“You get this weird arrogance.”
Former SAS and SRR trooper
All organisations possess some form of culture; often-times that culture is self-protective, hermetic and loyal. Because of this, state institutions accountable to the public need to monitor theirs to ameliorate any of its negative impacts. Groups that are permitted to use deadly force must be particularly scrutinised.
Patterns of sexual assault, racism, hazing and bullying leading to suicides have plagued the British military for many years. Most widespread was the appalling experience of women, with two-thirds of female service personnel reporting they had experience bullying, sexual harassment and discrimination. Examples included gang rape and sex for promotion. Complaints of rape and sexual assault of under-18 girls in the military have increased tenfold.
Crucially, women had little faith in the complaints system. MP and veteran Sarah Atherton said: “We heard accusations of senior officers sweeping complaints under the rug to protect their own reputations and careers,” despite the obligation to report all sexual assaults to the Service Police. In December 2021, she resigned as a ministerial aide to vote against the UK Government over plans to keep sexual offences within the military justice system.
The management of a large body of predominantly hyper-masculine young men, often with a disposable income, is the challenge faced by all western militaries.
This problem becomes even more acute when it comes to Special Forces, made up of small teams; it is a tight-knit brotherhood. This, almost exclusively male (SAS and SBS opened up to women in 2018), group is told they are ‘best of the best’.
The promise offered to them is being part of the heroic and daring missions around the world. Uniforms are ditched, ranks are largely forgotten, smoking on duty and drinking is tolerated: they are deemed men apart.
As a former Special Reconnaissance Regiment member told AOAV, this slackening of rules is done for tactical reasons. “[You] want them to be able to act unprofessionally otherwise they will never blend in for covert ops.”
But with the bravado and notion of exceptionalism came the side effects. “You get this weird arrogance,” we were told.
Of course, the obvious risk, as any advocate of military discipline will tell you, is that if you allow the strict rules honed in the parade square to fall by the wayside, a culture of impunity may develop. As discussed in earlier sections, it appears that some UKSF troopers kept competitive kill counts and were allegedly killing all fighting-aged males they encountered during night raids, regardless of whether they were armed. Any new member of these tightly-knitted squadrons would have to embrace, or at least tolerate, this attitude or risk becoming a pariah with those who you relied on to protect your life and advance your career.
When in Helmand
Certainly, Helmand 2010 was a place and a time when more discipline, not less, was warranted. Multiple sources told this investigation that there had been a major step-up in UKSF night raids in Afghanistan from 2009 onwards. The appointment of US General Stanley McChrystal to Commander of Afghanistan’s International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) in June 2009 was seen by many as a turning point, ushering in an age of night battles. Coming, as he did, from a background running US Special Operations, he chose to prioritise their use in Afghanistan.
According to one former Special Forces source, McChrystal gathered Special Forces from every nation of the NATO coalition in Bagram Air Base. He told them that, with Afghan elections coming in the next year, they must ‘do as much damage to the Taliban as possible’.
This led to an unleashing of Special Forces operations, with particular focus and funding given to their reconnaissance operations. Approval times for missions were significantly cut. What used to take a month to be signed off soon took just three days. A collateral damage risk report, once a prerequisite of UKSF missions, was no longer deemed always necessary.
‘Track, trace, kill’ became the unofficial motto of Special Forces units out there during this time. The gloves had come off.
In 2009, before this new form of warfare was fully unleashed, President Karzai had already called for limits on night raids, as they were harming so many Afghan civilians. Storming residences with women and children inside, often using dogs, as well of course the use of lethal force against civilians, was causing major resentment amongst local communities. Karzai’s words of caution clearly fell on deaf ears. By the end of 2010, night raids saw a staggering five-fold increase in frequency, with new ISAF commander General David H. Petraeus, who took over in July 2010, seemingly even fonder of the tactic.
SAS sources confirmed to us that intelligence dictated operational tempo and confirmed that UKSF units were known to conduct multiple night raids per evening. Between December 2010 to February 2011, reports emerged that ISAF had conducted 1,700 operations over a 90-day period. This is an average of 19 raids per night up from 17 during the prior three months. One ISAF strategic advisor said at their peak, as many as 40 raids per night were being carried out.
In 2009-12, the UN verified 295 civilian deaths from search and seizure operations, mostly night raids. It then admitted it was likely underreporting civilian casualties caused by night raids because of the difficulty in accessing areas where they take place. In a 2010 report they stated: “Excessive use of force, ill treatment, death and injury to civilians and damage to property has occurred in some cases involving Special Forces.”
In 2011, The New York Times reported that “hundreds of people have been killed and thousands detained in the raids over the past 18 months [January 2010 to July 2011],” according to ISAF and Afghan sources. This certainly corresponds with the upward trajectory of what is known about night raids’ increase. But with such a rapid rise in operations, was the requisite intelligence that was coming through as rigidly reliable as before?
