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Special Forces Around the World: Conduct, Oversight, and Opacity

“We are far from the flagpole and are expected to be incorruptible.”
Former Navy SEAL convicted of smuggling cocaine into Florida on a military aircraft

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This report has so far focused on British Special Forces and the military infrastructure around them. But the missions, skills, equipment, and elite status of Special Forces are by no means unique to the UK. 

Due to their size, Special Forces of different nations will often collaborate with other states. They may do so by training together, sharing intelligence or, even, fighting side by side. Troopers may well embed with another nation’s forces, as was tragically the case for Sergeant Matt Tonroe. The British SAS soldier was killed in Syria in 2018, while he was fighting alongside US commandos, when an explosive carried by an American colleague was accidentally detonated. 

Collaboration between Special Forces was common in Afghanistan. This was a multinational effort, with 49 nations contributing troops at some stage, including all 30 NATO nations. At its peak, there were more than 13,000 special operators from at least 18 countries that committed their Special Operations Forces (SOF). The respective heads of the US, UK and Australian Special Forces were reported to meet on a weekly basis to discuss what each was doing, as part of the so-called ‘SOF tribe’.

Sources we have spoken to who served with UKSF in Afghanistan have spoken of a natural camaraderie but also a degree of competitiveness amongst the SF fighters of each nation.

One suggestion that came out of the Brereton Report was that the worst practices seen by Australian troopers was actually an attempted emulation of American and British Special Forces. Australian forces operated primarily out of Uruzgan province, but would occasionally go on missions to Helmand. AOAV understands it was common for UK and Australian special forces to have ‘exchange’ troopers in Afghanistan to observe and learn from one another. 

One Australian whistleblower told the inquiry:  “Whatever we do, though, I can tell you the Brits and the US are far, far worse. I’ve watched our young guys stand by and hero worship what they were doing, salivating at how the US were torturing people. You just stand there and roll your eyes and wait for it to end.”

This section will look at allegations of misconduct by other nations’ Special Forces to compare how they dealt with them and how the countries differ in their approach to transparency and oversight. 

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Misconduct

Australia
Credible evidence of 39 extrajudicial killings of Afghan civilians by members of the Special Air Service Regiment (SASR) were detailed in the explosive Brereton Report. Released in November 2020, it painted a picture of a violent, toxic culture within the Australian Special Forces. 

The killings did not take place in the heat of battle and none of the victims were combatants. As Chief of the Defence Force, Angus Campbell, said: “None were alleged to have occurred in circumstances in which the intent of the perpetrator was unclear, confused or mistaken. And every person spoken to by the inquiry thoroughly understood the law of armed conflict and the rules of engagement under which they operated.”

Junior soldiers were ordered by their patrol commanders to shoot a detained person to register their first kill. This initiation of ‘blooding’ would form part of a competitive framing between other patrols, to attempt to outscore their kill-counts. Such shootings would later be explained in official records with the use of ‘throwdown’ weapons and a cover story – not dissimilar to what we have outlined about occurring in UKSF units.

This culture of secrecy and cover-up was pervasive, the report found. Operational summaries “were routinely embellished, often using ‘boilerplate’ language, in order proactively to demonstrate apparent compliance with rules of engagement, and to minimise the risk of attracting the interest of higher headquarters”.

As outlined in Section 2, the circumstances, in which detainees were legitimately killed because they reached for a weapon, that were described in the UKSF’s operational summaries appeared to be duplicated on multiple occasions by Australian SF units. It was this that provoked the incredulity of certain officers. 

The report theorised that subordinates complied with such orders for a number of reasons. Chiefly, to a junior soldier, who has invested years of their life to make it into the Australian SAS, “the patrol commander is a ‘demigod’, and one who can make or break the career of a trooper”. 

If they did not do exactly what was expected of them, they were deemed a “lemon”, which could be career-ending. Interestingly, the report’s interviewees revealed a process of compartmentalisation, so that their actions were considered “as something that happened outside the wire to stay outside the wire.

“In that context, some individuals who would have believed themselves incapable of such behaviour were influenced to commit egregious crimes. It is clear to the Inquiry that at least some of them have regretted it, and have been struggling with the concomitant moral injury, ever since.”

A senior Australian soldier drinks beer from a prosthetic leg that belonged to a Taliban fighter killed by special forces in Afghanistan.

