Minister ‘angry’ after being kept in dark over death squad allegations

A minister has told an inquiry he was angry with former defence secretary Ben Wallace after discovering UK special forces officers knew about Afghanistan death squad allegations before he described them as untrue in the House of Commons.

Johnny Mercer wrote to Ben Wallace in August 2020 shortly after emails surfaced in The Sunday Times which showed senior special forces officers expressed serious concerns about the killings of 33 people in 11 night raids in the war-torn nation in 2011.

The letter, shown to the Afghanistan Inquiry on Wednesday, 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 said he was “angry” that 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”.

Ben Wallace
Johnny Mercer said his time under Ben Wallace was ‘very difficult’ (James Manning/PA)

The inquiry will examine whether a special forces unit, known to the probe as UKSF1, had a policy of executing males of “fighting age” who posed no threat in Afghanistan between 2010 and 2013.

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

In his letter to Mr Wallace in August 2020, Mr Mercer said: “That I have been allowed to read out statements to the House of Commons that individuals in strategic appointments in the department knew to be incorrect is completely unacceptable.

“These were clearly not complaints by a ‘small number of individuals within the investigations team’ but widespread.

“I have continually down-played these allegations in public too to support UKSF1 and the department. That was clearly a mistake.”

Ending the letter, Mr Mercer said: “Finally, this whole episode makes me very sad.

“I – like you – have dedicated my political career to improving the lot of those who serve – both currently and veterans.

“I repeatedly warned against the outcome, and yet it has happened, and I have suffered significant reputational damage in my pursuit of ending vexatious claims that have ruined the lives of so many of our finest people.

“I will continue in this pursuit, but this boil must be lanced, and I can never be put in this position again.”

Asked by counsel to the inquiry Oliver Glasgow KC what the boil that must be lanced was, the minister said: “The allegations concerned with this inquiry.”

Mr Mercer said he raised his concerns about being kept in the dark with Mr Wallace and the chief of the defence staff on the phone while away on holiday in France.

“Secondarily, I was very cross that I had been allowed to make a statement in the House of Commons in January that year that was clearly incorrect when faced with the evidence that existed within my own department – and for me that was a kind of red line being crossed, in terms of ‘we’re not on the same side here’.”

Mr Glasgow then asked: “So in effect, the concerns as you explained them – you were, would it be fair to say angry that you had not been told the true picture?”

Mr Mercer replied: “Mr Glasgow, I don’t disguise the fact that I am angry with these people.

“The fact I’m sat here today going through this is because they have not done their job that was incumbent upon them with their rank and privileges in those organisations – and yes, I’m angry about that.”

Mr Glasgow continued: “And when you say them, can you tell us who those individuals are?”

The minister went on to confirm two of the individuals were the director of special forces and the chief of the general staff.

Mr Glasgow went on: “Secretary of state?”

Mr Mercer said: “Yeah, my time in that department was very difficult, I did not enjoy it and it placed me in a number of very, very uncomfortable positions.”

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 £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 of them were prosecuted.

The inquiry continues.

– Advertisement –
– Advertisement –