Posts Tagged ‘NZSAS’
Well, no one should have been surprised that the government opted to not convene an inquiry into the allegations made in the Hager/Stephenson book Hit and Run. It preferred to let those accused “investigate” themselves and come up with an exoneration, then let the PM bad mouth the authors while wrapping himself in pseudo-sentimentality about the impact the accusations had on military families. SOP from National and the NZDF, especially in an election year.
Even though they may have forced a delay in ascertaining the truth as to what happened that August night in Afghanistan, they may have set themselves up for a bigger fall, albeit one that will cost taxpayers far more than if the inquiry had been done under the aegis of the Solicitor General, Inspector General of Intelligence and Security or some other reputable and independent local jurist. That is because if a state refuses to investigate allegations of war crimes committed by its troops, then that bumps up the matter to the International Criminal Court in The Hague. The ICC can be petitioned to open an investigation and launch prosecutions against those suspected of war crimes if a state refuses to do so, and that may eventually be the case here.
The government strategy at this point seems to be to refuse an inquiry and force interested parties to make a case under the Inquiries Act, in the courts under one or more Acts, or in international bodies like the ICC. That is expensive and time consuming, so those willing to challenge the NZDF’s self-exoneration must be well resourced and prepared for a lengthy legal battle. In the meantime crucial evidence may disappear, sources for the allegations may change their minds out of fear of reprisal, material inducements for non-cooperation with investigators may be offered–no one should be so naive as to think that those under potential scrutiny would not stoop to such things.
The government is also clearly banking on political pressure for an independent investigation waning rather than increasing in the weeks and months ahead. It is confident that political parties will focus on the election and the media will move on to other things over the next few news cycles and that the claims will be forgotten by the public in short course. There are grounds to believe that it may be correct in these assumptions, but that depends on how interested parties feel about matters of truth and accountability in public institutions such as the military.
The government could well be daring the likes of Rodney Harrison QC, Deborah Manning and Richard McLeod, who are representing the survivors of the alleged attacks and who successfully represented Ahmed Zaoui against the then-government’s mischaracterisation and detention of him as a dangerous terrorist, to take the case to the ICC. That is because although New Zealand is a member of the ICC, the US is not. Since the US Army provided the close air support for the raids and is implicated in the killings of civilians in the Hit and Run narrative, this means that a key part of any investigation–US complicity in the killing of innocents–will not receive US support or cooperation. In fact, the US is not a member of the ICC precisely because it does not want to see its soldiers or the authorities who command them ever face prosecution in The Hague. And without US participation, the presentation of the NZ side of the story would be incomplete at best, and thereby not a full account of what went down that fateful night. It is hard to mount an investigation or a prosecution, much less secure a conviction, without the participation of one of the principles involved. For a case to stand up in court a partial account of events is simply not enough without corroboration by others involved in the actions in question. This may be true for NZ courts as well as the ICC.
Even so, I am not sure that banking on US non-membership in the ICC is a winning strategy even if it adds to the costs and delays involved in establishing the truth and achieving justice for those needlessly harmed without cause. Refusal to participate in an ICC investigation could be worse for NZ’s reputation than agreeing to it and finding out that not all was as depicted by the NZDF version of event–even if war crimes were not committed.
The bottom line is that the government appears to be running scared with its quick acceptance of the NZDF clean up job. One video from a US helicopter and the NZDF report on the raid–a chronicle of events that leaves numerous questions unanswered, as pointed out by Selwyn Manning in the previous post–is all that it took to convince PM Bill English that all was hunky dory that night. Given that there were likely to be multiple camera angles and audio communications recorded during the raid by both the NZSAS as well as US forces for after-action de-briefings, the fact that just one served to convince the PM of the veracity of the NZDF account leaves me with only one simple conclusion with regard to Mr. English. In the words of Jack Nicholson playing a Marine Colonel under investigation for covering up a homicide at the Marine detachment stationed at Naval Base Guantanamo in the movie “A Few Good Men:”
YOU CAN’T HANDLE THE TRUTH!
