New Hager-Stephenson book reveals tragic and disastrous SAS actions in Afghanistan
Author and investigative journalist Nicky Hager and war correspondent Jon Stephenson have teamed up, in a book released today, to tell the story of a dark and guilty secret of New Zealand’s recent history. The book is about what the New Zealand military – and especially the Special Air Service (SAS) – did in Afghanistan in response to the first New Zealander dying in combat in August 2010.
The book, called Hit and Run, was released this evening at a book launch at Unity Books in Wellington. It was written by Nicky Hager following a long collaboration with Jon Stephenson, who brought the majority of sources to the project. For more than two years, they gradually gathered and pieced together the evidence.
The book describes a series of operations which proved to be ill-conceived, tragic and disastrous. These included an SAS attack on two isolated villages in Afghanistan’s Baghlan province where they mistakenly believed they would find the insurgents who’d attacked a New Zealand patrol 19 days earlier in neighbouring Bamiyan. SAS officers commanded and led the attack, supported by US and Afghan forces.
The insurgent group wasn’t there. Instead, at least 21 civilians were killed and injured – many of them women and children – and the SAS and US forces burned and blew up about a dozen houses. The SAS also failed to help the wounded. The defence force and government then tried to keep the whole thing secret. They have never admitted nor taken responsibility for what they did.
In a second raid on one of the villages about 10 days later, the SAS destroyed more property. When they eventually caught one of the targeted insurgents in Kabul he was beaten before being handed to the Afghan secret police and tortured.
Fragments of the story have reached the public before but the vast majority has remained secret until now. It is much worse than anyone knew. As former chief human rights commissioner Margaret Bedggood says, there needs to be a full, principled and independent inquiry into the actions described in this book, which, if confirmed, would seriously breach international law.
Hit and Run is based on numerous and extensive interviews with people involved in these events, including New Zealand and Afghan military personnel as well as residents of the villages. All wanted this story told to recognise the dead and the injured. “This story also needs to be told to ensure our military is held to account for its actions,” says Hager.
“Whether or not the public agreed with New Zealand sending troops to the US-led war in Afghanistan, there is no doubt that what the SAS did was wrong and betrayed the defence force’s core values of courage, commitment and integrity.”
What, where, when, and who?
The events in the book occurred in 2010, mainly in an isolated and mountainous area of Baghlan province known as Tirgiran valley, about 50 kilometres across country from the then-Kiwi base in neighbouring Bamiyan province. New Zealand SAS troopers, supported by Afghan commandos and US helicopters, raided two villages in the valley early in the morning on 22 August 2010. The SAS believed, based on flimsy intelligence, that they would find a group of Taliban fighters who’d attacked a New Zealand patrol 19 days earlier. But the group wasn’t there, and the 21 people killed and wounded in the operation were all civilians – mostly women and children. The campaign continued over the following two years.
How do you know 21 people were wounded or died?
The book contains details of each person: their name and family connections, and injuries, as well as details of precisely where they were when they were wounded or killed. These names have been officially confirmed by the district governor and by numerous other sources; they were all civilians. Each name on the list has a human 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. (See chapter 4)
The New Zealand Defence Force has claimed on multiple occasions that only insurgents were killed in this raid. Is this possible?
No. The defence force knew very soon after the raid that none of the fighters they were targeting had been found during the raid. The claims about killing insurgents, made then and later, were simply false. Indeed, within a day of the raid, an Afghan informer gave our defence force video footage that had been taken on a mobile phone showing the whole insurgent group arriving alive and well at the funerals for the dead villagers. (See chapter 5). It was common in Afghanistan for US-led forces to claim that civilians killed during military operations were “dead insurgents”.
Who is responsible for the events described in the book?
Most of all, people in the SAS. They gathered the intelligence, planned the raid and commanded and led the operation. The authors believe that the deaths and injuries of 21 civilians, the destruction of homes, and the beating and torture of a detainee were due in large part to their actions and inactions, and that they led the efforts to keep it quiet afterwards. Next there are officers in the defence force who were responsible for overseeing the SAS and who should have investigated more responsibly when news of civilian casualties emerged. This includes the then-chief of defence force Lieutenant-General Jerry Mateparae, who was in Afghanistan at the time, and who watched on the screens at the SAS operations room in Kabul as the operation unfolded. Then there are the political leaders. Most government decisions are made by individual ministers or by Cabinet as a whole. However in this case, as Chapter 2 describes, the prime minister John Key was briefed by phone from the SAS compound in Kabul and personally gave his approval for the raid.
How did you get the information for the book?
This book would not have been possible without the assistance of present and former New Zealand, Afghan and US military personnel, who spoke to the authors on the condition that their names and identities would not be revealed. These interviews allowed the facts gradually to be assembled and cross-checked. At the same time, people from the Afghan villages that were raided assisted enormously, describing in detail what they experienced and where and when each part of the event occurred.
Why should New Zealanders care?
New Zealanders were told that their military was in Afghanistan to bring peace and reconstruction and that they treated the locals with empathy and respect. But when a New Zealander died in the attack on a New Zealand patrol, our military response was reckless: innocent people were killed and wounded, houses were blown up or burnt down, and our soldiers did nothing to check on or assist the wounded. All this happened in New Zealand’s name, in an operation commanded by New Zealanders, by people whose salaries are paid for by the New Zealand public. Our soldiers’ actions, and those of their US allies, alienated locals and led many to join or support the insurgents and was a key factor in the Taliban gaining complete control of the area.
