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UK Special Forces Operations: Afghanistan

Britain’s Special Forces have been deployed operationally in at least 19 countries in the past decade, new analysis reveals, raising questions over the degree of transparency and democratic consent these shadowy units operate under. This section outlines the extent of UKSF’s operations in Afghanistan.

Britain’s war in Afghanistan officially ended in October 2014. But Special Forces stayed behind and continued to fight the Taliban and ISIS insurgents. Despite only being there to ‘train, advise or assist’ Afghan forces, there are numerous reports of the SAS and SBS being involved in lethal night raids of suspected insurgent commanders.

This was similar to their role while the war was going on. Serious allegations have been levelled at the UKSF during the period of 2009-2012. Night raids and other search operations by British, American and other special forces units led to 295 civilian deaths between 2009 and 2012, according to the United Nations Assistance Mission in Afghanistan.

A series of investigations by BBC Panorama and the Sunday Times Insight team highlighted evidence of a rogue SAS unit that had killed 33 people on 11 night raids in the first quarter of 2011. Further evidence was uncovered of two incidents in 2012 of young unarmed men being killed during SAS night raids, with troops later claiming they had all drawn weapons. To fully understand the allegations of war crimes and the apparent cover-up, we recommend watching the full Panorama and reading the Sunday Times exposé.

Aside from these incidents, a joint SBS and Afghan night raid on the Taliban outside of Kabul resulted in a British casualty. Captain Holloway was believed to be the most senior special forces officer to die in action since 1982. The “embarrassing failure” also led to the Taliban capturing special forces weapons, equipment and a military dog.

In 2019, it was reported that SAS would double its presence from 50 to 100, their main role being to conduct kill-or-capture missions along US special forces. This was in response to President Trump’s decision to pull US troops out of the country.

2011

January – March: Documents record fears of senior officers over a pattern of behaviour by a “rogue” SAS unit that had killed 33 people on 11 night raids in the first three months of 2011.

British Army officers interviewed by this newspaper believed the SAS raids were often based on unreliable intelligence and raised suspicions that the soldiers set out to kill rather than capture Taliban suspects in contravention of the rules of engagement. The officers said this led to the shooting of innocent civilians with no connection to the Taliban insurgency.

One ex-SAS officer has suggested that what at times was in effect a “shoot-to-kill” policy may have been caused by frustration in the ranks that those captured would be freed soon afterwards without yielding useful intelligence.

Night raids and other search operations by British, American and other special forces units led to 295 civilian deaths between 2009 and 2012, according to the United Nations Assistance Mission in Afghanistan.”

A British special forces officer said that at one point the Afghan CF 333 commando unit refused to patrol with the SAS because of concern about their conduct. – The Sunday Times, 2017

The concern was echoed by the military police source. “How do you justify in an after-action report that it was right to kill someone? You photograph them with a gun . . . There were issues being investigated about what’s called ‘drop weapons’,” the source said.

The sources also claimed the soldiers had attracted suspicion by placing the pistol in the left hand of the victims on too many occasions and by using the same gun serial number when compiling mission reports on the killings.

February 16, 2011: Four innocent civilians, according to Afghan special forces and the victims’ families, were shot dead during the night raid in the early hours of the morning. The target was Saddaam, 22 year old university student who SAS believe is part of a Taliban bomb squad. He and his brother Atta Ullah, 24, were killed running away from the compound. Earlier, Abbdul Khaliq, 55, was ordered into the house and shot in the head by SAS soldiers. SAS soldiers claims the father grabbed a grenade from behind a curtain. 20 year old Ahmad Shah was ordered into another building and shot dead. SAS soldiers claim he had picked up an  assault rifle from behind a table. Both were hooded and handcuffed. They left in helicopters after having taken photos of weapons next to the victims’ bodies.

Saifullah, the son of Abdul, who is also the cousin of Ahmad, who was 19 at the time and detained at the compound also,  has brought a High Court case to seek an independent investigation of the killings.

March: British special forces in Afghanistan have intercepted an Iranian shipment of rockets to the Taliban that would have allowed them to double the range of their attacks, western diplomats have said. The rockets were discovered after an intelligence tip-off on 5 February when British special forces and Afghan troops stopped a convoy in Nimruz province.  A shoot-out involving the special forces left several Taliban fighters dead. (Guardian)

July, 20: British couple in their late 20s, of Afghan origin, were captured by SAS during raid in Herat (historic city close to Iranian border). The couple were known to MI5 in Britain but they were not considered “high priority” targets and managed to leave the country unnoticed, security sources told the Daily Telegraph. The couple are now the subject of a legal discussion at the Foreign Office as lawyers try to work out whether they can hand them over to the Afghan authorities – in accordance with normal practice – without breaching human rights laws. The handover normally takes place within 96 hours of capture but in this case extensions have been requested. It is understood they have not been formally arrested.