Posted on 09:49, March 31st, 2017 by Pablo
After doing the radio interview linked to in the last post, I was approached by the nice people at The Spinoff to write a short elaboration on what I discussed on air. Here it is.
Posted on 06:35, January 7th, 2016 by Pablo
The US has asked New Zealand to provide special operations troops to the anti-Daesh coalition. The government has said that it will consider the request but both the Prime Minister and the Defence Minister have qualified the response by stating that they do not think that NZ will increase its contribution beyond the company sized infantry training complement currently deployed at Camp Taji outside of Baghdad.
The Ministers’ caution has more to do with domestic political concerns than the practical or diplomatic necessities of the conflict itself. With a thin majority thanks to Winston Peter’s by-election victory in Northland, National cannot risk parliamentary defeat on the issue. But Opposition leader Andrew Little has signaled that Labour is willing to consider sending SAS troops to the fight, so the ground is clearing for authorization of a new phase of the NZDF mission.
This was predictable from the moment the NZDF first deployed to Iraq last May. It was clear then and it is now that training Iraqi soldiers is not enough to turn the tide against Daesh. The training is good and the troops that graduate have improved professional skills, but according to a report prepared by the US Defense Department immediately before Mr. Key travelled to Taji in October for his meet-and-greet photo op with the troops, they were no better in battle than they were before the training mission began.
The problem lies with the Iraqi Army leadership. Iraqi field rank officers are not included in the training program and are unwilling or unable to demonstrate the type of leadership skills under fire that are required to make best use of the training received by their soldiers from the NZDF and its allies.
That is where special operations troops like the NZSAS are useful. Among many other roles they serve as leadership advisors on the battlefield. Because of their exceptional skills and hardened discipline, SAS teams serve as force multipliers by adding tactical acumen, physical resilience and steadfastness of purpose to the fight. They lead by example.
NZ’s major allies already have special operations troops on the ground in Iraq, Libya and Syria. Although all of the nationally-badged SAS units roam the region, the Australian SAS is heavily involved in Iraq (and is present at Camp Taji). Not only do Australian SAS troops serve as forward spotters for RAAF FA-18s undertaking ground attack missions in Iraq. They have fought alongside Iraqi troops attempting to re-take the city of Ramadi, provincial capital of the Sunni heartland that is Anbar Province (119 kilometers from Camp Taji and 90 kilometres from Baghdad). The Australian role is considered to have been essential in the initial re-occupation of Ramadi, in which NZDF trained Iraqi troops participated. US, UK and Canadian special operators are currently conducting advisory, forward targeting, search and destroy and long-range intelligence missions against Daesh in north and western Iraq in conjunction with Kurdish and Iraqi forces. Russian, Iranian and Turkish special operators are on the ground in Iraq and Syria as well, and the contested spaces in which Western special forces are now actively involved in the Middle East extends to Libya, Saharan and Sub-Saharan Africa.
The Anglophone special forces are the allies that the NZSAS trains with regularly and works the closest with when on foreign missions. Like its counterparts, NZSAS tend to spend much time in or near overseas conflict zones whether that is publicized or not, usually following the typical military rotation pattern of threes: a third overseas, a third preparing for deployment, and a third on home duty after deployment. It is fair to assume that their attention when overseas has recently been focused on Iraq, Syria and perhaps other conflict zones in the Middle East.
The PM has hinted as much, stating that the NZSAS could be involved in roles other than combat. Since one of its primary missions is long-range patrol and intelligence gathering (rather than active engagement of the enemy), it could well be that the NZSAS is already playing a part in the targeting of Daesh assets.
With around 130 SAS troops in A and B Squadrons (Air, Boat, Mountain), that leaves a minimum of two troops’ or a platoon sized group (30-40 soldiers excluding officers) available for foreign deployment at any given time. Since the NZSAS operates in squads of 3 to 6 men depending on the nature of the mission (4-5 squads per troop), this leaves plenty of room for tactical flexibility, operational decentralization and role diversification.
