Negligent discharges: What I saw with the British military in Afghanistan

Negligent discharges: What I saw with the British military in Afghanistan

By Toby Harnden
Best Defense guest columnist

The catastrophic consequences of negligent discharges and the fact that a disproportionate number of them appear to be committed by officers was brought home to me during research for my book Dead Men Risen, about a British battle group in Helmand in 2009. Like battle shock, cowardice and the recovery of body parts, they are a taboo subject that is nevertheless a reality of every war. The Welsh Guards, the battalion around which the battle group was built, were no different.

Although the Welsh Guards pride themselves on their discipline on the parade ground (they have a ceremonial function and were on duty for last month’s Royal Wedding) and with weapons, there were a number of incidents in which soldiers negligently fired shots.

The most serious one probably caused the death of an Afghan civilian. A Welsh Guards officer visiting FOB Keenan near Gereshk at the start of May 2009 was loading his rifle before a patrol when he accidentally fired a shot with his SA-80 rifle. He was facing south with his weapon pointed at a 45-degree angle, just above the heads of other members of the patrol. The platoon commander, a lieutenant, decided not to report the incident immediately, later citing the rank of the officer.

An hour after the ND, an Afghan man called Jabar, aged about 65, was brought to the FOB with a bullet wound to his neck that had paralysed him. He had been on his knees praying in a field when he had been shot. Jabar identified himself as a migrant worker who had come to the area for the poppy harvest. He told the Army medics that he had a wife but did not want her to be told what had happened because he would be ashamed if she saw him incapacitated. Jabar was evacuated to Camp Bastion hospital but later died.

A military police investigation was carried out into Jabar’s death but it could not be established with certainty who had fired the shot that killed him – a soldier on the subsequent patrol had fired warning shots at a suspected Taliban dicker. I was told, however, that the direction of travel of the round, the entry and exit wounds on Jabar and the place where he was shot were all broadly consistent with the ND being responsible for his death.

Later the same month, another officer (attached to the battalion but not a Welsh Guardsman) had an ND and narrowly avoided killing the battalion commander, Lieutenant Colonel Rupert Thorneloe. Ironically enough, the officer was a junior Brigade legal adviser. Thorneloe, Jim Haggerty (the British stability adviser), Major Giles Harris (a company commander) and the Afghan army kandak commander for Nad-e Ali were inside PB Argyll when a shot rang out very close to them. Harris swung around and saw the legal officer standing aghast, his eyes bulging in shock. Unused to handling a rifle, he had pulled the trigger without realising there was a bullet in the chamber.

“He was about a metre away from me with his rifle on his hip like one of those prison guards in American films,” Harris told me. “His finger was on the trigger and the rifle was at a 45-degree angle over Colonel Rupert’s head about two metres away from him. It was one of those very British moments. Everybody pretended not to notice because they didn’t want to embarrass him. No one was angry about the fact that he’d nearly slotted the Commanding Officer.” Harris walked over, quietly took the captain’s rifle from him and suggested he report to the ops officer and tell him what had happened. Afterwards, Harris joked with Thorneloe that perhaps he should have played it differently. “Would it have been better if I’d just gone over and punched his lights out, then walked back and winked at the kandak commander? I’d have been a legend!” Thorneloe, who had previously discussed with Harris the Afghan commander’s fondness for bravado, laughed and said: “Actually, the British approach is probably better.”

Thorneloe used up one of his nine lives that day. On July 1, 2009 he was killed by an IED beside the Shamalan Canal while riding top cover in a Viking tracked vehicle during Operation Panther’s Claw. He was the first British battalion commander to be killed in action for more than 27 years, the previous one being Lieutenant Colonel “H” Jones of the Parachute Regiment, awarded a posthumous Victoria Cross in the Falklands War of 1982.

It was not, of course, just officers who were guilty of NDs. In another incident during Panther’s Claw, Captain Terry Harman was taking refuge in a compound during a firefight when an NCO standing next to him discharged his weapon, just missing Harman’s foot. Harman decided not to report the ND, partly because of the paperwork it would generate. Harman later told me that he would often pass the NCO back at barracks in Aldershot, smile at him and ask the man who had nearly shot him: “How’s it going?”

Toby Harnden, a former Royal Navy officer, is U.S. editor for the Daily Telegraph of London, and author of the British bestseller Dead Men Risen: The Welsh Guards & the Real Story of Britain’s War in Afghanistan.