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Minister says Ben Wallace and future head of the army failed to properly investigate alleged SAS Afghan crimes

A minister has said that former defence secretary Ben Wallace and former director of special forces General Sir Roly Walker, who is to become head of the army in June, failed to properly investigate allegations of war crimes by the SAS in Afghanistan.

Veterans minister Johnny Mercer was speaking to an inquiry into killings of Afghans by the UK special forces between 2010 and 2013. He told the inquiry yesterday that he tried to investigate the claims but that senior figures with the UK special forces were “unable to answer basic questions” and he “did not believe them”.

On Tuesday, Mr Mercer said it became clear that figures within the Ministry of Defence were “working against me” when an email trail relating to the SAS allegations was published by The Sunday Times in 2020. He became “angry” with then-defence secretary Ben Wallace, then-director of special forces Gen Walker and other senior MoD figures after The Sunday Times’ piece showed that senior special forces officers expressed serious concerns about the killings of 33 people in 11 night raids in the war-torn nation in 2011.

Mr Mercer said the director of special forces, the chief of the general staff and the defence secretary had "not done their job that was incumbent upon them with their rank and privileges in those organisations".

He later added that “senior figures within the MoD had failed in their most basic duty”. He clarified that he did not think that “anybody lied to me”.

Minister for veterans’ affairs Johnny Mercer continued his evidence to the inquiry on Wednesday (PA Wire)
Minister for veterans’ affairs Johnny Mercer continued his evidence to the inquiry on Wednesday (PA Wire)

Gen Walker was director of special forces from 2018-2021 and he is due to take over as head of the army in June this year.

Mr Mercer said he had repeatedly asked to see documentation relating to the UKSF war crimes allegations. He told the inquiry: “It was completely unacceptable that I had asked to see this information and I found out about it in The Sunday Times.

The veterans minister wrote to Mr Wallace in August 2020 shortly after emails surfaced.

The letter, shown to the inquiry, detailed how he told Mr Wallace it was "completely unacceptable" he had been allowed to make statements to the Commons in January 2020 when people knew them to be "incorrect". Mr Mercer had played down the allegations in public and told the Commons that internal UKSF complaints related to a “small number of individuals within the investigations team”, when they were in fact “widespread”.

Veterans minister Johnny Mercer said he was “angry” with former defence Secretary Ben Wallace (PA Archive)
Veterans minister Johnny Mercer said he was “angry” with former defence Secretary Ben Wallace (PA Archive)

He asked Mr Wallace if he could correct the record in parliament but was refused, he told the inquiry.

Later on, Mr Mercer said he has also heard from members of Afghan partner units directly that they had refused to work with a British special forces unit, known to the inquiry as UKSF1, after Afghan men, who had been restrained, were shot dead by UK special forces. They claimed Afghan children had also been killed by British soldiers, the inquiry heard.

The killing of children was “one trigger” for Afghan partner forces to refuse to work with UKSF1, he said.

Mr Mercer confirmed to the inquiry that these were allegations of murder. Many members of these Afghan partner units, known as the Triples, have been denied sanctuary in the UK by the MoD. UKSF have power over whether their applications for relocation are approved.

Mr Mercer was also warned by the chairman of the independent inquiry of “potentially serious legal consequences” after he refused to disclose names of his sources to the investigation.

Sir Charles Haddon-Cave told Mr Mercer his decision to “refuse to answer legitimate questions ... at a public inquiry” were “disappointing ... surprising ... and completely unacceptable”. He added that his refusal could have “potentially serious legal consequences that I am prepared to put in train”.

Afghan families have accused UK special forces of conducting a “campaign of murder” against civilians, while senior officers and personnel at the MoD “sought to prevent adequate investigation”.

Two Royal Military Police investigations, codenamed Operation Northmoor and Operation Cestro, are set to be scrutinised by the inquiry.

No charges were brought under Operation Northmoor - a £10m investigation which was set up in 2014 to examine allegations of executions by special forces, including those of children.

Operation Cestro saw three soldiers referred to the Service Prosecuting Authority, but none of them were prosecuted.

The inquiry continues.