The UK Chief of Defense Staff told the inquiry into alleged killings by special forces in Afghanistan that killing civilians would “increase the burden on the enemy”.
Admiral Sir Tony Radakin was called to the witness box at the Royal Courts of Justice on Monday to give evidence at the inquiry, which will examine whether special forces had a policy of executing men of “combat age” in the war-torn country between 2010. and 2013.
Afghan families have accused UK special forces of waging a “killing campaign” against civilians, while senior officers and staff at the Ministry of Defense (MoD) “attempted to prevent an adequate investigation”.
The Defense Chief told the inquiry that the policy of the International Security Assistance Force (ISAF), a multinational mission in Afghanistan of which the UK was a major part, was to “win the consent and support of the population”.
Inquest counsel Oliver Glasgow KC said: “Was the policy, wherever possible, to avoid civilian casualties?”
Sir Tony replied: “So the purpose of the policy was to gain the consent and support of the population but, as part of gaining that consent and support, it emphasized the need to avoid civilian casualties.”
Mr Glasgow said: “Perhaps because it is difficult to get their consent and support if civilian lives are being lost at the time?”
The defense chief replied, “Yes.”
Mr Glasgow continued: “Perhaps there is also a danger where civilian lives are lost, not only to lose hearts and minds, but to give strength to the insurgency against you?”
Sir Tony replied: “Yes, it works both ways.
“So the danger is that you lose the hearts and minds of the people you're trying to persuade and actually create more rebels and increase the burden on the enemy.”
The policy of trying to win the support of the Afghan population was introduced by US General Stanley McChrystal when he took charge of ISAF in 2009.
Mr Glasgow continued: “Because the risk of civilian casualties is that not only do those who are immediately affected by this lose any support for the NATO process, but it can be used to generate more support for the insurgency because those who want to be in position to say that civilians are being killed by Western forces, therefore Western forces are not welcome here?'
“That is correct,” replied the defense chief.
Sir Tony added that the policy was “critical to counter-insurgency operations”.
The inquiry's chairman, Sir Charles Haddon-Cave, then chimed in: “Does this translate into more recruitment, potentially?”
Sir Tony replied: “Yes, more recruits for the insurgency because you are losing the consent and support of the population and if you have a population that is clearly against you, the danger is that the insurgency will grow and become a struggle, then, stay in the area, because you have a rebellion trying to drive you out.
“Then you're in a very difficult position because you're constantly fighting just to maintain your ability to stay in the area, never mind to get the population to gain their trust and support.”
The inquiry will examine allegations that “multiple” murders took place, as well as an alleged cover-up of illegal activity and inadequate investigations by the Royal Military Police (RMP).
Two RMP investigations, codenamed Operation Northmoor and Operation Cestro, will be scrutinized by the inquiry.
No charges were laid as part of Operation Northmoor – a £10m inquiry set up in 2014 to look into allegations of executions by special forces, including those of children.
Three soldiers were referred to the Public Prosecution Service in Operation Cestro, but none of them were prosecuted.
The inquiry will now hear submissions from the families of 33 people, including eight children, who were allegedly killed by special forces.
The investigation continues.