A 2011 review by the Open Society Foundation concluded that “ISAF troops appear to interpret hostile intent too broadly” during night raids and “as a result the right to use lethal force is too easily triggered, resulting in unnecessary and avoidable civilian harm”.
“Behavior that would seem relatively innocuous in a less tense situation—for example sleeping near a weapon, running away from the intruders, or even merely “stepping out” of a compound during a night raid— have been deemed signs of hostile intent during night raids in Afghanistan, triggering lethal force. During a March 2010 night raid, an 81-year-old man was deemed to have hostile intent for picking up his cell phone while in bed.” He was killed.
An ISAF official told Reuters that during a 90-day period in 2010, 1,900 people were detained but “not many” were still in detention. This would point to two conclusions: first the Afghan justice system was plagued with corruption and two that international forces indiscriminately detained all adult males. Afghans also accused NATO forces of “abusing residents, destroying property, insulting women, and acting on bad intelligence or based on personal vendettas.”
Driven by vengeance?
In the summer of 2011, Highlander Scott McClaren of the 4th Battalion, The Royal Regiment of Scotland, was killed and tortured by the Taliban after he left the safety of his base in Nahr-e-Saraj, Helmand. His half-naked body was found mutilated and dumped in a river. This death was a high-profile tragedy and evoked strong emotional reactions back in the UK as well as for those serving in Helmand.
It also proved to be a sore point for Special Forces at the time. According to a veteran who worked alongside SAS, the force’s stated top priority became to find the killers of Highlander McClaren. They were eventually found after one of the killers attempted to claim compensation for damaged property. Officially, they were detained by the National Directorate of Security (NDS), Afghanistan’s national intelligence and security service. However, it was rumoured that the SAS were given time with the killers to interrogate them before they were taken away.
Whilst the motivation to bring Highlander McClaren’s killers to justice is understandable, for a highly-trained, professional outfit to be driven by pure vengeance raises questions about professionalism and an adherence to legal process. When we consider the mounting evidence of heavy-handed tactics, combined with oftentimes flimsy intelligence used for targeting, with the notion that those bursting into homes in the middle of the night were preoccupied with vengeance, the possibility that innocent Afghans were killed increases.
Certainly, it was an emotive time. AOAV’s 2020 report For All Was Lost analysed the deaths of 454 British soldiers in Afghanistan. The years 2009 and 2010 proved to be the two deadliest for UK personnel. The beginning of 2011 also saw a limited spike in deaths: seven in February, the same amount as the past three months combined. In March 2011, there were another six soldiers killed.
There is nothing to suggest the number of deaths of British personnel is directly linked to the night raids discussed in this report but it serves as a reminder of the emotional context that many of Britain’s Special Forces were operating in.
This call for revenge appears to have also persisted for years afterwards. In August 2021, it was reported that SAS soldiers had even volunteered to stay in Afghanistan following the pull out of coalition troops, in order to avenge the death of 13 American troops. The Sunday Mirror reported that up to 40 members of the regiment asked to remain in the beleaguered country in order to carry out what would have been tantamount to extrajudicial killings.
This was in 2021. The high emotions witnessed a decade before – in 2011 – would have been further accentuated by the lack of progress being made with captured high-value targets. UKSF sources we spoke to believed fellow soldiers were frustrated by captured targets being released after weeks or even days because UK military classified intel couldn’t be trusted to be shared with Afghan authorities, as it may have been leaked back to the Taliban. This left court cases without evidence and let guilty men walked free. Frustrated, some UKSF wanted to step in to take charge.
They had doubts over the very judicial process they were there to defend: crimes were not prosecuted with efficiency or results. Some believed this led to an unofficial loosening of engagement rules: the raid squads becoming judge, jury and, even, executioner.
With the intensity of combat in Afghanistan, combined with relentless training and domestic duties, were these troopers mentally fit to be fair and just ‘judges’ during these night raids? Sources have told us of an extreme and relentless two-year rotation that UKSF troopers had to undertake, ever since the invasion of Iraq in 2003. This included:
- Six-months on counter-terrorism – working with special police units in the UK;
- Six-months training, including up to three months on overseas exercises in jungle, desert or arctic;
- Six-months on standby squadron;
- Six-months on operations.
Before that, UKSF were used sparingly during conflicts, but since Iraq they were expected to do six-month tours, as well as their additional responsibilities. It led to exhaustion, both for the personnel and their family. The rotations were reportedly known as ‘The Circle of Death’, with soldiers looking like “walking zombies”, with little chance for a break between duties.
There were some moves circa 2008 to take pastoral care more seriously within ‘The Regiment’ but ultimately the ‘Circle of Death’ timetable remained. In fact, we’ve been told the SBS had to reconfigure itself into four squadrons to fit the rotation schedule, even though this meant each squadron was half the strength. But still, without a fifth squadron to provide relief, neither the SAS or SBS were able to break the cycle of the two-year rotation.
