Commentary on Political Economy

Saturday 30 March 2024


 Fear of prosecution years later ‘could get British troops killed’

James Heappey, who quit as defence minister, says a soldier’s instinct is what keeps him alive, writes Larisa Brown
James Heappey said his unit in Afghanistan was being blown up on every patrol

Special forces soldiers would be killed in battle as they hesitated to make lifeor-death decisions because of the fear of prosecution, the former armed forces minister has said.

James Heappey, a former army officer who quit his ministerial role this week, said legal investigations into troops’ actions in previous wars could have operational consequences.

He also called on Johnny Mercer, the veterans minister, to disclose the names of whistleblowers who could have crucial evidence about claims that SAS soldiers murdered innocent Afghans.

In his first interview since leaving the government on Tuesday, Heappey said Rishi Sunak should commit Britain to spending 3 per cent of GDP on defence by 2030. He also told how his job contributed to his marriage breaking down.

Hundreds of British soldiers have been investigated over incidents in overseas wars more than a decade ago. Most of the allegations have been thrown out. This year it emerged that five special forces members could face murder charges for shooting a suspected Islamic State militant in Syria in 2022.

Heappey said: “There is a real danger those who are serving now start to worry about that possibility [of prosecution] 20 years hence and it does indeed cost them 0.25 of a second in their trigger reaction time and that might be the difference between the other guy shooting first.”

A public inquiry is examining claims that 80 Afghans were summarily killed by SAS units between 2010 and 2013 and that there was a cover-up, frustrating police investigations.

Mercer, also an Afghanistan veteran who gave evidence to the inquiry last month, is facing a potential prison sentence or fine for refusing to disclose the names of special forces soldiers who told him about the allegations. One whistleblower admitted that he was asked to carry a “drop weapon”, which could be planted next to unarmed suspected members of the Taliban without being traceable to UK or Nato forces.

Heappey, 43, said: “I admire Johnny enormously for the way he has done politics under his own rules with an incredible sense of mission ... he is a remarkable man, but on this particular point I think for him, for his family and actually for the credibility of the inquiry, I think he does need to disclose these names.”

It is understood Mercer has refused because the soldiers, who are not suspects, have not given him permission to do so and he wants to protect them.

Heappey said that “clearly” the inquiry needed to hear from the soldier who mentioned the drop weapon, adding: “That is literally the pivotal point in the whole case. It’s an enormous deal.”

Heappey served for a decade in The Rifles, reaching the rank of major. He was deployed to Kabul, Northern Ireland, Basra in Iraq and then Sangin in Helmand province in 2009, then the most dangerous place in Afghanistan for Nato soldiers. It was infamous for the vast number of improvised explosive devices buried by the Taliban.

Heappey said his troops were getting blown up every time they went out on patrol. He said his 2009 tour was a precursor to the events that began the next year when special forces soldiers carried out night raids in which they allegedly killed unarmed Afghans.

“The thing that they were doing [in 2009] was getting beyond the minefield and using their amazing fieldcraft, they were able to go after the bombmakers and restore some offensive spirit. What they were doing in the upper Helmand valley at that time was absolutely essential to saving God knows how many British soldiers’ lives and limbs.”

He said allegations of wrongdoing by the SAS must be investigated fully and if proved true it would be “awful and so sad because it lets down an institution”.

He said: “Our licence to operate comes from holding ourselves to the highest standard and of course we should be investigated when the allegation is that we have fallen short.” However, he said people should understand the consequences, referring to legal investigations into soldiers who served in Iraq and Northern Ireland. He said instinct was what kept soldiers alive in battle and it was not realistic for the rules of engagement to be retrospectively deconstructed and soldiers held to account for every millisecond.

At one point detectives working for the Iraq Historic Allegations Team were investigating more than 3,000 allegations. No British soldiers were prosecuted as a result. Another team was tasked with looking into 52 alleged illegal killings in Afghanistan. Both inquiries were subsequently wound up.

Veterans who served in Northern Ireland during the Troubles have also faced prosecution, although the government has promised immunity for any who co-operate with a reconciliation commission.

In candid comments reflecting upon his time in the Ministry of Defence, as an MP and as an army officer in his twenties, the father of two said his work had affected his marriage. “The pressure of the job, being away ... makes the marriage more challenging and in my case very sadly, very very sadly, means that it came to the end,” Heappey said. He is stepping down as an MP at the next election and hopes he will be able to settle down and focus on his children.

Before then, he said he would fight for more money for defence. He believes Sunak should immediately increase the budget from 2.27 per cent to 2.5 per cent of GDP, with a commitment to 3 per cent in 2030 so the UK can prepare for war. Ben Wallace, the former defence secretary, is also pushing for 3 per cent by 2030.

Heappey said there was a lack of equipment to enable UK troops to reach the front line in the event of war. However, he also said the UK remained a top-tier fighting force, adding: “The UK division is still going to be one of the best divisions in Nato’s order of battle.”

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