Reports dating back to early 2015 already put the NZSAS in theater in small numbers, something the government does not deny. They may not be based in Iraq (which gives the government plausible deniability when asked if there are NZSAS troops on the ground in Iraq), but the main focus of their mission certainly is. Given the logistics involved it would be unusual if the NZSAS has not been working behind the scenes for their eventual participation in more active combat roles beyond what it may already be engaged in.
It will be odd if NZ refuses to send its most elite soldiers when asked for them by its major allies in a UN sanctioned multinational military coalition. Troops like the NZSAS need regular combat experience to sharpen and maintain their skills and they cannot do that at home. Since part of their specialness is versatility in a wide range of combat environments, the NZSAS would be keen to test its troops in the mixed urban/desert, conventional and unconventional battlefields of Iraq, Libya and Syria. The kinetic environment in the fight against Daesh is highly complex and multi-faceted so it stands to reason that our elite soldiers would want exposure to it.
Leaving the NZSAS in NZ is akin to leaving a Bugatti in the garage. Much has been invested in their combat readiness. They are trained to fight autonomously and lead others in combat (such as during the anti-terrorist mission in Afghanistan). To keep their specialist skills they need to experience live hostile fire. It would therefore be counterproductive for them to be idling in Papakura when there is a just cause to be fought against real enemies of humanity who commit atrocities and wreak misery on those they subjugate.
Whether one likes it or not, thanks to the Wellington and Washington Agreements NZ is once again a first tier military partner of the US, standing alongside Australia, Canada and the UK in that regard. Most of NZ’s major diplomatic partners are members of the anti-Daesh coalition and some, like Norway and Denmark, have also contributed special operations troops to it. NZ ‘s major trade partners in the Middle East are part of the coalition. As a temporary member of the UN Security Council, NZ has been vocal in its condemnation of Daesh and in calling for a united diplomatic and military response against it. It consequently has no real option but to accede to the request for the NZSAS to join the fight. It may be mission creep but this was mission creep that was foreseeable (and arguably has been planned for and implemented in spite of the government’s obfuscations).
Critics will say that NZ has no dog in this fight, that it is neo-imperialist foreign intervention on behest of corporate interests that only serves to show how subservient governments like National’s are when it comes to pleasing the US. If so, then there are 59 other countries in that category, to which can be added Iran (and its proxies in Iraq, Syria and Lebanon), Russia and the newly formed (if at this stage only on paper) Sunni Muslim anti-terrorism coalition that includes Malaysia, Indonesia and Pakistan. Critics will also point out that NZ is being selective about when and where it chooses to join foreign military adventures, and they would be right in that regard. But given its military resources, NZ pretty much has to be selective every time that it deploys troops, especially in combat roles. So there is nothing new, unusual or unethical in doing so.
Pacifists will say that the conflict with Daesh cannot be resolved by military means. It is true that military force alone is not sufficient to defeat Daesh, but removing it from the territory it occupies in Iraq, Libya and Syria is essential to that project. Not only is Daesh not prone to negotiating with its adversaries or sitting down with those that it disagrees with in order to settle differences. The very nature of its rule is based on coercion and imposition–of its puritanical values, of its medieval authority, of its rape and sex slave culture and of its harsh discriminatory treatment towards all who are not Sunni Arab men (and even the latter are not immune from its violence). Its removal is therefore justified on humanitarian grounds although disputed opinion polls claim that it enjoys some measure of public support in Anbar Province and Mosul. Yet even if the polls are correct–and that is very much questionable given the environment in which they are conducted–the hard fact is that there is no objective measure to gauge whether Daesh enjoys the informed consent of those that it governs, and until it does its reign is illegitimate because rule without majority consent is tyranny. Add to that the innumerable crimes against humanity Daesh has committed and its exportation and exhortation of terrorism across the globe, and the case against the use of force loses foundation.
Re-taking the ground lost to Daesh removes the main areas in which its leadership is located, from which it profits from oil production and where it trains jihadists from all over the world (some of whom return to commit acts of violence in their home countries). That in turn will lessen its appeal to prospective recruits. Thus the first step in rolling back Daesh as a international irregular warfare actor is to win the war of territorial re-occupation in the greater Levant.
