Same old story — the British Army in Afghanistan and Ireland

August 7, 2010
‘Free Derry corner’ monument and mural, Bogside, Derry. Fourteen civil rights protesters were gunned down by British soldier

Last month, I stood in the Guildhall Square in Derry and watched as the relatives of the 14 innocent victims of the British Parachute Regiment expressed their delight at the Saville report’s conclusion that the 14 were innocent victims.

At the time of the killings the dead were labelled as terrorists by the British government. The British system and, to its shame, much of the British media, accused those who had been shot of being “gunmen” and “bombers”.

Lies were told and a cover-up concocted. The British establishment closed ranks to defend the actions of its Army. That lie persisted for decades.

The British Prime Minister David Cameron apologised for what happened. I am sure the words of regret and remorse he made that day were heartfelt and the people of Derry welcomed them.

However, Cameron then sought to expunge the violent record of the British Army in the six counties in Ireland’s north still claimed by Britain by arguing: “Bloody Sunday is not the defining story of the service the British Army gave in Northern Ireland from 1969-2007.”

He was wrong. Bloody Sunday did define the British Army’s role in the north. In Ballymurphy six months earlier, the same regiment — the Paras — shot dead 11 innocent victims. In Springhill five months later, they shot dead five more. The victims were accused of being “gunmen”, or in one case a “gunwoman”.

On July 30, in a welcome development, the Catholic Bishop of Down and Connor gave the families of the Ballymurphy massacre archive documents, including eye-witness statements from Church records of the time.

They validate the families’ case.

The Ballymurphy and Springhill killings were par for the course for the British Army.

In countless actions over decades of war, the British Army and Royal Ulster Constabulary strategy employed shoot-to-kill operations; plastic bullets; mass raids on homes; torture; curfews and intimidation; and collusion between state forces and unionist death squads, to kill many hundreds of citizens and intimidate a whole community.

The full resources of the British state including legal, judicial and propaganda were brought to bear.

It was claimed that victims were gunmen or women whose weapons were spirited away by hostile crowds; or who made actions that gave the soldiers cause to believe they were armed or a threat; or who ran away from patrols justifying their being shot; while others were accused of attacking patrols or trying to run them down in cars.

The truth is still denied to relatives in many of these cases.

It was also often said that Ireland’s north was the British state’s training ground for its military and intelligence system.

The truth of that is evident in the revelations contained in some of the 90,000 US military files that have been posted on the Wikileaks website and carried in detail in a number of newspapers, including the Guardian, the New York Times and Der Spiegel.

The files are from a variety of NATO military sources operating in Afghanistan between 2004 and 2009. They reveal a depth of failure of the military strategy of NATO that has until now not been evident in the media coverage of the war.

The Afghanistan experience and the techniques and strategies and propaganda employed in that war are not exceptional. They fit a pattern which will be familiar to people in Ireland, especially the north.

The Wikileaks documents provide previously unreported actions in which Afghan civilians were killed or wounded. In 144 incidents detailed, almost 200 civilians were killed and hundreds more injured. This is almost certainly a serious underestimate of the true scale of civilian casualties.

The Wikileaks files provide a list of actions involving the British Army. These are some.

November 15, 2006: In Helmand, the British Army’s Marine Commandos fired warning shots at a vehicle, killed two civilians and wounded two others, including a child.

October/November 2007: A cluster of shootings by British soldiers in Kabul lead to the death of the son of an Afghan general. The British soldiers are unidentified and the US report reveals: “Investigation controlled by the British. We are unable to get [sic] complete story.”

March 12, 2008: In Helmand, British troops call in gunships and claim three enemy dead. The bodies of two women and two children are later found.

November 19, 2008: Marine Commandos fire “warning shots” at a vehicle. They kill a child.

January 19, 2009: Marine Commandos use a drone to attack the Taliban. Two children are wounded.

January 27, 2009: Marine Commandos shoot at two people “watching the patrol”. A man and a child are wounded.

May 19, 2009: Ghurkhas call in air strike and kill eight civilians and destroy a family compound.

September 30, 2009: In Helmand, The Rifles regiment call in an air strike on a compound housing two families, killing seven.

November 10, 2009: In Helmand, Coldstream Guards kill a driver of a vehicle.

When asked to respond to these accusations the British defence ministry said: “We are currently examining our records to establish the facts in the alleged casualty incidents raised.”

The British Army is not alone in carrying out these kind of actions. French troops shot at a bus full of children, killing eight. A US patrol did the same and killed 15. In another incident US Special Forces dropped six 2000lb bombs on a compound, killing up to 300 people.

Human Rights Watch, which reported on the war in the north of Ireland and is now doing similar work in Afghanistan, said: “These files bring to light what’s been a consistent trend by US and NATO forces: the concealment of civilian deaths.”

Also revealed is the existence of Taskforce 373 — a covert operations unit whose task is to “remove” the enemy.

All of this just scratches the surface of another dirty war that is being fought using modern versions of old strategies and techniques — and is failing.

Will the publication of the battlefield and intelligence documents by Wikileaks make a difference? “None”, according to the British foreign secretary William Hague.

His retort could just as easily have come from the mouth of any of the previous British ministers who had responsibility for prosecuting the British war in Ireland. And whose policies sustained a conflict that could have ended much earlier.

But then should we be surprised? Should those of us who survived be taken aback by the stupidity of the British military and political mind?

A former commander of the British Army in Afghanisatan, Colonel Richard Kemp, recently claimed that the British Army won the war in Ireland.

If Kemp, who presumably was the British Army’s key strategist in Afghanistan, could get it so wrong in our country why should anyone expect him to get it right in Afghanistan?

And if he and Hague are reflective of British thinking today then the British are destined to make the same mistakes in that part of the world as they made here.

[Gerry Adams is president of the Irish republican party Sinn Fein and elected MP for West Belfast in the British parliament, from which he abstains from sitting. Article abridged from his blog]

You need Green Left, and we need you!

Green Left is funded by contributions from readers and supporters. Help us reach our funding target.

Make a One-off Donation or choose from one of our Monthly Donation options.

Become a supporter to get the digital edition for $5 per month or the print edition for $10 per month. One-time payment options are available.

You can also call 1800 634 206 to make a donation or to become a supporter. Thank you.