07:42, November 23 80 0 theguardian.com

2020-11-23 07:42:07
Australia is reckoning with its war crimes allegations. Now the UK must step up

Last week’s publication of Australia’s Brereton report was a fascinating insight into the culture and practice of what appears to be a seriously defective and deviant organisation, the Australian SAS. In Australia, this has been a shattering wake-up call for the armed forces. Here in the UK, the strangely timely announcement of vast defence budget increases rendered it a one-day story. A defence spokesman said today that the report “does not affect or implicate British personnel”. This is entirely untrue: the Australian report very much affects and implicates British personnel, albeit not directly.

Judge Brereton (also a major general in the Australian army) confirmed suspicions that crimes were committed by a unit which was often based alongside UK and US special forces in Afghanistan, engaged in ploughing through the joint prioritised effects list – a kill-capture list that was all too often based on poor intelligence. It is not, therefore, surprising that recent UK investigations have discovered that British special forces operators seem to have used disturbingly similar “tactics, techniques and procedures” (known in the business as TTPs) as the Australians. It may be worse even than that – one Australian soldier is quoted as saying: “Whatever we do, though, I can tell you the Brits and the US are far, far worse.”

The techniques used included planting weapons on murdered civilians, to justify questionable killings to credulous or complacent commanders. Killing “squirters”, the name given to people understandably running away from them, is alleged to be another common practice. The alleged reaction of at least one British officer when faced with excuses following “the latest massacre” was to say that “you couldn’t make it up”.

You will often hear two lines of defence concerning these crimes. The first is a variation of “you can never understand what we have to go through”. This is entirely specious: the overwhelming majority of British combat soldiers manage to fight professionally without giving in to the temptation to shoot prisoners, slit the throats of unarmed boys or casually kill farm workers, all of which are alleged in the Brereton report. In any event, Brereton is very specific and clear: none of these crimes were committed in the heat of battle. Murders took place after raids or shootouts. The victims were all unarmed.

The other line put forward by a few historians or sages, usually with limited or no experience of conflict, argues that dark deeds must be done to win in war. That rather misses the reality that we lost this war, and lost it decisively. One reason for this was that the central narrative of the overall Nato mission (“we’re here to protect you”) was rather undermined by armed men smashing their way into people’s houses and slaughtering the innocent.

The Afghan Independent Human Rights Commission, the leading human rights organisation in a country that has lost so much as a result of special forces crimes, has asked for the British to step up. The time has now come for a ferociously honest assessment to be made of our own special forces. The methods of the Australian report are a superb example of how to conduct a military inquiry. They were greatly assisted by senior Australian SAS officers, such as their current commander, Gen Findlay, who ordered his men to cooperate with the inquiry. We must hope that our own senior officers can display similar firmness when the time comes.

The government seems to believe that the best way to deal with murderous cultures is to forget all about them. This is what is behind the squalid overseas operations bill now going through parliament, which will effectively provide an amnesty for war crimes. However, the constant drip-feed of allegations and revelations will continue. There will be a reckoning. It would benefit all concerned, especially the British special forces, if that took place sooner rather than later.

  • Frank Ledwidge is a barrister and former military officer who has served in the Balkans, Iraq and Afghanistan. He is the author of Losing Small Wars (Yale 2011) and Investment in Blood (Yale 2013)

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