The military objective in Iraq is to push Daesh out of Anbar Province and the Nineveh Governorate in which Mosul is located and force it to retreat back into Syria. At that point it can be subjected to a pincer movement in which the European/Arab/Antipodean/North American anti-Daesh coalition presses from the South and East while Russian, Iranian, Turkish and Syrian forces press from the North and West. The endgame will involve four milestones: first the capture of Ramadi, then the re-taking of Falluja, followed by the freeing of Mosul, and finally the seizure of the northern Syrian city of al-Raqqah, the capital of Daesh’s self-proclaimed caliphate.
Arab states will need to contribute more to the fight, including ground forces. Resolving the impasse over what to do with Assad is critical to establishing a united front between his military, Russia’s, Iran’s, Turkey and the anti-Daesh coalition. Both requirements are fraught and need to be the subject of delicate negotiations made all the more complicated by the Saudi-Iranian confrontation occasioned by the Saudi execution of a Shiia cleric. But for the negotiations to advance, much less to succeed, there needs to be battlefield gains against Daesh in Iraq that reverse its march towards Baghdad and which break the strategic stalemate currently in place. Once the prospect of victory over Daesh becomes possible, more countries will feel comfortable putting additional resources into the campaign against it.
There is room to be optimistic in that regard. In 2015 Daesh lost approximately 30-40 percent (+/- 5000 square miles) of the territory that it controlled in Iraq and Syria. Most of these losses were to Kurdish Peshmerga forces working in concert with Western special operations units. Significantly aided by its coalition partners and tribal militias, the Iraq Army has re-taken Tikrit (November) and the oil refinery town of Baiji (October) and is in the process of clearing the last pockets of Daesh resistance in Ramadi. Preparations for the re-taking of Falluja are well underway, and the battle for Mosul–Daesh’s biggest conquest in Iraq–is scheduled to begin within months. Key Daesh supply lines between Iraq and Syria are under near-constant aerial attack. In sum, the tide of Deash victories may not have completely turned but it does appear to have ebbed.
John Key does not do anything out of moral or ethical conviction, much less altruism. Instead he relies on polling and self-interest to drive policy. His polling may be telling him that it is getting politically less difficult to sell the NZSAS deployment to domestic audiences. But even if not, he has in the past ignored public opinion when it suits him (e.g. asset sales and the TPPA). With Labour warming to the idea of an NZSAS deployment, his political risk is reduced considerably regardless of public opinion. It is therefore likely that, weasel words notwithstanding, the train has been set in motion for that to occur.
Once the deployment is announced it is likely that the NZ public will support the decision and wish the troops Godspeed and success in fulfilling their mission. But even if the majority do not, the diplomatic and military pressure to contribute more to the war effort against Daesh will be enough to convince the government that it is in NZ’s best interests to agree to the request. In a non-election year and with Labour support it is also a politically safe thing to do.
What is certain is that the mission will be very dangerous for the troops involved. It will raise NZ’s target profile amongst Islamicists and could invite attack at home. But given the position NZ finds itself in, it is a necessary and ultimately justified thing to do for several reasons, not the least of which is upholding NZ’s reputation as an international actor.
A short version of this essay appears in the New Zealand Herald, January 7, 2016 (the comments are quite entertaining).
When John Key authorized the re-deployment of an SAS company to serve as counter-terrorism advisors to the Afghan Police’s Crisis Response Unit (CRU) in 2009, he was authorizing a mission that differed from the long-range patrol, tracking and infiltration missions that are the mainstay of SAS deployments and which were the basis for its original deployment in that theater from 2001-2005. In doing so he was placing the SAS at the forefront of the urban guerrilla war in and around Kabul (to include Wardak Province) that was part of the Afghan resistance’s two-pronged (urban and rural) irregular war conducted against the foreign occupying force led by the US and NATO under the banner of the International Security Assistance Force (ISAF). By the time Key authorised the deployment the security situation in Afghanistan had evolved into a civil war involving the Western-backed Karzai regime, the Pakistani-backed Haqqani network, and various Taliban factions based in and outside of Afghanistan (with Pakistan facilitating cross-border cover for those based inside its territory).