2012

Sunday Times/Panorama incidents

Raid 1: (PanoramaBBCSAS raidon a compound in Helmand Province where three “unarmed” children and a young man were shot dead, in the village of Loy Bagh near Camp Bastion, one special forces soldier reportedly entered a side building and killed four young inhabitants.

Sultan Mohammed and Sabbah said Fazel, 20, and Naik, 17, were killed with two other boys, 14 and 12, also being slain

According to the leaked documents, he told superiors he fired because they were standing up with what looked like weapons, despite bullet marks on the walls suggesting they were all sitting when shot.

The documents allege a senior SAS commander later emailed International Security Assistance Force headquarters describing the raid as Afghan-led, thereby avoiding an immediate RMP probe.

Raid 2 (Bebe).Three unarmed young men, brothers, were shot village of Rahim in the Nahr-e-Saraj district of Helmand province. SAS claim they all drew weapons. Mother received £3,634. Caused a backlash with the local population. No intelligence to suggest the men were connected to the Taliban.

Chris Green: “According to the SAS, despite being surrounded and outnumbered, Bebe’s three adult sons simultaneously reached under their night clothes for concealed weapons and were lawfully shot and killed in self defence. According to their mother, her unarmed sons were cruelly and callously slain in cold blood with their hands in the air in front of their families.

The crystal truth of what actually happened that night was captured on the gun tape of an overhead aircraft but, for reasons that have never been disclosed, the SAS has refused to release it for scrutiny.

I was given the task of liaising with the SAS to find out why they had conducted the raid. It was not an easy conversation. Initially I was told to f*** off. When I persisted, I was informed that Bebe’s sons were Taliban commanders and given the stock account of concealed weapons. When I asked to see the gun tapes I was accused of being a Taliban-loving apologist and told to f*** off again.

When I raised my concerns with Task Force Helmand headquarters I was, rather more politely but no less forcefully, ordered to drop my enquiry.

Persistence of village elders led to an “assistance payment of £3,000 to Bebe, the mother of the three shot and killed.” Shockingly, no one was particularly shocked or even surprised. It was widely acknowledged that Special Forces were a law unto themselves.

“To say it’s not compensation to the family is nonsense, really,” he said. “This is what everybody called it on base, including the officers directly involved in paying the money. I am unaware of any money paid to the families of insurgents.

“I think this is significant evidence and, together with the refusal to share the gun tapes, indicates this mission warrants full investigation.”

April: It was reported that members of the Special Boat Service (SBS), led the operation to counter a Taliban attack on a construction site in Kabul, claiming that they donned Afghan military uniforms in order to blend in with Afghan forces.

NATO officials were keen to present the security operation in Kabul as a strictly Afghani effort but this version of events has gradually unravelled due to the reports of NATO special forces involvement as well as footage of U.S. helicopter gunships being used to engage the insurgents. (Sky News)

June 1 – SAS-US SOF op carried out to rescue Helen Johnston, Kenyan medic and two Afghans, being held in Shahri Buzurg, close to the border of Tajikistan. All hostages were rescued safely. (BBC)

August: Capture of several terrorists from terror group known as the Haqqanis, foiling future suicide bombing attack – Kabul. (Mirror)

September: SAS bodyguards whisk Prince Harry away when Taliban attacked Camp Bastion. (Mirror)

2013

May: SF (Task Force 42) have captured the Taliban leader thought to be responsible for the roadside bomb that killed three British soldiers last month. The dawn raid, carried out with Afghan forces, took place in the Marjah region near Nad-e-Ali, close to the British base in Lashkar Gah. (Express)

Earlier this month, the Daily Mail reported on an operation by Task Force 42 that discovered a number of roadside bombs at a secret Taliban IED factory in Helmand.

August, 23/24th: Successful ambush of Taliban, 30 killed, no casualties. Taliban were fleeing from Nimruz to Helmand, over the desert, after being attacked by US drone missile. (Mirror). This skirmish is one of the most successful special forces operations in recent years. It would appear that the Taliban are trying to regain a foothold in Helmand ahead of the planned withdrawal of British forces from the province in 2014.

December, 23rd: A joint force of Afghan troops and special forces (SBS) was helicoptered at night on an area – a valley outside of Kabul – which was considered a place where the Taliban recuperated, trained and planned attacks. Captain Holloway of the SBS was shot and killed. (He is believed to be the most senior special forces officer to die in action since 1982). An officer said that the raid had ‘disrupted the Taliban in an area they felt safe’; ’another was wounded and a military working dog fell into enemy hands’.

“Embarrassingly for British special forces commanders, the Taliban also managed to capture weapons and equipment, including at least two assault rifles fitted with silencers and night-vision sights, a GPS tracking device, stun grenades and a night- vision camera.

