SAS Death Squads: NATO's Phoenix Program in Afghanistan?

British special forces stand accused of extra-judicial executions of detained prisoners in Afghanistan

In December 2022 a parliamentary inquiry of these allegations was announced, but limited to operations from mid-2010 to mid-2013 (a period coinciding with ex-General David Richards' tenure as Chief of the Defence Staff). 

My question is why the limited date range? NATO operations in 2007 Afghanistan have been described as reminiscent of the CIA instituted 'Operation Phoenix’ aka 'the Phoenix Program' that assassinated suspected North Vietnamese collaborators via extra-judicial executions. According to a US Defense Department official 26,369 South Vietnamese civilians were killed under the Phoenix Program while it was under direct U.S. control (January 1968 to August 1972). In a 1971 US Congressional hearing the Phoenix Program was described as a “sterile depersonalized murder plan”.

2007 to 2008 Afghanistan

The comparison of British special forces operations in Helmand to America's Phoenix Program was made by the most qualified of commentators, Frank Ledwidge. Mr Ledwidge is a criminal barrister who served in the British armed forces hunting war criminals in the Balkans and searching for ‘Weapons of Mass Destruction’ in Iraq. From June 2007 to January 2008 Mr Ledwidge was the Justice Advisor to the British Provincial Reconstruction Team in Afghanistan and worked closely with military personnel on implementation of human rights compliant policies in a war-fighting environment. In his 2013 book Investment in Blood: The True Cost of Britain's Afghan War he said:

“A new military approach was introduced: the 'capture or kill' policy… there was at least as much killing as there was capturing. This tactic, like so much else in the current phase of the Afghan War, was more than a little redolent of the desperate days of the Vietnam War, when the CIA instituted Operation Phoenix to target key Viet Cong officials.”


“According to Manaan, troops [US special forces] had been brought into Toube [a village in Garmsir district, Helmand province - the British area of operations] by helicopter. They had then swept through the village, killing at least sixteen people in their homes. Three men, inculding Manaan, had been brought out alive before the foreign soldiers for interrogation. One by one, when they gave unsatisfactory answers, they had their throats cut. But Manaan had ‘played dead’ and somehow survived. Such stories will be familiar to those who know of the interrogation techniques used in Vietnam."


“… the so called ‘kill-capture’ tactic, which has recently come to greater prominence as the latest scheme to end the war. Based on similar operations in Iraq against Al Qaeda, it has been taken up by NATO forces throughout Afghanistan. It bears some resemblance of Operation Phoenix - the US’s so called ‘black’ operation in Vietnam to neutralise the political leadership of the Viet Cong - involving as it does the large scale deployment of special forces in missions against ‘high-value trargets’."

Another British army veteran of Afghanistan is member of parliament Johnny Mercer. Mr Mercer served as a special forces’ operations officer in 2008 Helmand. His autobiography - We Were Warriors: A Powerful and Moving Story of Courage Under Fire - reads like a veiled confession. Describing his 2008 special forces operations service Mr Mercer says:

"In almost all cases... attempted detentions became killings.
It would be inappropriate to outline the methods employed”

"we killed a lot of people and I had a role in that."

"Our targets were F-ing bad people, and there was nothing wrong with ending their lives."

Johnny Mercer MP goes on to implicate very senior politicians too, some by name:

“Government ministers - including the Prime Minister - and other 
political decision makers would regularly visit our compound”

“I was impressed by then Shadow Foreign Secretary William Hague’s capacity to absorb information. He was very sharp and asked the questioned you’d expect… David Cameron was also very good, if very tired. I fear we sent him to sleep… “

“Gordon Brown’s visit just before I arrived apparently didn’t go so well. He asked
the team to fast forward some Predator drone footage of the blokes ‘on target’ 
because he didn’t want to see it."

Is it possible that the limited date range (2010-13) of the British government’s inquiry is intended to avoid looking at very suspect operations during Mr Mercer’s service with British special forces in 2008? Mr Mercer is currently the Minister of State for Veterans’ Affairs and is perhaps the most vocal advocate of the Overseas Operation Bill, proposed legislation designed to prevent the prosecution of soldiers for crimes committed abroad after five years.

2010 to 2012 Afghanistan

‘Remove from the battlefield’ was a euphemism used by The Telegraph newspaper in September 2010 to describe the killing of sixty-five ‘high-level’ Taliban commanders targeted by SAS ‘kill or capture’ operations. It was used again in September 2012 by Defence Secretary Philip Hammond when visiting British commanders in Helmand:

"tracking people down and removing them from the battlefield... was not the best way of finding a settlement.” 

I've little doubt that Philip Hammond’s use of the phrase remove from the battlefield is a euphemism for the extra-judicial execution of individuals on the special forces' kill or capture list. I also suspect that Mr Hammond’s use of the term in September 2012, while visiting British commanders in Afghanistan, marked an end to these particular ‘kill or capture’ TTPs. 


Truly, for some of us nothing is written, unless we write it 
© Anthony C Heaford - The Quiet Mancunian