The SAS inherited the counter-terrorism advisor mission from the Norwegian special forces, who had advised the CRU from 2007-2009. The CRU has its origins in 2005, so rather than a new unit it is almost seven years old and has had foreign professional military training and advice for nearly five years. In most modern militaries the time taken for specialisation beyond basic training (such as sniping, sapping, intelligence-gathering and counter-terrorist response) varies from 6 to 18 months. That means that the CRU, which has 285 members, is lagging behind when it comes to being able to autonomously respond and fight on its own.
The SAS initially sent a light company’s worth of troops (70) in 2009, but the number has been reduced to 38 in the last year. The job consists of providing training on-base in which counter-terrorist assaults are mounted in various scenarios, using abandoned buildings, vehicles and other simulations that replicate the dense tactical environment in which the CRU must operate. Close quarter clearing and entering, airborne rappelling, hostage rescue and a host of other skills are initially imparted in these exercises. But the mission also includes accompanying the CRU into real situations, which means taking leadership roles in responding to live incidents when the CRU forces prove unable to cope on their own. As Taleban attacks on symbolic and military targets have increased over the last year in concert with the announcement that the US will be withdrawing the bulk of its forces by 2014, with other ISAF members already doing so, the pace of these “live” responses has accelerated as well. Most of the operations conducted by the SAS/CRU consist of pre-emptive strikes against imminent threats based on intelligence flows provided by Afghan and ISAF forces. A smaller percentage is dedicated to responding to terrorist incidents in progress such as the attacks on the Intercontinental Hotel and British High Commission. The accelerated pace of operations now sees the SAS/CRU deployed in “live” mode 2-3 times a week on average.
Urban guerrilla warfare has no fixed lines or fronts. In fact, by definition the battle space in a guerrilla war is amorphous and permeable. Thus the counter-terrorism mission is a combat mission within an irregular warfare context. Training and advising in such contexts means involvement in close-quarter small unit kinetic operations, which given the dense (heavily populated and urbanised) environment in which they occurs means that support and leadership roles are indistinguishable to the enemy. Thus the SAS has always had a combat role in this mission.
It is evident that the CRU is not performing up to professional standard, particularly when confronted by a committed and well-prepared enemy. This may be due to a lack of will on member’s part, which in turn may be rooted in the deep divisions extant in Afghan society and in the knowledge that a post-ISAF political settlement that avoids massive bloodshed will have to include the Taliban and the Haqqanis. Under such conditions in may appear foolish to be closely identified with foreign forces working with the Karzai regime. That could sap the desire of some CRU members to engage robustly in the counter-terrorism effort, no matter how eager they may appear to their SAS advisors when back on base. This is compounded by faulty intelligence flows in which individuals or groups with personal vendettas supply misinformation about rivals so that ISAF forces, including the CRU/SAS, launch raids against innocent people. There is already at least one incident in which the SAS has engaged in an operation that resulted in the deaths of innocents based upon faulty intelligence. The manipulation of intelligence by Afghan sources, in other words, raises the probability that the SAS will be involved in the deaths of civilian non-combatants.
The SAS dilemma is compounded by the fact that, given CRU unreliability, the risks to SAS troopers increases every time they deploy with them. It is one thing to deploy with fellow SAS on long-range patrols or in a counter-terrorism situation. They are a tightly knit and cohesive fighting unit playing off the same tactical page. But adding the CRU to the mix brings with it a lack of discipline and resolve, which forces the SAS troops to compensate by leading by example. Doing so exposes them to a degree seldom seen when fighting on their own.
