Point-blank: Covert wars

Mohamed Salmawy
Tuesday 30 May 2023


Don’t think that the conflicts we read about in the news are the only wars going on around us or that the warring parties that make the headlines are the only active belligerents. Recently revealed information tells us much about covert operations, not least those conducted by British Special Forces. Last week, citing a study by a UK-based independent research group called Action on Armed Violence (AOAV), The Guardian reported that UK Special Forces (UKSF) have operated secretly in 19 countries since 2011. The study, relying on media leaks and an analysis of other publicly available information, shows that these elite forces were frequently deployed by the UK prime minister and defence secretary in “high-risk” missions that were never publicly acknowledged because they targeted countries with which the UK was not at war. 

UKSF have been “particularly active” in Syria since 2012 in order to support the rebel groups there. Some units were tasked with identifying military targets in advance of a bombing campaign, the report adds. It relates that “such was the obsession with secrecy that when one [Special Air Service] member, Matt Tonroe, was killed in Syria in 2018, he was officially described as a member of the Parachute regiment.”

Citing the recently leaked Pentagon papers, the AOAV study notes that fifty UKSF members were listed as present in Ukraine earlier this year, even though the UK is officially not a party to the conflict. By contrast, the US had 14 special forces there according to the leaked documents. Needless to say, their presence remain officially unacknowledged and their functions remain secret. 

Other countries to which the UKSF have been dispatched on covert missions since 2011 include Algeria, Mali, Libya, Somalia, Yemen, Oman, Iraq, Afghanistan, Pakistan, Kenya, Estonia and Cyprus. “While convention dictates that MPs have to vote for a war,” The Guardian writes, “special forces can be deployed without [parliamentary] approval – and their actions are not subject to investigation by any parliamentary committee.”

On the other hand, the article reports that a public inquiry has recently been opened into allegations that the SAS were responsible for 54 summary killings in Afghanistan in 2010 and 2011. Occurring typically during night raids, men would be “separated from their families and reportedly shot dead after being said to have produced a weapon.” 

The shadowy deployment of British Special Forces across the world calls into question British democracy’s much vaunted mechanisms of transparency and oversight. 

A version of this article appears in print in the 1 June, 2023 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly

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