Exemplifying the attitude of irreproachability, SASR troopers would regularly set up an unofficial bar, called The Fat Lady’s Arms – despite alcohol being banned for Australian soldiers. A month after the Brereton Report, photos emerged from 2009 of troopers drinking out a prosthetic leg that belonged to an Afghan amputee who was killed in a raid. One photo showed it mounted on a wooden board alongside a Nazi military decoration.

Investigators found no evidence of “knowledge of, or reckless indifference to, the commission of war crimes, on the part of commanders at troop/platoon, squadron/company or Task Group Headquarters level, let alone at higher levels.” 

While, in hindsight, more could have been done, the investigators conceded that “in judging the reasonableness of conduct at the time, it needs to be borne in mind that few would have imagined some of our elite soldiers would engage in the conduct that has been described; for that reason there would not have been a significant index of suspicion, rather the first natural response would have been disbelief.”

In short, the actions of Australia’s most elite troops were beyond belief and thus no one further up the chain would’ve suspected a thing. 

Caption: The same leg mounted on the wall alongside a Nazi military decoration

The same cannot be said for UK Special Forces. As detailed in Sections 2 & 3, senior officers based in Afghanistan and back in London were made aware of serious concerns about potential war crimes and their subsequent cover-up of this type. 

One heavily redacted incident in the Brereton Report is described in the report as “possibly the most disgraceful episode in Australia’s military history”. But Australia’s defence institutions also deserve some credit. They have gone some way to face, with complete frankness, the shameful actions of those they held up as heroes. 

The UK government continues to deny there ever has been any such problem. In response to the Brereton Report, a spokesperson for the British Ministry of Defence said: “The Australian Defence Force’s report into alleged wrongdoing in Afghanistan does not affect or implicate British service personnel.”

“Our armed forces are held to the highest standards, and the Service Police have carried out extensive and independent investigations into alleged misconduct of UK forces in Afghanistan. As of today, none of the historical allegations under Operation Northmoor have led to prosecutions.”

As this report has highlighted, the claim that UK investigations were “extensive” lacks credibility. And compared to the rigour of Australia’s eventual self-examination, it is derisible. 

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United States
The American Special Forces, and military at large, have a reputation for a ‘shoot first, ask questions later’ attitude. 

Multiple retired British personnel expressed such a view to us. Whatever the British were accused of, ‘the Yanks were far worse’ was the mantra. And arguably, the fact that, in British minds, the US were setting a low moral bar in terms of civilian casualties, may inform us as to why British wrongdoing has been shrugged off for so long. 

SAF Troop numbers, October 2009

Evaluating whether US conduct was worse than the British in Afghanistan is beyond the scope of this report. The NATO mission in Afghanistan was fundamentally US-led. Up to 2009, US soldiers constituted around half of the 71,000-strong ISAF force. 

Britain, the second-largest contributor, made up 12%, with 9,000 troops stationed in Helmand. After the additional surge of soldiers by President Obama in 2009, this tipped the balance even further. By 2013, Americans made up two-thirds of international forces in Afghanistan. This included some 13,000 special operators and support personnel. Proportionally, a study by AOAV found that British soldiers were 12% more likely to die during the War on Terror (including in Iraq) than their US counterparts. 

When US Marines provided major reinforcements to the British in Helmand, 2010, the allies were disagreeing heavily about strategy. According to journalist Rajiv Chandrasekaran’s book Little America, the top Marine commander Larry Nicholson thought ineffective British forces “established front lines that they did not cross” and “he recoiled when he saw how Afghan soldiers were segregated in camps on British bases. He advocated genuine partnership, not a vestigial colonial attitude toward the natives, and that meant eating and living together.”

Being so numerically dominant means that US Special Operations Forces (SOF) are likely to have caused far more civilian harm than the British. And we know from the Australian whistle-blower quoted above, Wikileaks and the recently released Civilian Casualty Files, a persistent stereotype of trigger-happy Americans in Afghanistan wasn’t produced from thin air.  

Experts we have spoken to have suggested UKSF were influenced by the Americans in Afghanistan, with their superior numbers, budget and equipment. However, those who served in UKSF are keen to suggest it was the other way round. Either way, it seems worthwhile to highlight a few recent developments in the world of US SOF, to chart the changes in size, budget, oversight and conduct.

