In March 2017, Jon Stephenson and political journalist/author Nicky Hager published Hit & Run: The New Zealand SAS in Afghanistan and the meaning of honour. The book explores an account of events detailing war crimes committed by the New Zealand Special Air Service (NZ SAS) in Afghanistan in 2010. It accuses the NZ SAS of killing 21 civilians in the village, neglecting the wounded, destruction of property, and the alleged cover up by the New Zealand Defence Force (NZDF). The allegations presented by the book have come under serious scrutiny since the initial book release. Each allegation has since been seriously questioned.
The Hit and Run Story
Hit & Run: The New Zealand SAS in Afghanistan and the meaning of honour details an incident that took place on 22 August 2010, involving the NZ SAS in Baghlan province in Afghanistan. Two villages were raided based on intelligence confirming that a group of Taliban fighters resided there. This particular group was involved in an attack on a New Zealand patrol 19 days earlier that resulted in the death of New Zealand officer, Lieutenant O’Donnell. Afghan commandoes and US helicopters supported the New Zealand troops. The book claims that despite the finding the Taliban soldiers were not in the villages, the troops still conducted the raid. The 21 people who were killed or wounded in the operation were all civilians including women and children. The book claims the houses were deliberately destroyed, including being targeted by rockets from the helicopter.
The book contains details of each civilian that it alleges the NZ SAS killed. It includes their name and family connections, injuries, and precise details of where they were when they were wounded or killed. Each name also lists the victim’s story: the recently graduated school teacher home on holiday who was killed behind his parents’ house; the three-year-old girl killed by exploding munitions as her mother was trying to carry her to safety; the farmer who lay without medical assistance for nine hours with a piece of shrapnel lodged in his body before he died.
The book also alleges that responsibility for the incident should go beyond the ground troops that took part in the operation. It discusses that the intelligence was never properly verified by the SAS, that the operation was monitored in real time by the defence force Lieutenant-General Jerry Mataparae from his operations room in Kabul, and even reveals that then Prime Minster John Key was briefed about the attack and gave his approval for it. The incident was never made public and until the release of the book the vast majority of information about the raid was kept secret.
The allegations against the NZ SAS and the government
The killing of any civilians or destruction of their property by soldiers is a war crime. But the events claimed in the book go further than a deplorable act of the soldiers. Not only could the killings be possibly classed reparations, there is an allegation command culpability involved. Defence Force leader for the area, Jerry Matapaere, monitored the raid as it happened and the approval for the raid is said to have come directly from the Prime Minister. The book suggests that the intelligence the raid was carried out on was unverified and was later deemed to be unreliable and false. It points to a grossly negligent and reckless operation from the NZDF and those responsible for it should be brought to account.
The last and most damning allegation is that there was an intentional cover up by the NZDF and the government to keep the circumstances of the attack from public knowledge. The cover up shows that those responsible were never brought forward to be tried for their crimes, and the NZDF was never made to give an account or an apology to the victims, or make any reparations.
Press conference on Operation Burnham
On the 27th of March, the Chief of Defence, Tim Keating, gave a press conference to answer the allegations made by the book and to provide an account of the SAS’s version of events. The events described by the NZDF differ greatly from those disclosed in the book.
In August 2010, the SAS coordinated an attack in the village of Tirigan called “Operation Burnham.” This operation was conducted some 2 km away from the villages that the authors said the incident took place in Naik and Khak Khuday Dad. Keating acknowledged that the circumstances of the mission remained the same. The raid was done to track down the Taliban fighters involved in the New Zealand attack. US Apache helicopters supported the ground forces of NZ SAS fighters. The ground forces fired only two rounds at an insurgent who was shot and killed. The helicopter had a weapons malfunction that caused its shots to fall short of their target. These rounds ended up striking a building that may have contained civilians.
The defence force maintains that the operation was carried out within the international laws of armed conflict. The SAS troops took all feasible precautions to minimize civilian casualties and destruction of property. Any possible civilian casualties would have been the result of the helicopter’s malfunction and not the soldiers. Overall, nine insurgents were killed and a sizable amount of ammunition was recovered in raiding the villages. Two dwellings caught fire with one resulting from a possible explosion from the ammunition collected and the other was a result of the cooking fire. Revenge was never attributed as a driver of the attack.
Two different stories
From this we get two very inconsistent stories describing similar operations. The most obvious inconsistency relates to the geographical location of the attack. Nicky Hagar has since accepted that the location that the NZDF provided is correct, but still insists that the atrocities took place. The lawyers of the villagers, in a letter to current Prime Minister Bill English, have stated that the names of the villages are Beidak and Khakandy.
If the exact position of the villages does not undermine the credibility of the events described in the book, as the author suggests, are we any closer to finding out the truth of the atrocities committed?
In order to determine which account of events is true, the most straightforward approach would be for the government to establish an inquiry. An inquiry is charged with certain powers that enable it to compel witnesses, gather information, and make a full report including recommendations for what should be done to resolve the matter. No recommendations in the report would be binding on the government and the inquiry cannot rule on matters of criminal liability. The inquiry would, however, be able to provide an official report on the sequence of events and reveal the extent of any atrocities or alleged cover ups.
Prime Minister, Bill English, has stated that the allegations from the book look “quite far-fetched” and that there hasn’t been any credible evidence presented so far. The full report by Keating has nothing in it that points to any atrocities from the NZDF. However, it should be noted that English has not talked to anyone outside of the defence force on the matter. He reassured that “should any evidence emerge in the future that New Zealand forces acted unlawfully, the government would of course take every step to establish truth.” Only the government can bring about an inquiry into the matter, so until they are convinced that there is any merit, there will not be an inquiry. Presumably the inquiry would not be an efficient use of government time or money until more credible evidence is presented. The book has also described prisoner abuse, which the government is looking into.
Opposition leader Andrew Little has criticized English and said that there needs to be an inquiry to get the bottom of the allegations and called on the government to “do the right thing.” Hager was more damning of the government’s decision saying that “it is helping the military bureaucracy to avoid having to front up. It is the next step in the seven year cover up.” Hager says the issue will not go away until it is properly addressed, and “will continue to boil and fester.”
The events following the book’s release do not allow anyone to confirm the allegations of war crimes committed by the NZ SAS or any cover up by the government. The government has accepted the account that the NZDF has presented and finds an inquiry unnecessary at this stage. This means that until either the government finds it necessary to establish an inquiry or until there is new evidence presented, the questions raised by the book and the villagers will remain unanswered.
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