegitimized the Afghan government, foreign intervention, and became the Taliban’s recruiting sergeant.
The Americans carried out a similar campaign of killing suspected roadside bomb makers in Iraq. But a military investigation revealed that the deaths only served to increase the number of bombings against their forces. On occasions when a death squad killed a pivot-making bomb, it was immediately replaced by a more enthusiastic deputy or vengeful family member and American casualties mounted.
Regular armies never seem to learn the lesson that a well-led insurgency will always try to induce them to inflict collective punishment on a community. The French did it in Algeria, the Americans in Vietnam, the British in Northern Ireland – and again in Helmand.