English's Monday performance shows just how much National lost when Key quit

Prime Minister Bill English has relied heavily on Defence Force assurances over SAS Afghan operation.

Prime Minister Bill English has relied heavily on Defence Force assurances over SAS Afghan operation.

OPINION: If nothing else Bill English's long - and frustrating - press conference on Monday showed just what National lost when John Key headed for the hills.

For about 45 minutes, give or take a couple of diary items, the prime minister tried to explain why he had decided not to launch an investigation into the 2010 SAS raid in Afghanistan that was at the centre of the book Hit and Run.

He and ministers had received various briefings, much of which had been covered more or less the previous Monday at a press conference by Chief of Defence Force Tim Keating.

Will Chief of Defence Force Lieutenant General Tim Keating add Labour's Andrew Little to the list of those shown ...
Maarten Holl

Will Chief of Defence Force Lieutenant General Tim Keating add Labour's Andrew Little to the list of those shown classified footage of the Tirgiran raid?

But the crucial new evidence was a video he had been shown by Keating that morning that satisfied him that the troops had not broken the rules of war and had complied fully with their rules of engagement.

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He did let some minor details go, under questioning, of what was on the "classified" footage. For instance, it was taken from (presumably United States) helicopters and that troops took extensive steps to ensure there would be no possibility of civilian casualties.

But he would not say how long the video was, what he saw and - most crucially - what evidence he viewed that confirmed the force had engaged insurgents and not unarmed civilians. 

Stripping away all the other arguments, and there are many, that is at the heart of the matters raised by authors Nicky Hager and Jon Stephenson in their book. Where they have six innocent civilians dead, the Defence Force has nine dead insurgents. Can those two divergent claims be reconciled, or one refuted?

How would Key have dealt with such an issue, even in the face of calls from the military not to reveal anything "operational"?

Well it's only speculation, but from more than eight years of watching him in action I would warrant he would have let slip something concrete, sail close to the line, to leave no doubt the SAS were dealing with armed and dangerous insurgents - if indeed that was the case.

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When Key was asked not to comment on those grey jets parked at Wellington airport - more often than not carrying a foreign military or security official who was here on a confidential trip - he at first complied.

But he eventually baulked at looking evasive, and insiders say he decided to be upfront about them, making it clear to the spooks and generals that if they wanted the visits to fly under the radar they should park the jets away from a thousand Wellington eyes - perhaps at Ohakea.

He would go so far, but their interests were not necessarily the same as his.

In the Hit and Run case, in contrast, English has been over-cautious in keeping the military sweet, leaving too many questions unanswered.

Add to that his extraordinary claim that Keating was "independent" and was not part of the operation.

He was in essence saying "trust me, because I trust Keating".

It would never do in any other Government department and should not do for the military either, especially if English is genuinely interested in seeing off the issue and silencing the critics of the raid.

But maybe he isn't. After all, the evidence from the 2014 campaign is that a furore over a Hager book and a complex set of claims and counter-claims does not necessarily harm the Government; in 2014 quite the reverse.

So where to now on this?

If Labour leader Andrew Little wanted to put English's assurances to the test, he should ask to see the classified video.

As the leader of her majesty's loyal opposition there could surely be no objection to a similar briefing to that given to English and Defence Minister Gerry Brownlee, especially if other non-elected Government officials have been privy to the footage. If English wanted to buttress his position, he should invite Little to view it.

As a member of the Intelligence and Security Committee, Little - and presumably Winston Peters - ought to have the appropriate clearances.

It might help achieve the kind of "reconciliation" between the conflicting accounts that former defence minister Wayne Mapp said were possible.

After all, since shortly after the raid coalition and Afghan authorities were allowing that some civilians may have died (despite Keating coming late to the realisation that his insistence the claims were "unfounded" did not mean the same thing as "possible but unproven").

The initial coalition report identified the "faulty gunsight" that led to possible civilian casualties - so on that score the Defence Force is saying little that is new or completely at odds with Hit and Run.

Mapp has also rightly made the point that the boundary between a civilian and an insurgent, in a guerilla war like Afghanistan, can be unclear.

But it will require the Defence Force and English to stop game-playing about the affected villages, Khak Khuday Dad and Naik..

Hager and Stephenson made an error locating them on the map - which they have acknowledged - and other location errors in the book flowed from that.

But it is clear they are all talking about the same raid on the same villages. For the Government to say the SAS did not go to the villages identified in the book - but to a village called Tirgiran - is just flam.

(Stephenson himself described the location as "Tirgiran, a village in Baghlan" in his 2014 documentary.) 

The Defence Force line is that they they use coordinates not village names, but it should not be beyond their ability to establish that the villages named in the book are in the area they identified.

You can see why they might be reluctant. Having achieved headlines saying Hager and Stephenson had the wrong location for the villages, they will fight to the last spin doctor standing to avoid a headline that reads: "Defence Force confirms its attack was on the villages of Khak Khuday Dad and Naik identified in Hit and Run".

In the larger scheme of things it may seem a minor point.

But it is that default to "spin" and a reliance on cute semantics that undermines English's case - and his reliance on the Defence Force. 

 - Stuff

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