“Holloway was a member of Task Force 42, a secretive elite force consisting of the SAS, SBS, Special Forces Support Group and Special Reconnaissance Regiment.” (Times)

2014

April: Special Forces support Lynx helicopter crashed during a training flight on the 26 April 2014, with the loss of all five British servicemen aboard. 12 miles south of Kandahar Air Field. (Telegraph)

October: As the 13 year war officially ended, sources confirmed “Special forces will continue to operate in the region. (Telegraph)

2015

February: Telegraph revealed that UKSF, along with intelligence officers from MI6, were engaged in a joint US/UK/Afghan CT campaign.

August: Despite troops allegedly being withdrawn from the county in 2014 and the government claiming those left would only remain in an advisory capacity. But a report detailed that UKSF had been in the country since 2015. But SAS forces had reportedly been fighting alongside afghan commandos, against Taliban and IS insurgents. Report by the Mirror indicates that this campaign has been intensifying. The paper claims that the SAS and SBS are carrying out raids on an almost nightly basis. (Mirror)

September: SBS inserted into Kunduz via helicopter. Once on the ground, they joined with Afghan National Security Forces (ANSF) in order to coordinate efforts to retake the city from the Taliban. The SBS operation including attacks against targets in the city and at a nearby airbase. As part of the fighting, which is ongoing, SBS Joint Terminal Attack Controllers (JTAC) have been calling in air strikes from US warplanes. “Killing up to 200 insurgents” according to the Mail.

December: Up to 60 American special forces, backed by at least one British SAS unit of about 30 soldiers, have joined Afghan troops in the battle to save the town of Sangin, which saw a quarter of all UK deaths in Afghanistan and was held by the British from 2006-2010. (Times)

On 22nd, they went on several night raids, (Kajaki road, other districts of Helmand and near Lashkar Gah) killing 20 Taliban Mail Source“Officially the British troops were only present in a mentoring role but when they get that close to a fire-fight it is hard to stop them. Publicly speaking their job is to ‘train, advise and assist’ the Afghans. I think on this occasion the SAS’s interpretation of this role was to show the Afghan commandos how the job.” A senior Nato officer admitted that UK troops are helping their Afghan counterparts ‘at a tactical level’ – but he insisted that it was the Afghan army and not international troops who were doing the fighting.

2017

November: ISIS ambush in Afghanistan. The British special forces unit was ambushed by ISIS gunmen and took refuge in a farm where the soldiers fended off the insurgents with their rifles and anything at hand, it was reported.The sergeant – a veteran of dozens of battles – ran out of ammunition and used the spade as a weapon when a jihadist charged at the soldiers, the Daily Star reported, quoting unnamed sources.The remaining jihadis fled when two US military Apache attack helicopters arrived at the battle site in eastern Afghanistan.The Brits didn’t have any ammunition left by the time they were rescued by a US Chinook helicopter, it was claimed. (Mirror)

2018

February: Increase in SAS forces from about 50 to more than 100 . The commandos conducted kill-or-capture missions alongside US special forces and came under the command of the American-led Joint Special Operations Command. Part of the force was made up of 15 snipers who were part of a specialist unit tasked with killing Taliban commanders. An SAS squad recently demolished an entire Taliban command.

One source told the Daily Star Sunday: “The JSOC had received intelligence that a Taliban High Value Target was located in a compound in Eastern Afghanistan, close to where an SAS unit was based.

“The mission was passed to the British troops in what was described as a kill-or-capture operation.Troops moved into an overwatch position but were spotted by a Taliban drone. The insurgents opened fire and the operation changed from a ‘capture’ to a ‘kill’.(Star)

July: A report claimed that “dozens” more special forces troops had been sent to the country to bolster security efforts against rising Taliban and IS insurgency. (Mirror)

2019

March: US requested greater assistance from the UK in counterterrorism efforts. Increase in UKSF coincided with the US withdrawing troops from the country.Number of regular troops increased from a reported 50 at the beginning of 2018, to an estimated 1000 in mid-2019. Small contingent of SBS forces were also operating in central and eastern Afghanistan (Independent)

2021

June: More than 50 SAS soldiers were deployed to protect the estimated 600 UK troops in Kabul as NATO completed its withdrawal (Mirror)

August: 20 Soldiers from the SAS were rescued in Kandahar, Afghanistan as the province fell to the Taliban. A RAF Hercules aircraft from the 47 Squadron was used to rescue the troops under the cover of darkness (Asia TimesDaily Mail). It remains unclear what the troops’ initial mission was or if this itself was completed successfully.

300 Special Forces troops were sent to Afghanistan, in addition to the existing 600 troops from the 16 Air Assault Brigade. The mission was to provide security to Home Office staff and assist in the evacuation of UK citizens and Afghans eligible for evacuation (Operating Pitting). Similarly, troops from the 3rd Battalion the Parachute Regiment (British Army) was placed on standby for deployment to Afghanistan (Daily Mail)

SAS soldiers are believed to have been conducting special rescue operations within Kabul, as part of the UK’s wider evacuation effort as the country fell to the Taliban. There is reportedly friction with the US military who were not doing the same for their citizens (Mirror).