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Panorama: SAS Death Squads: A British War Crime?, BBC

Panorama: SAS Death Squads: A British War Crime?, BBC

BBC Panorama's exposé of the SAS death squad in Afghanistan is just one example of the bloody crimes of British imperialism, writes Lindsey German

The Afghanistan war was often the forgotten war. A war in which the occupying forces were bogged down, unable to defeat the resistance which sprang up to the occupation and the pro-western government which depended on it. A war supposedly for human rights, the liberation of women and the education of girls. In reality, one sordid chapter in the history of imperialism in the region.

The Panorama documentary (BBC1, now on BBC iPlayer) demonstrated one aspect of this war and did a very effective job. It told the story of Australian and British forces involved in the execution of Afghan men who were killed in cold blood. A lot of the blame is pointed at one SAS squadron of 60 men who were responsible for brutal killing often taking place after the victims had surrendered. The claim was that they had demonstrated ‘hostile intent’ by brandishing a hand grenade or grabbing a weapon from behind a curtain.

There was no evidence for these claims – indeed those back at headquarters were amazed at the ratio of deaths to weapons found – far fewer than would be expected. These were effectively death squads on repeated shoot-to-kill missions which went on for 3 years in Helmand province. They took place during army raids to find those who planted IEDs or roadside bombs. They were described as kill-or-capture raids but rapidly became mainly kill.

This alone would be bad enough. But an inquiry into these killings set up in 2014, Operation Northmoor, was fobbed off and eventually discontinued by 2019. The MoD said there was no evidence of criminality found. Such a conclusion can hardly stand given the evidence shown in the documentary. Senior SAS officers knew about these raids, the inquiry must have investigated them, but nothing happened. The commander of Task Force Helmand was Sir Mark Carleton-Smith who went on to become chief of staff of the British army.

The testimony from an Australian former soldier was powerful, as was the evidence of Afghan family members who had lost sons and nephews. The MoD has attacked the BBC claiming that such documentaries put British troops in danger, its usual response to revelations of this kind.

The failings of the documentary lie less in its content but its context. We were told the war was justified, that those who opposed it were terrorists, and that the west would succeed. The scenes from Afghanistan last year as the Taliban regained control of government show what a series of hollow lies those were. It would be good to have some acknowledgement that its victory stemmed from the unpopularity of the occupation and its supporters.

It would also be good to consider that such behaviour is part and parcel of colonial and imperial rule. We have seen shoot to kill in the north of Ireland in the 70s and 80s. We are beginning to find out the reality of British troop atrocities in Kenya in the 50s. The horrible history of the British empire could do with its own documentary series.

Panorama: SAS Death Squads: A British War Crime? is available to watch on BBC iPlayer

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Tagged under: Imperialism Afghanistan
Lindsey German

Lindsey German

As national convenor of the Stop the War Coalition, Lindsey was a key organiser of the largest demonstration, and one of the largest mass movements, in British history.

Her books include ‘Material Girls: Women, Men and Work’, ‘Sex, Class and Socialism’, ‘A People’s History of London’ (with John Rees) and ‘How a Century of War Changed the Lives of Women’.

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