Surely bad things happen in all wars?
Even in wars and conflicts, people must behave legally. It is vital for the world that they do, or there would be chaos. This is why we have international agreements like the Geneva Conventions and the Convention Against Torture which New Zealand has signed and is committed to observing. The New Zealand Defence Force prides itself on obeying international law and acting with integrity. Its core values and Code of Conduct lay out the principles and rules. What is seen in this book goes against much of what the New Zealand military stands for.
Is this book an attack on the troops?
Not at all. Many people in our defence force will be appalled by what is revealed in the book. It was kept secret from most of them as well. Indeed, there would be no book now if there had not been professional New Zealand personnel who were upset with what happened, believed the story needed to be told and helped the authors. Most criticism in the book is reserved for the senior staff and politicians who made the decisions, failed to stop abuses and then, later, when news of the tragedy began to leak out, did nothing about it and joined in the cover up.
Have parts of this story come out before?
Yes. A few of details have emerged in the past, thanks to the efforts of journalists. But the vast majority of the story has remained secret, and what the authors have discovered is much worse than anyone knew. As the book reveals in chapter two, the defence minister at the time, Wayne Mapp, has privately called the raid on Tirgiran “our biggest and most disastrous operation. A fiasco.” (Chapter 2.) But the military decided to keep it all from the public.
Is the SAS responsible for casualties and destruction of property caused by US helicopter gunships or the torture of a detainee by the Afghan secret police?
For a number of reasons, the answer is yes. Under military law, the commander of an operation is responsible for the actions of the subordinate personnel. This was an SAS-led and commanded operation, with a dedicated radio network linking the various New Zealand, Afghan and US components. The SAS collected the intelligence, decided the targets, and led the raid on the ground. That ground commander reported to SAS operations staff at their compound in Kabul. The SAS had requested the use of US helicopters for the operation and were responsible for briefing the pilots. During the operation, US attack helicopters made numerous attacks in two different villages while the SAS commander was present at the scene, yet the SAS on the ground did nothing to help the people caught in the heavy fire. In addition, some of the deaths appear to have been from bullets, not helicopter weapons. An inquiry is needed to determine if any of those deaths were caused by SAS snipers who were reportedly involved in the raid. (See chapters 3 and 4.) Later, when one of the fighters was captured in Kabul, he was beaten by an SAS trooper and handed to the Afghan secret police, where he was tortured. It is not good enough to say that our Afghan allies were responsible for the torture; the SAS knew the people they were handing him to were notorious for mistreating and torturing detainees, yet they transferred him anyway (Chapter 6). When they learnt he had been tortured, they did nothing.
Does the book undermine the safety of the troops by talking about secret SAS operations?
No. And it is very important that “security” isn’t used as an excuse for the military and government to evade responsibility for their decisions and actions. The events in the book occurred when New Zealand was running a military base in Bamiyan province and an SAS contingent in Kabul, but both groups returned to New Zealand several years ago. This is the time to face up to wrongdoing. In fact, international law requires countries to investigate their own breaches, including potential war crimes. The government and military have failed to do this. It’s fallen to others to get the story out.
Are you saying there were war crimes?
War crimes are a highly technical area of law and the authors will leave it to experts to determine whether they have been committed. What we are saying is that there are grounds to suspect that war crimes were committed and it is vitally important that these are taken seriously and investigated in an independent way. We asked human rights lawyer and former Chief Human Rights Commissioner Margaret Bedggood to read the book before it was published and her response is printed on the back cover. She says the alleged actions and decisions described in the book, “if confirmed, would seriously breach international human rights and humanitarian law and could amount to war crimes.”
What do you expect the defence force and the government to do in response to the book?
We hope they will order a full and independent inquiry into the raid at Tirgiran and other operations and incidents outlined in the book. We also hope they’ll consider immediately offering an apology and reparations to the affected people in the Afghan villages. What do we expect? Based on their actions to date, there is a chance they may deny and dodge, running the dishonourable line that if anything bad happened – which they won’t admit – it had nothing to do with New Zealand. The whole country will be able to watch how they respond. It will be an important test of the military’s avowed core values: courage, commitment, comradeship and integrity.
Is this all too old to worry about?
Not at all. Things as serious as potential crimes of war fester away, sometimes for decades, until they reach the public and are dealt with. It took six years in this case until enough of the people involved felt ready and willing to help reveal the guilty secrets.
What needs to happen?
First, there needs to be the independent inquiry into all these events, with the power to gather all the relevant information and compel witnesses to appear. Besides the SAS’s own secret reports on their various operations, there may be radio communications and weapon systems video recorded during the raids. There will also be reports and official paperwork relating to the handover of the detainee to the Afghan secret police, and the reports the defence force received describing his torture and interrogation. Finally, there will be defence force and SAS documents showing how much the SAS tried to keep the story secret – even from the rest of the defence force. Chapter 7 documents years of cover-up and it is now time for the SAS and defence force to front up about this.
The government also needs to give the apology and reparations to the villagers. But perhaps most important, there need to to be changes to the SAS and defence force to make what occurred in Afghanistan less likely to happen again. The public should have been told about the SAS action within days of it happening – not years later. The public should not have had to rely on insiders being willing to be whistle blowers. The defence force needs a culture change to be more open to the kind of accountability and democratic control we expect from other government organisations.