The inquiry into whether the SAS acted illegally during a nighttime raid on a suspected insurgent’s hideout in Afghanistan in 2010 (code named Operation Burnham), which resulted in six civilian deaths and serious wounds to 15 others, is slowly coming apart. This is unfortunate because the NZDF, which has allocated NZ $8 million to its representation at the inquiry, looks likely to be let off the hook even though the inquiry has revealed a pattern of lying, deception and cover up on its part. The issue transcends the actions of the SAS and allied forces on the ground and moves into the behaviour of the NZDF chain of command in Afghanistan and NZ after the first reports of civilian casualties came to light. Unfortunately, it now seems that will be whitewashed into oblivion.
So far the Inquiry (chaired by Sir Geoffrey Palmer and Sir Terence Arnold) has revealed that contrary to NZDF statements, civilians were known to be killed from the beginning and that at least some of them were “MAMs” (military aged males) who were unarmed. It also revealed that, again contrary to earlier NZDF reports, a US AC-130 gunship was involved in the operation and hit targets as they fled the villages in which the operation was conducted. Some of these may have been women and children, although the NZDF changed the identification of civilians to possible “INS” (insurgents) once the raid became a matter of public attention. The after-action reports demonstrate that little difference was given to suspected INS and MAMs when calling in air strikes, and that the AC-130, which is a rather blunt instrument when used on people out on open terrain, was the primary instrument of death. Only one person was killed by an SAS trooper, that being a hapless unarmed shepard who stumbled towards a SAS sniper position providing cover from a ridge line above the villages.
The NZDF’s (unnecessary, in my opinion) deception and cover up will largely remain lost because of two things: there secrecy in which the Inquiry has been shrouded; and the tactics of some of those who brought the matter to public attention. Let me explain.
The Inquiry was set up as a result of the allegations in a 2017 book by Jon Stephenson and Nicky Hager titled “Hit and Run.” The book followed a series of magazine stories by Mr. Stephenson about the SAS in Afghanistan and the Operation Burnham raid. Mr. Stephenson did almost all of the field research and original writing that went into the book, with Mr Hager joining later in order to add weight to the venture and bring it to quick publication in an election year. Although Mr. Hager got first author treatment on the cover page and in the media, the truth is that Mr. Stephenson was responsible for the majority of what was written in it.
As can be expected given their different roles in the project, the authors differed on some key issues, including the use of non-military maps to illustrate the location of the targeted villages and the tone of some of the language used to describe the SAS’s actions (which have been described by some as “war crimes” committed in revenge for the death of a NZDF soldier weeks earlier). One bone of contention was whether in fact any Taliban associated with the deadly attack on the NZDF land convoy were present in the village of Naik. That matters because the NZDF said that there were and that justified the raid. As it turns out, Mr. Stephenson subsequently reported that indeed, two Taliban commanders–the objectives of the “kill or capture” SAS-led mission–were present in the village but left before the raid commenced. However, the book claim is that no insurgents were present, apparently because none were found by the SAS in the targeted villages and Mr. Stephenson had not yet been able to secure interviews with the escaped Taliban commanders before the dateline for publication. The discrepancy does not invalidate the many other claims in the book but points to differences in journalistic approach between the two Hit and Run authors–differences that, along with other errors in the book (such as location errors on the maps used in the book), the NZDF and its supporters have been quick to seize upon.
The book came out, a furore ensued, the NZDF pretty much denied everything, then slowly began to correct its narrative and admit to much of what was written, and an Inquiry was eventually launched once the Labour-led government was installed (the previous National government refused to launch an inquiry and accepted the NZDF version of events).
The scope of the Inquiry was initially narrowly construed: determine what happened and whether the SAS and its Afghan and US partners contravened the laws of war. This is what led to the near-blanket extension of secrecy to the evidence and testimony given before it, as multiple agencies such as the GCSB and SIS had some involvement in the affair, SAS personnel are normally given anonymity during official investigations, and sources, methods, tactics and the names of individuals could be compromised if transparency was faithfully observed. This has led to disappointment in some quarters and increased tension between the Inquiry leaders and the accusers over the lack of transparency.
The bottom line is that whatever the legitimacy for the rationale behind keeping much of the Inquiry secret, its primary focus was always about the how Operation Burnham unfolded as a combat event. Questions about NZDF post-event misrepresentation could only be addressed once the facts on the ground were established.
