Little kept from media eyes at base

VERNON SMALL
Last updated 05:00 02/09/2011

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OPINION: Fairfax national affairs editor Vernon Small has returned from Afghanistan, where he visited the New Zealand base at Bamiyan and went on patrol in the province's hostile northeast with the New Zealand Defence Force. He looks at some of Nicky Hager's claims.

A speed read of Nicky Hager's latest book shows his usual impressive access to detailed documents and meticulous sourcing.

The insiders' claims about ministers being kept in the dark may be true; the SAS in particular is obsessive about secrecy to the point that even a description of the ceremony farewelling Corporal Doug Grant was refused.

But the lens Hager uses gives a different view of New Zealand's base at Bamiyan than one gleaned from a week-long visit there last month.

For instance, he claims that, despite media visits and hundreds of soldiers passing through the base, the military managed to keep secret the fact that they shared the Bamiyan camp with a United States intelligence base.

In fact, I, and other reporters before me, were introduced to US intelligence and communications staff at Bamiyan and at other Kiwi forward bases and ate and chatted with them. The stars and stripes flies alongside the New Zealand flag at Bamiyan to advertise the US contingent.

Some were armed in the camp and dressed in civilian clothes or uniform – as were individuals in the New Zealand military, European Union police representatives and Malaysian medics and military.

It was not a surprise that New Zealand is plugged in to the US-Nato intelligence and communication system across the war-torn country. It is something this reporter was specifically briefed on, although with a request not to publish details for operational security reasons.

Suffice to say that, from my observations, the information Kiwi troops glean is far more extensive than anything that flows the other way. Was the CIA there? I don't know, and Hager only surmises.

The links tell New Zealand forces where other coalition forces are operating and let them call in US air support, both key factors in a multi-national force. Problems getting air support were highlighted in the report on the attack that killed Lieutenant Timothy O'Donnell.

Hager also points to a lack of understanding among the public about the Kiwis' role in Bamiyan; that coverage was all airbrushed PR spin showing "friendly New Zealand soldiers handing out gifts to smiling children, building schools and wells".

He may have had a case in the early years.

But for almost three years now, after the 2009 attack on the base at Do Abe and the first Kiwi casualties caused the military to upgrade its armoured vehicles from Hiluxes to LAVs, there has been no shortage of coverage highlighting the risks and the dangers.

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Far from trying to cover that up, the soldiers on the ground I talked to were eager for the New Zealand public to know they were fighting in a dangerous war zone.

- © Fairfax NZ News

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