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

By Anthony C Heaford, 12 July 2012

British special forces stand accused of extra-judicial executions of detained prisoners in Afghanistan. From the available evidence and from what I was told in Afghanistan in 2012 I have little doubt these summary executions did occur. The intention of this report, mine, is not to help convict the perpetrators of such crimes. I am trying to provide them with their best defence - that they were carrying out the implicit directions of the most senior commanders after being placed in the most abhorrent of situations.

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. Before the inquiry was announced and while the allegations about the SAS ‘death squads’ were circulating in the media ex-General Richards resigned two company directorships (here and here) in February 2022 and disolved his own company Palliser Associates in September 2022. Richards has already been forced by the House of Lords Commissioner for Standards to admit his own liability to prosecution for war crimes committed under his command in Afghanistan and I’d speculate Richards slew of company closure and resignations in 2022 was his ‘clearing the decks’ as the revelations about SAS death squads snowballed in the media. Prior to his tenure as Chief of the Defence Staff (2010-13) Richards was command of all NATO forces in Afghanistan from May 2006 to February 2007, a period marked by strategic and tactical disasters for British forces in Helmand and potentially when the first of the summary executions during NATO kill/capture operations occurred.

2007 to 2008 Afghanistan

NATO operations in 2007/08 Afghanistan have been described as reminiscent of the CIA instituted 'Operation Phoenix’ aka 'the Phoenix Program. In 1971 a US Congressional hearing described the Phoenix Program as a “sterile depersonalized murder plan”.

The comparison of NATO operations in Helmand to America's Phoenix Program in Vietnam was made by the most qualified of commentators, Frank Ledwidge. Mr Ledwidge is a 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 2008 is member of parliament Johnny Mercer. Mr Mercer served as a special forces operations officer and his autobiography - We Were Warriors: A Powerful and Moving Story of Courage Under Fire - reads like a veiled confession. Describing those operations Mr Mercer said:

"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 - ‘Remove from the battlefield'

‘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. 

2012 - ‘Remove from the battlefield'

The ‘Remove from the battlefield’ euphemism was used again in September 2012 by Defence Secretary Philip Hammond when he was in Afghanistan:

"tracking people down and removing them from the battlefield… was not the best way of finding a settlement.” - British Defence Secretary Philip Hammond

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

2012 - My experience in Helmand

My one and only operational tour with the British army ran from April to October 2012; I was a 42-year old reserve vehicle mechanic and it goes without saying my contact with British Special Forces was absolutely minimal. I once saw one of their Bushmaster armoured vehicles in our workshop and I very briefly visited a Special Forces Forward Operating Base near Gereshk once but without even getting out of our vehicle; it was in the dead of night during a ‘Combat Logistic Patrol’, aka a resupply convoy. But I do still have some relevent information that may aid the inquiry. My tour, Operation Herrick 16, was theoretically the last 'offensive’ tour before the final drawdown of NATO forces preparing for our 2014 departure date. The reality was we were already in the drawdown phase. There was a token operation in April 2012, Operation Shafuq, intended to demonstrate ongoing poppy eradication efforts and our ability to handover to Afghan national forces. The reality was Operation ‘Sure-fuck’ as it was nicknamed failed 24-hours before it’d begun when the Afghan force deployed early, therefore losing the element of surprise. The poppy eradication element was a joke too, given I was in a Camp Bastion guard tower at the time protecting opium harvesting from poppy fields we irrigated with purified water from inside the main NATO operating base. By around mid-June, after returning from my two weeks R&R in May, I asked a junior officer why we weren’t conduction any more such operations. I don’t remember the exacting phrasing but the junior officer said something like ‘Don't worry, they are still removing the bad guys from the battlefield’ - a euphemism for ‘the SAS are out there executing the enemy’. I don’t remember the exact phrasing because the implication was clear in what he said - that the SAS were conducting kill/capture missions but without the capture element. It was a short conversation followed by a pregnant pause and knowing looks. With three months left of my tour I do recall deliberately blanking it from my mind, the assumed criminal actions of units were were supporting that is. I remember the junior officer's name because he was the same person who told me about the Foxhound vehicle inherent design faults prior to them being signed in to service and, on the 15 September 2012, that the British guard towers the fifteen Taliban attackers had walked between the previous night hadn’t had any night vision equipment.

The second time the issue of prisoner handling was referred to to me was on 2 July, during a briefing for a 24-hour guard duty at the Torchlight prisoner temporary holding facility inside Camp Bastion. We were told that the dozen or so prisoners there were longterm residents because there was no functioning Afghan police or judiciary they could hand them over too, and that the Torchlight commanders were doing their best not to accept any more prisoners there because of the drawdown that was already underway. Combined with the following quotes from a British army medic during the same tour, this alludes to the circumstances that I believe caused our Special Forces to resort to extra-judicial killings of Afghan prisoners - they didn’t know what else to do with them.

In his operational diary for 21 April 2012, published here, that medic states:

"Two Watch List 2 Taliban captured locally by the ANP [Afghan National Police] but taken to Lash [Lashkar Gah]. Due to be released due to lack of evidence. We will watch and redetain when released. Being on the watchlist is enough for us. They will be TQ’d [tactically questioned] and taken to Torchlight in Bastion. Hope we get them."

That statement demonstrates several points:

· ‘Known’ Taliban were being arrested but then released by Afghan security forces due to lack of evidence.

· Those released prisoners, if on a ‘watchlist’, were targeted for recapture by British forces.

· The Torchlight temporary holding facility was the only option to remove ‘known’ insurgents from the battlefield, due to the disfunctional Afghan police / judicial system inability / unwillingness to hold or prosecute them.


Because of the Justice Advisor to the British Provincial Reconstruction Team's (barrister Frank Ledwidge) comments in his 2013 book Investment in Blood: The True Cost of Britain's Afghan War that I’ve quoted above, combined with emails from an SAS Sergeant Major stating 'Is this about… latest massacre? I’ve little doubt that summary executions of known insurgents / their collaborators were carried out by NATO forces.

Because of Johnny Mercer’s (an Afghan veteran and now government minister) comments in his book, again quoted above, I have little doubt those summary executions were an illicit policy known about by the most senior officers and government ministers, and enacted from as early as 2007 until September 2012 (when Defence Secretary Philip Hammond visited Camp Bastion).

Because of the widely known disfunctionality of the Afghan forces and judicial system we had put in place, there was no where for NATO forces to securely hand prisoners to. This left the us with two choices: accept that captured and known enemy forces/collaborators would return to the battlefield time-and-time again, or, to ‘remove them from the battlefield’ in a permanent sense with summary executions. Might I have done the same in their situation? I hope not but then again I’ve never had to pick up body parts of fellow soldiers and civilians after an IED strike, an experience which undoubted would cause you to reevaluated what tactics were acceptable.

Bottomline for me is that such tactics aren’t acceptable and must be addressed, but given similar tactics have been used by British forces for decades - from Malaysia to Ireland - there’s no point looking for frontline scapegoats if the most senior commanders are not held to account. These tactics would not be employed without implicit or explicit endorsement of those most senior officers and government ministers. Hold a General or two and a Defence Secretary accountable for their command and I can almost guarantee such tactics would stop overnight. If we instead convict a few frontline Special Forces operators, nothing will change other than the level of secrecy with which such operations occur.


As per the email pictured below I have submitted the majority of this information to the Indepentant Inquiry Afghanistan currently underway. Given they have not changed the Inquiry’s time frame from 2010-13 to cover earlier operations demonstrates this inquiry, like every other British inquiry into our actions in Afghanistan, is an utter farce, an exercise in deception and protecting the guilty.

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