I recently read an extraordinary investigation by the Sunday Times Insight Team alleging that a UK special forces unit working in Afghanistan turned bad.
The allegations are:
- The unit (presumably a squadron within the SAS) killed Taliban suspects having hooded and handcuffed them;
- Soldiers planted weapons on dead suspects to justify killing people who may have been totally innocent farmers not linked to the Taliban;
- The MoD then wound down the Royal Military Police investigation into the killings, perhaps believing that it could be buried amid the widespread scepticism about UK war crimes investigations caused by the Iraq Historic Allegations Team and Phil Shiner.
A couple of points of interest here, one political, the other legal.
The political issue: accountability deficit
First, it’s notable that a regular army officer stationed nearby was concerned that UK special forces were operating freely and without accountability (quoted in the Times, behind the paywall).
I’ve banged on about this before – this is a manifestation of a systemic problem facing the entire UK armed forces, and especially the army. The UK is caught in a bind: on the one hand it has valuable military assets (well-trained infantry, including the special forces) that any government would want to keep – they buy the UK credibility with the US, and once wound down the institutions that create the talent couldn’t simply be spent back into existence. If it was a matter simply of money, the UK would send its officers to be trained in the Gulf States, not the other way round.
On the other hand, however, Basra and Helmand showed that the UK doesn’t have the logistical clout or the money to field large armies. It has valuable assets, but the only way to realise their value is to offer them to allies, mainly the US, as boutique assets that can be integrated into allies' larger, more capable command structures. The result is that UK taxpayers spend billions training soldiers only for them to be commanded and deployed by American generals who are not accountable to the Defence Secretary nor, ultimately, to Parliament.
The UK special forces are an extreme example of this – they are one of the most attractive items in the UK boutique, and as such ministers are happy to oblige American officers by allowing them to be placed directly under US command, usually in so-called joint task forces. Mark Urban, the excellent defence journalist, has written extensively on this.
The dangers are obvious:
- Loss of political control over military assets that should be accountable to the taxpayers who fund them, and to nation which stands to have its reputation tarnished if they behave criminally.
- The possibility that UK soldiers, acting effectively as mercenaries, will become decoupled from the ethical and legal standards of the UK armed forces, and ‘go native’ in their new surroundings. It’s important not to make an unfair insinuation – the British soldiers in question may have gone rotten without any outside help – but it should be noted that their US counterparts have long stood accused of similar heavy-handedness (to be treated with caution, but this well-researched Intercept article is pretty damning).
- More generally, any aggressive military unit stands to become a liability if it is allowed to feel the usual shackles have come off. It is notable that in the Alexander Blackman case, which I discuss here, some attributed Blackman's crime of murdering an injured militant to a failed command structure which left his unit to its own devices.
As much as any government should want to avert these dangers, it might be the case that maintaining the UK armed forces in a ‘complementary’ role, thereby risking the dangers, is the only way to get value out of them. The alternative would be to run down assets which are of value to the country and couldn’t be easily rebuilt. No government elected for five years should seek lightly to strip assets developed over centuries.
It’s difficult to see a good way out of this bind – and difficult to foresee today’s political class possessing the imaginativeness to find a middle way.