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US SOF: scope and transparency
The role of US special forces changed after 9/11. With the onset of the War on Terror, waged against a nebulous enemy spread across the globe, the demand was high for covert operations tracing and capturing or killing high-value targets. Between 2001 and 2017, the US budget for Special Forces more than quadrupled, from $3bn to $12.3bn. Personnel nearly doubled. 

An investigation by Nick Turse found that in just one year, 2016, US Special Operation Forces were deployed to 138 nations, or 70% of the world. Interestingly, confirmation of deployment to 129 of these countries were supplied by US Special Operations Command. 

In contrast, AOAV’s attempt to find out the nations the UKSF were deployed to have been met with a blanket refusal from the MOD. The MOD even refuses, on occasion, to release the country of regular force deployment. Releasing information on operations that have no discernible link to Special Forces was deemed a “threat to national security”, despite some of the information already being published in military magazines. 

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Oversight
As well as transparency, US Special Operations are treated with more legislative scrutiny than UK Operations. President Obama insisted select congressional leaders were briefed on secretive SOF missions. This was formalised in 2013 with a requirement for a written confirmation of “of any military activities JSOC [Joint Special Operations Command] conducts outside theatres of major hostilities.” And in 2017, Congress introduced monthly Pentagon briefings on SOF operations. Similar constitutional set-ups exist in Denmark and France. But in the UK, when asked about UKSF missions, Ministers defer to a long-standing ‘no comment’ policy on Special Forces.

Credit: Nick Turse, Tom Dispatch

Members of the Intelligence and Security Committee (ISC) are not briefed, even confidentially, on UKSF missions, despite that fact that the operations of the security services, such as the Secret Intelligence Service (MI6) are informed to the ISC.

In 2021, the US Congress created the Subcommittee on Intelligence and Special Operations. They have the jurisdiction to demand briefs from the Department of Defense on its special forces. Whether this will be used to rigorously scrutinise the hundreds of deployments around the world remains to be seen, but at the least it established the legislative precedent for such inspections. 

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Conduct in Afghanistan
Aside from a list of countries deployed to, the actions of US SOF are almost entirely classified. In Afghanistan, they were conducting, on average, the bulk of the 19 raids per night between December 2010 and February 2011, according to ISAF records. In their analysis of conduct during night raids, an Open Society Foundation report concluded that: “the right to use lethal force is too easily triggered, resulting in unnecessary and avoidable civilian harm”. 

Navy SEALs during night operation in Afghanistan

Allegations of torture and unlawful killing by US SOF commandos in Wardak Province were also revealed in 2013 by Afghan military whistle-blowers. Originally denied by US authorities, the claims stuck.  Then Afghanistan’s President, Hamid Karzai, banned US forces from the area. It has been suggested that killing targets became preferential to the US administration, due to the political and legal difficulties over detention in Guantanamo Bay.

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Ethics
US special forces have experienced a notable number of scandals in recent years. 

A platoon of Navy SEALs was kicked out of Iraq in July 2019 for an alleged sexual assault that happened at an alcohol-fuelled party (a party that, in itself, was banned). Weeks earlier, Navy Special Operations Chief Edward Gallagher was tried and acquitted of murdering a detained ISIS member who was receiving medical treatment. Witnesses claimed the soldier stabbed the young fighter; others said he did not cause the death. In the end, Gallagher was found guilty of taking a photo with the body. The court was shown texts saying: “Good story behind this. Got him with my hunting knife.” They were accompanied by a photo of the SEAL holding the dead prisoner’s head by the hair. Gallagher later appeared on a podcast where he admitted that Navy SEALs practised medical procedures on a dying detainee.

In 2021, another Navy SEAL admitted to the killing of an Army staff sergeant in a supposed hazing gone wrong in Mali in 2017. 

The cumulative build-up of these scandals led to Gen. Richard Clarke commissioning a review into the ethics and culture of US SOF. The report, released in January 2020, found no “systemic ethics problem” but said the high tempo of deployments had put too much emphasis on “mission accomplishment at the expense of the training and development of our forces”. 

An investigation the following year by Rolling Stone magazine found that this report was “mostly a whitewash, full of vague language about improving leadership and accountability”.

It is worth focusing on Fort Bragg, which houses the two most important command headquarters of US Special Operations – US Army Special Operations Command (USASOC) this includes the Green Berets and Rangers and Joint Special Operations Command (JSOC). JSOC controls the most elite and secretive units, such as SEAL Team 6 and Delta Force. In 2020 alone, 44 soldiers died at Fort Bragg from homicides and suicides, many stemming from drug deals and use. In one shocking incident, a 21-year-old was beheaded while on a camping trip with six fellow paratroopers. An extensive substance-abuse culture was revealed, with soldiers regularly using anabolic steroids, cocaine, MDMA, methamphetamine and heroin. In 2014, a Navy SEAL pleaded guilty after being found at Miami’s airport with 10kg of cocaine in his carry-on luggage. 