The latest raid that resulted in the second death of an SAS soldier in a month demonstrates the problem. In a pre-emptive raid against suspected bomb-makers (or a family feud, depending on who you believe), the SAS deployed 15 advisors along side 50 CRU troops. This is a ratio of 1 advisor for every 3.1 CRU soldiers. That is remarkably low if the SAS were merely “mentoring” in a support role. The fact that the SAS trooper was killed while climbing a ladder to gain a better vantage point on the compound in which the raid was taking place shows that even such basic tasks, usually assigned to the most expendable soldiers of lower-rank, are having to be done by SAS troops. This demonstrates a lack of faith in the competence or reliability of the CRU personnel and the need for first-responder proaction on the part of the SAS in such situations.
Given that the Afghan resistance have increased the tempo of their operations in and around Kabul, the likelihood is that the CRU/SAS will be involved in an increasing number of armed incidents. That may force the NZDF to re-increase its complement of SAS back to the original 70 personnel, and raises the question as to whether it will be asked to extend the SAS deployment past its March 2012 withdrawal date. Given the strategic dynamics at play in Afghanistan, that is a sticky question.
It also raises the question as to why Mr. Key has from the day he announced the re-deployment insisted that the SAS are in a non-combat “mentoring” and support role. The NZDF and Minister of Defense have now admitted that combat is part of the mission. Mr. Key continues to deny that it is so. Besides the lack of synchronization of the government PR spin, the question rises as to whether the government has misled the NZ public on the true nature of the mission, or the NZDF deliberately misled the Prime Minister and his cabinet on the matter at the time the request for SAS assistance was made by ISAF (it should be noted that Mr. Key’s agreement to redeploy the SAS was based on his eagerness to curry favor with the US, which may not have seen a trade deal as a reward but which has seen NZ elevated to the status of full US security partner with the signing of the Wellington Declaration of November 2010. This may well mean future involvement in US-led military operations that have little to do with NZ’s national security per se).
All of this makes the government and NZDF attacks on the credibility of Jon Stephenson and Nicky Hager, two journalists who exposed the true nature of NZDF missions in Afghanistan and the duplicity surrounding them, all the more contemptible and desperate. It also was very stupid to do so because the conflict environment in which the SAS operates has deteriorated rather than improved since it arrived back in theater, which made the deaths and wounding of its personnel much more likely if not predictable. Once that began to happen (there have been about a half dozen SAS troopers wounded in combat on this mission), it was only a matter of time before the corporate media began to focus attention on the dubious explanations about the nature of the deployment. With that now happening the house of cards that is Mr. Key’s justification for authorizing it has begun to crumble, and it will not be surprising if senior NZDF heads will roll as a result.
Timing is everything, so they say. The Taliban attack on the Intercontinental Hotel in Kabul was a masterpiece of symbolic defiance. Apparently modeled on the Mumbai attacks of 2008 (which suggests the possibility of links to the Lashkar-e-Taiba (LET) Islamicists that carried out that attack and which are reported to have links with the Pakistani Intelligence Service ISI), the assault comes on the very week that overall security responsibility for Kabul was being transferred from International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) to Afghan hands. It comes in wake of the announcement of the US withdrawal plan, which sees 33,000 US troops headed home between July 2011 and September 2012, and the bulk of the remaining 70,000 withdrawn by late 2014. It occurred during a conference held at the hotel between Afghanistan, Iran and Pakistan on the subject of “anti-terrorism,” considered against the backdrop of an overall ISAF reduction in presence along with the US military draw down.
The first areas to be handed over to Afghan control are Kabul and Bamiyan Province. NZ troops are stationed in both places, with the SAS company located in Kabul while the majority of the other NZDF personnel serve with the PRT in Bamiyan. If the Taliban logic holds true, they will accelerate the pace of attacks on remaining ISAF forces in areas that are handed over to Afghan security control. It is therefore plausible to think that NZDF troops will be the subject of targeted hostilities in both theaters, with the timing and intensity of Taliban attacks increasing. As the symbolic centre of the foreign occupation, Kabul is a target rich environment for urban guerrillas. In Bamiyan the local ethnic Hazari population, long victims of Taliban discrimination, now must ponder a post-PRT future in which the Taliban will be a major player. That advises them to look to negotiate with the Taliban on post-PRT terms and to consequently distance themselves from the PRT. That will have an impact on tactical intelligence gathering as well local logistics, to say nothing of the security of the NZDF personnel stationed there. PRT force protection, rather than combat patrols, could well be the objective of the day once Afghan security forces assume control in Bamiyan.
