SAS Afghan location revealed

BY JON STEPHENSON
Last updated 07:18 04/10/2009

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Norway's defence chief has revealed a military secret the New Zealand government wanted to suppress - the location of New Zealand's Special Air Service contingent in Afghanistan and the jobs they are likely to do.

General Sverre Diesen told the Oslo- based newspaper VG last week that the SAS would replace a Norwegian special forces contingent that has been based at Kabul and recently completed an 18-month deployment.

The Norwegians had been involved in the arrest of "several wanted insurgent leaders responsible for planning and running suicide attacks against targets in the Kabul region", Diesen said.

The SAS would "take over" from the Norwegians, who were involved in counter-narcotics work as well as "frustrating the efforts of suicide bombers who were looking to create a bloodbath in Kabul around the presidential election".

Tom Bakkeli, the journalist who wrote the VG story, told the Sunday Star-Times he understood the SAS would continue some of the Norwegians' work, including missions with commandos from the Afghanistan government's Task Force 24. "All the operations are high-risk," said Bakkeli. One Norwegian commando had been killed in Logar province, south of Kabul. He said details of the number and fate of prisoners taken by Norwegian special forces were sketchy. The prisoner issue is a sensitive one for Norway's government and military, as it is for their counterparts in New Zealand.

Prisoners taken in Afghanistan by non-United States forces are generally transferred to Afghani authorities, who have been implicated in cases of mistreatment, torture and extra-judicial executions.

The Defence Force would not discuss the Norwegian disclosure, saying it was policy to not discuss SAS operations.

The VG story is not the first time details of an SAS deployment have been reported overseas while the New Zealand government remained silent. In 2002 Prime Minister Helen Clark was forced to confirm the SAS was in Afghanistan after the White House website revealed their presence.

The Star-Times learnt the location and other details of the current SAS contingent when an SAS commander spoke last month of concerns held by some of his men about the dangerous missions they will be sent on. The newspaper initially decided to withhold the information, which is now widely available.

Green MP Keith Locke told the Star- Times there was no reason why the information should not have been disclosed in the first place. It was ridiculous to suggest that knowing where the SAS is based and the broad details of their mission threaten their security, he said.

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Bakkeli said the location of Norwegian special forces had been reported during their deployment although details of their missions had been withheld. "Their operations were very secret," he said.

Other countries, such as the Netherlands and Denmark, are more open about the work of their special forces in Afghanistan. The Australian government discloses where its SAS men are based and often provides "after-action" reports about their missions. However, a senior SAS source here told the Star- Times last year that secrecy about the unit's work in Afghanistan was necessary because "operational security equals operational effectiveness".

He said revealing information about the deployment also made things harder for soldiers' families. "Culturally, it's not what we're about. We leave discreetly and come back discreetly because that's how we operate."

The Star-Times revealed last week that SAS members had expressed grave concern at the dangers of their mission, something the government had acknowledged in announcing the Afghanistan deployment.

- Sunday Star Times

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