US SOF team fighting in Wardak province, 2011

Another former commando, also convicted of drug smuggling, told Rolling Stone that US SOF operate in a “‘grey zone’ where morality and ethics are in the eye of the beholder, and everything goes so long as the mission is accomplished and your tactics aren’t known to the public or explicitly to the higher-ups. 

“Elite soldiers have access to whatever they want to get into: whores, guns, drugs, you name it. We are far from the flagpole and are expected to be incorruptible.”

Former British SAS soldier, Ben Timberlake, claimed in his book last year to have smuggled in ecstasy pills and shared them out one night with the US forces he was embedded with, in Ramadi, Iraq whilst they were on duty. He purports the sound of their machine-gun fire led them to hugging with joy. 

Despite ultimately doing more damage, the US has ostensibly gone towards being more transparent about special forces deployments and have sought to improve ethical standards. The MOD and UK government has been singularly resistant to reform and in denial of any systemic problems. 

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Rest of the World

Germany: A special forces company was dissolved by the Defense Minister for its links to far-right extremism. The KSK consisted of 300 soldiers and operated in Afghanistan and the Balkans. During one party, soldiers played with pig heads, listened to extreme-right rock music and performed the banned Nazi salute. The 2nd Company was disbanded but the rest of the KSK was threatened with the same fate if problems continued. Throughout the KSK, there was an apparent amnesty for troopers to return stolen ammunition, although some argued this had no legal basis and should have been punished more severely, especially considering the unit’s problems with far-right extremism. 

France: In 2015, the French government confirmed that at least ten paratroopers and foreign legionnaires had absconded to fight for ISIS in Syria. This included a member of their elite First Marine Infantry Parachute Regiment, considered “one of Europe’s most experienced special forces units”. Internally the foreign legion, who enlist soldiers from all over the world, has been criticised for allowing frequent violence and ritual humiliation of its recruits. One 25-year-old Slovakian, Jozef Svarusko, who was on a march in 38C degree heat in the Djibouti desert, complained of a sore knee but rather than get treatment, he was beaten and had his water bottle emptied. He later collapsed and died following a heart attack caused by sunstroke. Four officers were indicted for acts of “torture and barbarity” but none appear to have stood trial. 

New Zealand: A review of Operation Burnham, a 2010 raid in the Tirgiran Valley, found that action by New Zealand SAS resulted in seven men and one child being killed. No links to insurgents were confirmed. The soldiers were deemed to have acted lawfully, but the country’s Defence Force was found to have misled ministers about the incident by not correcting their assertion that claims of civilian casualties were unfounded. As a result of the inquiry, an Inspector-General of Defence will be established, to “provide independent oversight of the New Zealand Defence Force”. 

Netherlands: In 2020, the Dutch Defence Ministry asked prosecutors to look into a report that Dutch soldiers fired and killed civilians in Uruzgan, Afghanistan, in 2007. AOAV approached the Dutch Defence Ministry to comment on the status of this investigation. At the time of publication, we have received no response. 

Canada: The Canadian military has been officially warned about a ‘culture of stealing’ amongst its special forces. Several members are being investigated. Stolen equipment included gun parts and ammunition. In 1995, the Defence Minister David Collenette, decided to disband Canada’s elite Airborne Regiment after it was revealed that troopers tortured and killed a 16-year-old Somali boy, Shidane Arone, in 1993, during a United Nations peacekeeping mission in what became known as the ‘Somalia Affair’.

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Chapter Conclusion

While many patterns of ill-discipline, such as no rank hierarchy, no uniform, drinking and drug-taking, have been observed across many nations’ Special Forces, the UK appears to stand alone amongst its allies in its lack of public review or redress of such behaviour. 

Defenders would say it’s wise for UKSF to not air its dirty laundry and to quietly reform behind closed doors. But without any sense of public accountability, it will mean those who have allowed rule-breaking of all shades, from excessive drinking to unlawful killings, will be the ones trusted to stamp it out. As has been evidenced throughout this report, that is not a formula for just outcomes.