This relentless schedule resulted in Hereford, the SAS’s home, having allegedly the highest divorce of the military. It is understood that the majority of trooper’s marriages broke-down during active service. This was such an established fact of life, that divorce lawyers would come in specially, to talk personnel through their insurance options.
Understandably, the high-intensity of their work put strain on the domestic sphere. We heard stories from ex-partners of SAS troopers of being left without contact for half-year stints, with the troops struggling to find their place at home and withdrawing from their family. There was a preference to abscond on the weekends, to go hunting and shooting rather than spending time with children. Overall, a toxic machismo culture meant individuals were unable to emote or express themselves in anything outside what they saw as “mental toughness”.
Emotional traumas and issues of fatigue may well have been compounded by the physical injuries suffered during operations. However, criticism has leaked out of Hereford that the possibility of Traumatic Brain Injury (TBI) is not taken seriously by the British military, especially compared to the US where they screen troops for TBI before and after combat. If US troops are diagnosed, they receive brain scans and hormone therapy. In the UK this does not seem to be commonplace.
One SAS source, who served in Iraq, Afghanistan and other conflicts, told The Mirror in 2020: “There are a lot of guys who fit the profile of someone with a TBI. A lot of people have been blown up or close enough to a blast where they could potentially sustain an injury. A few have confided in me that they are concerned. We all have contacts in the US special forces and are all aware how seriously TBI are treated in the US military.”
“By comparison, the British Army is in the Dark Ages. A lot of guys are trying to self-medicate or manage the symptoms themselves.”
A study from 2015 found that one in five UK armed forces casualties from Iraq and Afghanistan suffered TBI. Roughly 40% (181) survived, but nearly half of these never received any neurorehabilitation. The Mirror reported how three SAS troopers flew to the US to receive treatment and estimated that 75 UKSF troopers, including those still serving, suffer from brain injuries.
Reflecting the seemingly callous approach to TBI, the recruitment for UKSF also takes no prisoners. In 2013, three SAS recruits were to die in the SAS selection process. Forced to run 16 miles during the hottest day of the year, Lance Corporals Craig Roberts and Edward Maher and Corporal James Dunsby died after collapsing in the 31°C degree heat. Two officers were charged with negligence but were later acquitted by a judge at Bulford Military Court in 2018. Speaking outside court, the widow of one of the men, Bryher Dunsby said she still missed her husband.
“This court martial has revealed the shocking reality that there is still no official guidance for those conducting endurance training marches in the British Army on heat illness even five years on,” she said. “This is beyond unacceptable, and shows blatant ignorance to a vital need where apparently three deaths are not enough to incite change. Nothing highlights this more than since the inquest in 2015, there have been yet further incidents from heat in training, even on Brecon.”
The other issue that seems pervasive is one of impunity. One British veteran of 20 years standing explains how UKSF were known to act with such impunity and this was simply accepted as the norm.
“Recent revelations about special forces death squads in Afghanistan surprise no one who has had extensive dealings with them. Nor are the apparently routine attempts of their commanders to ignore or conceal their crimes,” he wrote.
In his account, he describes an incident in which an intoxicated SAS-man was berating a ‘craphat’ (a soldier from a non-elite regiment) for attending an exclusive party in Basra.
“They guard their sanctity with a combination of abuse and in-group language,” he writes. Then the drunk SF soldier, armed with a pistol, began threatening the regular officer with violence.
“For those not members of the SAS, being caught pissed with a gun in an operational theatre would generally result in being sent home, with terminal consequences for further promotion.” But when the then regular Major was to report the incident to his superiors, he was told he ‘you have to let it drop’.
“An alcoholic special forces NCO, armed with an evident propensity to threaten his fellow British soldiers, well, that was nothing to be too worried about,” wrote one of his former colleagues. And so it goes.”
This incident took place in 2004 in Iraq, but it speaks to one truth: that fresh SF recruits raised in this culture would be inducting the next generation when Helmand, 2010, was to come around. Toxic cultures have a habit of reproducing themselves when unchallenged.
Overall, those from the UK Special Forces that we spoke to tend to believe that, despite some flaws, the UK stands heads and shoulders above other major warfighting forces when it comes to restraint and respect for rules of engagement.
But without enough unclassified evidence for this to be evaluated by any external parties, plus all the evidence of extrajudicial killings and a lack of institutional will to investigate them, then this claim of restraint seems to be questionable. It might form part of the British military’s own mythologising rather than be rooted in hard and proven evidence.
The culture of UKSF is publicly known as elite, valiant and dogged, but that leaves little room for universal human frailties, whether through physical and emotional trauma, disciplinary problems, burnout, arrogance, breakdown of home relationships, a fixation on vengeance or a rashness stemming from a lack of progress. Such traits, amplified in conflict, could well become – if unaddressed – a road to perdition.