Afghanistan: UK special forces at centre of war crime inquiry, MoD confirms

ITV News Correspondent Harry Horton reports on the latest development in the inquiry into unlawful activity in Afghanistan

British special forces are at the centre of an inquiry into allegations of unlawful activity in Afghanistan, the defence secretary has confirmed.

The independent inquiry, commissioned by Ben Wallace in December last year, is set to focus on alleged illegal activity by British armed forces in the war-torn nation between 2010 and 2013.

The probe will also look at allegations that the Royal Military Police’s (RMP) investigation of reported unlawful killings by special forces was inadequate.

At the Royal Courts of Justice on Wednesday, the inquiry’s chairman, Lord Justice Haddon-Cave, said he recently visited the office of the prosecutor at the International Criminal Court in The Hague.

Defence Secretary Ben Wallace has confirmed that UK special forces are at the centre of the inquiry. Credit: PA

Mr Wallace said the confirmation that the allegations related to the conduct of UK special forces was made in “exceptional circumstances”.

In a short statement, he said: “It is right that the Ministry of Defence continues to balance the requirement to be as open and transparent as possible against national security considerations.

“The inquiry is now reaching the stage of substantive hearings, and I can confirm that the allegations relate to the conduct of UK special forces.

“This confirmation is made in the exceptional circumstances of this inquiry, where the activities of this organisation are the central focus of the inquiry’s investigation, as set out in its terms of reference.

“Outside of this very specific context, such confirmation should not be seen to alter the longstanding position of this government, and previous governments, to not comment on the deployment or activities of the UK special forces.”

Two RMP investigations, codenamed Operation Northmoor and Operation Cestro, are set to be scrutinised by the probe.

No charges were brought under Operation Northmoor, a £10 million 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 were prosecuted.

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The inquiry is set to look at allegations that “numerous” killings were carried out, the alleged cover-up of illegal activity and inadequate investigations by the RMP.

It was launched in the wake of legal challenges to the government by Leigh Day solicitors on behalf of the Saifullah and Noorzai families, as well as a number of significant media investigations.

Tessa Gregory, a partner at the law firm, said their clients were “concerned that the Ministry of Defence (MoD) is seeking to shut the door and prevent evidence from being heard in public”.

A two-day hearing at the Royal Courts of Justice, which began on Wednesday, is set to hear arguments from the MoD and the RMP for restriction orders to be placed over some of the evidence submitted to the inquiry.

Ministry of Defence (MoD) of members of the British and US military engaged in the evacuation of people out of Kabul, Afghanistan in 2021. Credit: PA/MoD

Paul Greaney KC, for the RMP, said he could confirm a “covert investigative strategy” was pursued during Operation Northmoor, but said that a decision was “subsequently made for a different approach”.

Mr Greaney asserted that there was “significant public interest in protecting such techniques”.

Outlining the decisions the inquiry had to make regarding public disclosure of evidence, Lord Justice Haddon-Cave said: “The starting point of any inquiry under the 2005 Act Inquiries Act is that as much as possible should be heard in public to allay public concern about the subject matter of the inquiry.

“But there is power to restrict what is heard in public where it is necessary or appropriate to do so for good reason in the public interest, including national security.

“The essential task is to balance the competing considerations in the public interest.”

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