The commander of the New Zealand SAS in Afghanistan has been awarded the United States' highest decoration for foreign officers.
Lieutenant Colonel Chris Parsons was presented the Defense Meritorious Service medal on Tuesday in Kabul by General David Petraeus, commander of coalition forces in Afghanistan, in recognition of his "outstanding command, leadership, and unwavering commitment to the mission".
Parsons has served as head of the 70-strong SAS unit known as Task Force 81 since October, directing counter-insurgency operations in greater Kabul in co-operation with the Afghan police's crisis response unit, which operates under the SAS's mentorship.
His citation reads that during one of the most hostile periods of the war since 2001, Parsons had "inspired results that far exceed the size of forces under his command". His work had helped the coalition "gain the initiative and reverse insurgent momentum in the near-term", by "removing numerous key insurgent leaders and facilitators from the battlefield".
Petraeus, in his first interview with New Zealand media, told the Sunday Star-Times that Parsons typified "the exceptional quality of your military forces", and said he had written a letter to Prime Minister John Key mentioning "how highly we've regarded Chris and his team as the partner force".
While the award recognised Parsons' personal contribution as a commander, it also reflected the value of the SAS's work. "It's not an organisation that's high-profile, but it's an organisation that has contributed greatly."
Petraeus said that since the SAS had returned to Afghanistan in late 2009, taking over the role of partnering the Afghan crisis response unit vacated by the Norwegians, three successive six-month rotations had made more than 60 high-risk arrests in "deliberate detention operations", seized more than 20 caches of explosives and weapons, and disrupted four potentially "spectacular" attacks, including planned suicide bombings.
The unit acted on intelligence generally provided by Afghan sources, typically conducted its raids at night, and executed more than 90% of its operations without firing a shot. The unit's most recent operation took place successfully on Thursday night.
Parsons' unit was at the centre of controversy last month after a Christmas Eve raid on the Tiger International Armour factory in downtown Kabul, to thwart what was believed to be an imminent attack on the US embassy.
In the wake of the raid, which resulted in the deaths of two Afghans, the Afghan government criticised the unit for exceeding its mandate – operations in Kabul are supposed to be led by Afghan troops – and its operations were halted while the incident was reviewed. But a report released last week by the Nato-led International Security Assistance Force and the New Zealand Defence Force exonerated the soldiers, saying video of the raid captured heat plumes from weapons fired by the building's occupants, proving the SAS forces had fired in self-defence.
The SAS is committed to remaining in its role until March, but Petraeus refused to say whether he wanted the unit to remain, saying it would be inappropriate to comment on matters which were for the New Zealand government to decide.
He said Parsons' award was not a politically motivated attempt to encourage New Zealand to recommit the SAS. Parsons, who as unit commander was not involved in frontline SAS operations, completed his four-month posting on Friday and is understood to be returning to New Zealand.
Twenty-five Defense Meritorious Service medals have been awarded to New Zealand soldiers since 2003, with Parsons' decoration the first for a special forces soldier. The medal cannot be worn on New Zealand military uniforms without the governor-general's permission.
- © Fairfax NZ News