In terms of the assault itself, the Intercontinental Hotel operation demonstrated sophistication and professionalism. The combined grenade, IED and small arms fire tactic involved a mix of attackers, apparently disguised as guests and Afghan police. It is speculated that some may have checked into the hotel days before the assault, while other reports have the 9-man assault squad launching the attack from the hill that the hotel backs on to. The five rings of road block blast barriers on the road leading to the hotel were ineffectual against the assault. Afghan security forces at and around the hotel are said to have run rather than engage the attackers from the onset, which allowed them to move beyond the lobby and pool areas and into the floors above. While the bulk of the guerrillas fought floor to floor and room to room with the eventual responders, a few made the roof and used it to engage sniper fire on reinforcements (thereby demonstrating knowledge of standard counter-terrorism tactics using troops rappelling from helicopters onto rooftops). The fact that the battle lasted 5 hours indicates the planning and tenacity of the Taliban fighters, with the last one killing himself at 7AM (the attack began at 10PM).
That is where mentoring comes in. “Mentoring” in the context of the NZSAS relationship with the Afghan anti-terrorist force known as the Crisis Response Unit means training and combat support. The SAS trains the CRU and follows them into battle in incidents precisely like the hotel siege. That is what they train for, in a variety of scenarios. Should the CRU vacillate or prove ineffectual, then the SAS mentors assume leadership roles and coordinate the counter-attack. The involves them at the initial point of contact with the enemy–at the pointy end, if you will. The two wounded troopers were engaged in such roles, which along with the duration of the battle suggests that the initial CRU response was less than optimal.
If reports are true that SAS snipers platformed on a NATO Blackhawk hovering near the hotel killed the rooftop snipers (at night), it will have brought valuable and highly specialised combat experience to to the unit. Re-taking the hotel will have given the rest of the SAS team (reported as “around a dozen”) equally important live fire exposure (and at least two scars). Should this scenario be true, from an SAS standpoint the engagement was a mixed bag, with the CRU not holding its own without help against a determined and prepared enemy, but where SAS troops combat tested a range of tactics and skills.
The bigger issue is what does this attack mean for ISAF and the NZDF. Let me suggest this: it means that whatever the technical skills and material improvements imparted by NZDF forces in reconstruction, nation-building and “mentoring” roles, the balance of forces vis a vis the Taliban indicates that their efforts have not prospered as hoped, and their security is increasingly compromised as a result.
News that the NZSAS conducted a raid against those responsible for the death of Lt. Timothy O’Donnell last August should come as no surprise. Although Wayne Mapp once again dissembled in public about the purpose of the raid, which resulted in the deaths of nine Taliban and reportedly eight civilians due to stray fire from close air support (not the NZSAS), the point of the exercise was threefold: to exact utu on those who killed a NZ soldier; to provide a deterrent for other such directed attacks against NZDF personnel in Bamiyan province; and to send the message to the Taliban in neighbouring Baghlan province (from where the attack on Lt. O’Donnell’s patrol was organised and carried out) that Bamiyan is off-limits. The raid was personal: it let NZ troops in theater as well as adversaries know that the NZDF takes very seriously fatal attacks on its personnel, and will respond accordingly (that is, symmetrically if not overwhelmingly).
This is, quite frankly, an axiom of combat that serves good tactical purpose. After all, the Taliban are a fighting and revenge-minded culture, so failure to reply in kind and in timely fashion to the IED and small arms fire ambush of Lt. O’Donnell’s patrol would have been perceived as a sign of weakness and invited more and larger attacks. However, the question remains as to whether the SAS utu raid serves the larger strategic interests of the ISAF coalition of which the NZDF contribution is part. The answer, unfortunately, is in the negative.
