A year on from NATO’s humiliating retreat from Afghanistan, BBC Panorama have produced a startling documentary unveiling the crimes of British special forces in the country. While no one will be forgetting the pictures of Chinook helicopters hovering over the US Embassy or civilians desperately trying to flee Kabul airport in a hurry, many of the horrors of the twenty-year occupation that preceded those events remain obscured or uninvestigated. SAS Death Squads Exposed: A British War Crime? goes a small way to redressing that balance and ends up, perhaps rightfully, producing more questions than answers.

Veteran BBC journalist Richard Bilton’s film combines forensic reporting with heartfelt testimony – a moving combination which makes for disturbing viewing. Having unearthed the official accounts of one 60-man SAS unit on a six-month tour in Helmand Province in early 2011, Bilton retraces what he describes as their ‘campaign of terror’ through the region.

British troops were not alone in such a campaign. Head cam footage from Australian special forces in Afghanistan shows them shooting unarmed civilians, setting attack dogs on children and using grenades to blow up people’s homes. Shown throughout the program, it’s a ‘rare glimpse’ into the callous brutality of the occupation. But as the military sociologist Samantha Crompvoets, whose work prompted the Brereton Report into war crimes committed by Australian Forces, relays from a soldier she interviewed “it was nothing compared to what the US and UK were doing”.

In Bilton’s own words, what the British were doing was an ‘orchestrated campaign of murders’ where SAS squadrons competed for kills and kept tallies of their victims. To justify the killings, soldiers would claim that the victims were carrying weapons and presented a threat in their reports of the incidents. Bilton debunks a number of these claims with ease, often by simply comparing the number of deaths with the number of weapons recovered. In one such incident eight men were killed in a compound in which the army claimed to have recovered four AK-47’s – the claims just don’t stack up. Testimonies from witnesses to these crimes and family members of the victims evidently bare the scars of trauma and devastation.

None of that seemed to matter to senior army officers. A dogged cover-up was mounted in which the military police were not even informed of the incidents, with the accounts locked away in a ‘restricted access classified file’. General Sir Mark Carleton-Smith, the head of UK Special Forces in 2012 is accused of leading the cover-up and withholding vital evidence from a murder trial – severe allegations indeed. Perhaps consequently he was promoted to Chief of the General Staff in 2018 and remained in that post until last month. It is not known whether this documentary played any part in his fall, but his promotion is yet another disturbing indictment of the British Army. The reward for failure culture that seems to permeate the entire British elite is clearly alive and well in the military.

SAS Death Squads Exposed: A British War Crime? highlights the need for men like Carleton-Smith to be brought to justice but what it neglects is the wider context of the Afghan war and the failure of journalists to uncover its dark secrets sooner. Bilton rightly documents the fact British soldiers, 455 of whom died in the war, were ‘locked into a brutal fight’ against the Taliban with the threat of roadside bombs looming large.

What he ignores is who put them there, why they were still fighting an unwinnable war over a decade in and what British troops were aiming to achieve at this point in the war. There is not a single mention of Tony Blair or George W. Bush in the episode, no questioning of how terrorising impoverished Afghans in the mountains of Helmand was supposed to rid the planet of global terrorism or why billions of pounds of taxpayers’ money was being squandered to maintain an occupation that seemingly lacked any overall strategy.

The documentary also underscores the failures of journalism in relation to the ‘War on Terror’. Why,  as Bilton repeatedly states, has no one visited these areas before? Why have we had to wait until the end of a twenty-year occupation for these truths to begin to emerge? There were hundreds of journalists from multiple Western media outlets embedded in invading army units during the course of the war. Not one had the bravery to report what they must have suspected or even been witness to. But in many ways that is the point, this isn’t about individual journalists. It’s about a style of journalism that ignores the realities of war and occupation until it’s (almost) too late. It’s about a world in which one of the few people who have dared to release the truth finds himself in solitary detention in Belmarsh Prison, facing extradition to the United States.

This episode of Panorama is vital viewing for anyone wanting to understand the realities of war and the lengths that the authorities will go to in order to cover them up. There is a lingering feeling throughout that Bilton is just touching on the tip of an iceberg despite Ministry of Defence claims that its soldiers “behaved impeccably” in Afghanistan. But for all its merits the show also demonstrates how little we really see of barbaric realities of our foreign policy. We must continue to question why that is and learn the lessons from the untold suffering that the Afghan people have had to endure.

Watch SAS Death Squads Exposed: A British War Crime? Here

14 Jul 2022 by Mayer Wakefield

Sign Up