I am ignorant of the exact timing of their entrance (perhaps even from the onset), but at some point the much celebrated team of Deborah Manning, Rodney Harrison QC and Richard McCleod (of Ahmed Zaoui fame) were invited to represent the victims of the raid in the Inquiry. It was at that point that things began to fall apart. The reason is that adding the villager’s perspective into the mix at the same time as responsibility was being determined muddled the Inquiry by stretching its terms of reference. Again, the original scope of the Inquiry was to determine what happened, whether illegal acts were committed and to attribute responsibility if so. Once that was established then the issue of reparations, compensation and other forms of victim redress could be discussed because it would be clearly established how they were victimised.
This is an important distinction. It is appropriate for the villagers to testify as witnesses. It is another thing to have them testify as victims. The former seeks to uncover other points of view on what was a chaotic nighttime operation. The latter presupposes culpability and concentrates on the matter of redress. Yet, judging from the legal team’s statements, it is this second matter that appears to be the focus of the villager’s representation in the Inquiry.
Under such conditions allowing villager legal representation to sit alongside the book authors who made the claims against the NZDF in the first instance is akin to putting the cart before the horse. To phrase it in political science terms, it is a case of methodological inversion because the focus on the villagers-as-victims selects on the dependent variable (the situation after the raid) rather than on the independent and intervening variables leading to the outcome (the reasons for and conduct of the raid). Put even another way: Yes, we know that innocent people died and were wounded in the raid and that the NZDF attempted to cover it up. But the question is whether they were killed unlawfully, and if so, by who, exactly? It is only when those questions are answered that discussion of what to do by way of redress can begin.
Unhappy with the proceedings, the villager’s legal team has quit the Inquiry (there is much talk about the villagers being disillusioned with the Inquiry but one has to wonder how much agency did they have and how conversant with the proceedings were they given the fact that they are largely illiterate peasants living in remote valleys 14,000 kilometres away from where the Inquiry is being conducted). Now Mr. Stephenson has publicly revealed that, based on interviews with them, two Taliban commanders were in Naik after all. That is problematic because it contradicts the villager’s original testimony as claimed in the book (which stated that no Taliban were present in the villages before the raid) and Mr. Hager’s supporting remarks to the Inquiry (which Mr. Stepehnson apparently contradicted in his testimony to the Inquiry months ago, where he left open the possibility that Taliban were present in the village before the raid but which he did not confirm publicly until recently). This still leaves a lot yet to be determined but certainly gives the impression that all is not well on the accuser’s side of the table.
I believe that the thrust of the book is correct even if mistakes were made on details and the language in it is a bit strong at times. Although controversial, Mr. Hager’s previous writing on matters of NZ security and intelligence have largely been proven correct. I have a ton of respect for Ms. Manning and Mr. Stephenson in particular, both of whom I know socially. I also believe that the SAS are very professional and are not prone to killing people for the sport of it. What I do not have much regard for is military superiors using secrecy and public relations to spin stories that evade the truth and which serve to shirk responsibility when things go wrong.
Alas, the NZDF brass may prevail in this instance. Most of those in leadership positions at the time Operation Burnham was conducted have moved on to other pastures and would not face punitive sanctions in any event. A few middle ranking soldiers might be called to account but it is doubtful that anything career threatening will happen to them. The soldiers who conducted the raid are very unlikely to be found to have committed illegal acts given the fog of war in difficult circumstances (I say this having read a number of the after-action summaries provided to the Inquiry).
Perhaps I am wrong and the Inquiry will find that the NZDF falsified documents and mislead the civilian leadership of the moment as to what actually occurred that night (one should recall then Defense Minister Wayne Mapp’s statements immediately following the raid versus later, once the book was published and he was revealed as a source for it). In that case perhaps some heads will roll. But I find that prospect unlikely.
What I do find likely is that, undermined by competing agendas amongst the principles involved in confronting the NZDF and shrouded by the mantle of secrecy afforded to it by the Inquiry, the military will pay no price even in the event that mistakes were made and innocents hurt as a result of them. I hope to be proven wrong and stand to be corrected if any of the above analysis is faulty, but at this juncture I think that in more ways than one the NZDF may well have dodged a bullet.