I shall leave aside the fact that John Key said in 2009 that the NZSAS was deployed in a “training and mentoring” role for the Afghan Army counter-terrorism Crisis Response Unit (CRU) based in Kabul, and that it would not be engaged in combat operations. I shall also leave aside the fact that Mr. Key has continued to say that the SAS would not lead any raids but instead, as part of its mentoring role, “accompany” Afghan troops into battle when needed. Yet the raid against Lt. O’Donnell’s killers was led by the SAS in concert with US troops and air cover, with only a supporting role delegated to Afghan Army units.
Perhaps the fiction of the NZSAS non-combat role is needed for domestic political cover, although it seems to me that Mr. Key and Mr. Mapp are either deluded or have contempt for the public’s understanding of what the SAS does for a living. But the real issue is whether employing the SAS outside of its publicly acknowledged remit serves the strategic objectives of the ISAF coalition. There again, the answer is less comforting than the tactical success of the utu raid.
The fact that in the aftermath of Lt. O’Donnell’s death and the utu raid the NZDF has deployed a half dozen Light Armoured Vehicles (LAVs) to Bamiyan as reinforcements for the Humvees and armoured Hiluxes that the NZDF use when on patrol suggests that the raid did not necessarily improve the security of those patrols. That in turn means that the strategic situation, at least as it mircrocosmically plays out in Bamiyan, has not improved as a result. Moreover, because the LAVs are up-armoured (i.e. reinforced) and wheeled, they cannot be used on the narrow goat tracks and other pathways crisscrossing the mountains of northeast Bamiyan where Lt. O’Donnell was killed (along the border with Baghlan), so they are designed for use in flatter districts closer to the PRT headquarters. This means that after eight years of doing reconstruction work in Bamiyan, the security situation has gotten worse not better, and that is not entirely due to Taliban cross-border raids emanating from Baghlan.
In sum, the SAS search-and-destroy mission against Lt. O’Donnell’s killers was an efficient, calculated and deliberate act of utu that serves as a morale-booster for NZDF troops on the ground as well as those who in the future will deploy to hostile theaters. It gives the tactical enemy some food for thought and a measure of pause before it commits resources to attacks on the NZDF. But it does not, and cannot improve the strategic balance between the Taliban and ISAF. That is only important because in a conflict between irregulars fighting on home soil against a modern conventional military coalition, a military stalemate favours the irregulars. If the military stalemate continues without political resolution, then the odds increase that the irregulars will prevail. Tactical success in a strategic quagmire, in other words, means little in terms of the long-term picture. Since ISAF is committed to withdrawing the bulk of its troops by 2014, all the Taliban have to do to ensure their long-term goals is harass ISAF forces as they prepare to depart while cementing the Taliban position as alternative sovereigns-in-waiting.
All of which means that, utu reprisals notwithstanding, there is a distinct possibility of more NZDF casualties so long at the strategic balance in Afghanistan remains deadlocked or favourable to the Taliban.
Mr. Key and Mr. Mapp would do well to ponder this fact, and to be more honest in their public pronouncements about the SAS mission.
Controversy about the publication of SAS soldiers in action in Kabul last week, and the identification of one of them, has morphed into debate about the reasons why the NZDF is in Afghanistan. I have already outlined my views on the matter in previous posts here at KP, but the furore forced me to reflect again on the issue. That reflection was precipitated by the fact that criticism of the mission comes from both the political Left and the political Right. Some on the Left think that the venture is a US-led occupation driven by neo-imperialist ambition and corporate greed that violates the Afghans right to self-determination, and that the NZ involvement is a form of sucking up to the US in pursuit of a free trade agreement. Some on the Right believe that NZ has no strategic stake in the conflict and should leave the (enter derogatory term here) alone to sort out their own fate while NZ concentrates on issues closer to home. I believe that both sides have misread the situation.
To that end I have offered my summary views on the matter as this month’s Word from Afar column over at Scoop.