New book claims John Key gave green light to deadly SAS raid in Afghanistan
The New Zealand Defence Force is standing by the actions of its soldiers, after a book by Nicky Hager and Jon Stephenson said elite New Zealand troops in Afghanistan may have been guilty of war crimes in a raid on two isolated villages
Their new book Hit and Run outlines raids by SAS troops in Baghlan - when New Zealand led the provincial reconstruction team in Bamyan - in August 2010 that left six civilians dead and 15 injured, were in response to the first combat death in 2010.
The authors said the raid - in response to the death of Lieutenant Tim O'Donnell from a roadside bomb - New Zealand's first combat death in Afghanistan - was given the green light by Prime Minister John Key in person but it was based on flimsy intelligence.
They say it was a "dark and secret part of New Zealand's history".
On Tuesday evening, NZDF said it stood by its April 2011 statement, which said claims of civilian casualties were investigated and were unfounded.
It said NZDF did not undertake investigations or inquiries into the actions of forces from other nations. That was the role of the joint Afghan-ISAF investigation.
At the book's launch, Hager and Stephenson said US Apache helicopter gunships were involved in the raid.
"The NZDF is confident that New Zealand personnel conducted themselves in accordance with the applicable rules of engagement," the statement said.
The authors said during the raid in 2010, the military had acted against something NZ should stand for, that may have amounted to war crimes.
They added that the elite soldiers mistakenly believed they would find the insurgents who had attacked O'Donnell's patrol 19 days earlier in Bamiyan.
Elite SAS officers commanded and led the attack, supported by US helicopter gunships 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," Hager and Stephenson said.
The SAS had also failed to help the wounded. None of the insurgents were found.
At the launch, Hager said the Defence Force and Government then tried to keep the whole thing secret.
"The insiders who we talked to were not happy people," said Hager.
"They believe that they and their colleagues were involved in things that seriously went against our military and our country is supposed to stand for, which they believe amounted to serious breaches of law, and war crimes.
"Fragments of the story had reached the public over timebut the vast majority of it remained secret, and had been deliberately suppressed. It was much worse than anyone knew about."
Hager added that NZDF "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 one of the insurgents was caught in Kabul, he was beaten before being handed to the Afghan secret police and tortured, the book claims.
"In fact, the SAS received records in English of what he said while he was being tortured and interrogated," Hager said.
He added that while some of the insurgents had subsequently been killed, the main insurgents were still alive and "stronger than ever".
CALL FOR AN INQUIRY
Hager and Stephenson have called for a full independent inquiry into the actions described in their book, which former Chief Human Rights Commissioner Margaret Bedggood said, if confirmed, "would seriously breach international law and could amount to war crimes".
"This story also needs to be told to ensure our military is held to account for its actions," Hager said.
"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."
Defence Minister Gerry Brownlee is in Iraq at the moment, and acting Minister of Defence Chris Finlayson was not available for an interview.
"The matter was investigated at the time and I am advised by the New Zealand Defence Force they stand by what they said at the time," said a spokesperson.
We have sought comment from Wayne Mapp, who was Defence Minister at the time of the raid.
Mapp at the time said no civilians had been killed in the raids and a press release had said 12 insurgents were killed and that no civilians were injured or killed. That was later revised to nine.
"Every piece of this statement was untrue," the authors say.
A subsequent investigation concluded that "allegations of civilian casualties were unfounded" according to the media release in April 2011, and that was reinforced in later statements from ministers.
But the authors said Mapp was personally uncomfortable as the details started to emerge to relevant ministers.
They say Mapp has privately called the raid on Tirgiran valley "our biggest and most disastrous operation. A fiasco".
But the military decided to keep it all from the public.
Former New Zealand, Afghan and US military personnel spoke on the condition that their names and identities would not be revealed, Hager and Stephenson said.
Following the release of the book Grant Bayldon of Amnesty International New Zealand said there appeared to be evidence New Zealand troops may have been involved in a raid that violated international law and resulted in numerous civilian deaths, including a three-year-old girl.
"It is crucial that New Zealand is committed to upholding human rights both here and overseas. Conflict zones are no exception. The New Zealand Government must now ensure that a thorough and impartial investigation takes place to determine whether war crimes have been committed and New Zealand has responsibility.
"This is crucial, for not only the integrity of New Zealand and its operations overseas, but also for the women, men and children who may have been victims of this raid and have seen no justice."
Soon after the book was launched a spokesman for Prime Minister Bill English also said it was too early to comment.
Former Prime Minister John Key said: "I am proud of the work the SAS did, and the support they provided in Afghanistan."
In an interview earlier on Tuesday ahead of the book's launch, Key said he was comfortable with the work being done in the region.
"I am absolutely confident we took a very clear, legally sound and appropriate advice. I don't have any doubts," he said.
But Labour leader Andrew Little said the book raised "serious allegations" about the conduct of the SAS in Afghanistan.
"The Defence Force's reputation is at stake so the Government must provide a comprehensive response. This cannot be swept under the carpet."
NZDF RESPONSE IN FULL
"The New Zealand Defence Force stands by the statement it made dated 20 April 2011.
"As the 2011 statement says, following the operation, allegations of civilian casualties were made. These were investigated by a joint Afghan Ministry of Defence, Ministry of the Interior and International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) assessment team, in accordance with ISAF procedures.
"The investigation concluded that the allegations of civilian casualties were unfounded.
"The NZDF does not undertake investigations or inquiries into the actions of forces from other nations. That was the role of the joint Afghan-ISAF investigation.
"The NZDF is confident that New Zealand personnel conducted themselves in accordance with the applicable rules of engagement."