Could The New Zealand SAS Be Responsible For War Crimes In Afghanistan?

Last week, journalist Nicky Hager launched his latest book, Hit and Run, about New Zealand Special Air Service raids on villages in Afghanistan. The book centres around allegations that New Zealand SAS may have been involved in war crimes during deployment in Afghanistan.

The book describes Operation Burnham, a New Zealand-led raid in two villages in 2010. The operation was given the go-ahead by Prime Minister John Key with the goal of targeting a group of Taliban fighters who had attacked a New Zealand patrol a few weeks earlier. However, according to Hager, the intelligence was flimsy. The Taliban group were not there and the two raids resulted in six deaths and eleven injuries. All of the dead and wounded were civilians. The raids also resulted in damage to homes and other buildings in the villages. The New Zealand SAS gathered intelligence, organized the United States helicopters, and decided on the targets. The operation involved the use of United States helicopters and participation of Afghan commandos, but it was led by New Zealand forces. Under military law, this means that New Zealand was responsible for the actions of subordinate personnel.

Before World War II, it was generally accepted that bad things inevitably happened during a war. However, after the genocide in Nazi Germany and the severe mistreatment of prisoners of war by the Japanese, the international community decided that the worst atrocities should be punished. Some acts were not acceptable even during a war. War crimes are defined across a broad body of law, including the Geneva Conventions and an older area of law referred to as the Laws and Customs of War. Genocide, crimes against humanity, and mistreatment of civilians or combatants during a war all fall under the category of war crimes. Acts of war only become war crimes when the extent of the collateral damage to people and property is excessive compared to the military advantage gained.

In Hit and Run, Hager and co-author Jon Stephenson call for an inquiry into allegations against New Zealand SAS. Following its release, Amnesty International and many others have echoed this sentiment. It is important that any allegations are taken seriously. Intentional direct attacks against civilians and the unnecessary destruction of property are capable of being considered war crimes. International law requires that an inquiry should be made into any allegation. Failure to investigate at a national level can result in proceedings being brought to the International Court of Justice.

Since the release of the book, the New Zealand Defence Force (NZDF) has come forward stating that the premise of the book is incorrect. The Chief of the NZDF, Lieutenant General Tim Keating, stated that the NZDF never operated in the two villages mentioned. He repeated that New Zealand personnel acted appropriately and were not involved in the deaths of civilians or destruction of property. He also disagreed that there were no insurgents identified and killed due to the raid. These contradictions only highlight the need for a formal inquiry to clarify what really happened in 2010.

The New Zealand military was in Afghanistan with the purpose of peacekeeping and helping with reconstruction. The locals should have been treated with respect and empathy. Allegations that the New Zealand SAS conducted themselves in any other way should be taken seriously. There is no reason for the New Zealand government not to comply with international law and conduct an inquiry.