President Obama recently announced plans to send 250 additional special forces soldiers to Syria, increasing by five times the current US special operations presence there. The soldiers will be tasked with “training and advising local forces, [and] intelligence gathering”. Whatever you think about the wisdom of such a move, it is hard to fault the transparency surrounding it.
Back here in the UK, it feels like we’re still in the dark ages when it comes to openness about special forces. “We never comment on the disposition of our special forces anywhere in the world and that will remain our policy”, said then Defence Secretary and now Foreign Secretary Philip Hammond in 2014. There have been numerous media reports about UK special forces operating around the world, but never any official confirmation from the government.
In March a leaked memo from Jordan suggested the SAS has been operating in Libya since the beginning of this year, but Hammond has only admitted “military advisers” are present. Despite the government’s chicanery, it seems that UK forces are involved in a sustained military intervention there.
When the Prime Minister wanted to carry out airstrikes in Iraq and Syria, he came to Parliament and openly made his case. Yet when it comes to special forces there is barely an official comment. I’ve spent the past few months on the Foreign Affairs Committee trying to interrogate the government about this, but to no avail.
We’re not talking about the kind of hostage rescue missions and other quick deployments that the SAS is famous for. We’re talking about long-term missions, including in places where there has been no debate about a decision to go to war. Following the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, the intervention in Libya in 2011 and the failed Syria intervention vote in 2013, the government knows how unpopular war has become. And so special forces are increasingly being used to get around this problem, acting as a substitute for a conventional deployment that would attract public scrutiny. Libya is a clear example of this – a creeping intervention carried out by the backdoor.
And it’s not just special forces the government are using this way. It’s intelligence agents and drones too. Vice recently revealed that MI6 agents have been assisting the United States with its targeted killing programme in Yemen, another war in which Britain is not supposed to be involved. Meanwhile the UK’s drone strike on British national Reyaad Khan last August came before Parliament had authorised the use of force in Syria.
The time has come to improve transparency around the use of force by the UK. Decisions to go to war should be subject to full public debate and parliamentary scrutiny, regardless of the method being used.
The first step should be to strengthen and expand the convention that the use of military force should be subject to a debate in Parliament. This began when Tony Blair put the case for the Iraq War to Parliament in 2003, and has been strengthened over time as governments have put further moves for intervention to a parliamentary vote. But the convention is under threat from this government, who have sent out a stream of mixed messages over how it is to be applied in the future.
The convention must be upheld and expanded to include the full spectrum of force used by the UK abroad. It must include the use of armed drones and deployments of military advisers or trainers if they may be directly involved in combat. It should also include special forces if they are being used as a substitute for conventional force. A good measure of this might be the length of time for which they are deployed coupled with the size of the deployment. And the convention should also apply if British troops are being embedded in foreign militaries.
As a member of the Political and Constitutional Reform Committee in the last Parliament, I pushed for new proposals to formalise this convention in the form of a parliamentary resolution. Despite earlier promises, the government never acted on this. What we may ultimately need is a resolution or a law that leaves no room for vague interpretations, where the government cannot avoid democratic debate by simply changing the meaning of what counts as a military deployment. In the mean time, Emily Thornberry recently suggested creating a new parliamentary committee with the power to recommend whether military deployments should be put to a vote. Provided its remit includes the full spectrum of military force and remote warfare, this could be a good way of preventing the government from ignoring the convention in the interim.
Public scepticism on war cannot simply be sidestepped. If the government feels it needs to use military force, it must go to the public and win the argument. Not only because it is the democratic and transparent thing to do, but because a war that lacks legitimacy can be lost at home to a critical public just as easily as it can to the enemy abroad.
Yasmin Qureshi is the Labour MP for Bolton South East and a member of the Foreign Affairs Select Committee