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, Â 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.Â
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, Â 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), Â 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.