The controversial strategy haunting Afghan war allies

UK Defence Secretary Ben Wallace is looking into accusations that British troops killed unarmed civilians

A deepening controversy in the UK over accusations that British special forces deliberately killed defenceless Afghan civilians has added to the haunting legacy of the US-led coalition in the long conflict in Afghanistan.

In more than a decade of fighting against the Taliban-led insurgency, with over 3,500 US and allied troops dying and thousands more injured, the role of some soldiers in a “kill or capture” policy against the militants has increasingly become a legal and political battlefield.

British Defence Secretary Ben Wallace has now become involved in the continuing re-examination of the strategy, specifically over allegations that a rogue unit in Britain's elite SAS regiment had killed unarmed civilians during night-time raids in Afghanistan.

An inquiry conducted by the Royal Military Police into the claims closed this year due to lack of evidence.

But secret emails in which British commanders express disquiet about the conduct of an SAS unit in the country have since been revealed.

They emerged from a judicial review of the case brought in London by an Afghan man who claims his father was unlawfully killed by British forces during operations in Helmand province in 2011.

In one email, a senior officer reports "concerning" conversations he had with other commanders, which suggested the existence of "possibly a deliberate policy among the current (redacted) Squadron to engage and kill fighting-aged men", even when they did not pose a threat.

Internal inquiry ordered

Mr Wallace, who continues to insist that SAS units were not involved in unlawful killings in Afghanistan, has now ordered an internal inquiry into why the emails were not previously disclosed to British ministers.

Under the policy, which was implemented in 2010 as part of the “surge” strategy devised by coalition commander US General David Petraeus, teams of special forces drawn from western countries taking part in the Nato mission were sent to destroy the Taliban’s leadership.

epa08558014 British Secretary of State for Defence Ben Wallace arrives at Downing Street in London, Britain, 21 July 2020. British Prime Minister Boris Johnson held his first face to face cabinet meeting since lockdown began some four months ago.  EPA/ANDY RAIN

In particular, teams of special forces from countries including the US, Britain, Australia and New Zealand were given the task of targeting the Taliban fighters responsible for deadly attacks against coalition forces using improvised explosive devices.

It has subsequently been revealed that Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps helped to provide the Taliban with IEDs, which were responsible for many of deaths and serious injuries sustained by coalition forces.

While the coalition policy ultimately succeeded in putting the Taliban on the defensive, 10 years on it is increasingly a source of controversy over claims that some of those killed during the special forces’ raids were unarmed civilians, and not Taliban combatants as was originally claimed.

Public apology for civilian killings

Last week the chief of the New Zealand Defence Force was obliged to make a public apology after a damning report into its operations in Afghanistan found that civilians, including a child, had most likely been killed during an operation in August 2010, and that officials had tried to cover up the facts for seven years.

In Australia, meanwhile, a member of the country’s elite Australian SAS Regiment has been suspended from duty after footage emerged of an unarmed Afghan man being shot dead at close range in Uruzgan province in 2012.

The soldier claims he acted in self-defence, but Australia’s Department of Defence has issued a statement saying the allegations are “serious and disturbing".

While the coalition’s military campaign in Afghanistan may have ended, the controversy over the tactics used against the Taliban is far from over.