On the Lieutenant O’Donnell inquiry

The New Zealand Defence Force never ceases to amaze. Yesterday’s report into the death last year in Afghanistan of Lieutenant Tim O’Donnell has found shortcomings in the training of New Zealand troops (a) with respect to IEDs or Improvised Explosive Devices, (b) with the ability to call in air strikes and (c) with respect to the inadequate configuration of the 757 aircraft used to ferry the wounded soldiers, which could have compromised their care.

On RNZ this morning, NZDF chief Lieutenant-General Rhys Jones conceded that training with respect to IEDs had gone ‘down the list’ amid all the other things our troops were doing in Bamiyan.

Hello? This is the sort of thing you would expect from the generals who brought us World War One. As of 2007, IEDs had reportedly caused 64% of the coalition casualties in the war in Iraq and 66% of the coalition casualties in Afghanistan. Not making IEDs a high training priority seems carelessness, to the point of criminal negligence.

It could well be that in this instance, nothing might have saved the life of Lieutenant O’Donnell. Yet the report makes it clear that the tactics used by the New Zealand forces – namely, of putting a Humvee at the front of a four vehicle patrol – created an unnecessary risk, and one that ignored how IEDs are routinely used by insurgents in Iraq, Afghanistan and formerly, in Sri Lanka. And it takes the death of a New Zealand soldier to alert our defence chiefs that pre-empting the risk from IEDs should be a training priority? Wow.

Only now, apparently, will LAVS (Light Armoured Vehicles) be placed at the front of the kind of convoys hit by the ambush in Bamiyan. That shouldn’t be an innovation. IEDs are commonly used to hit the lead vehicle and thus immobilise the convoy – which can then be raked with rocket propelled grenades and small arms fire. That is exactly what happened in this instance, and Lieutenant O’Donnell was riding in the lead Humvee.

Moreover, and according to the NZDF, peacekeeping activities among the citizens of Bamiyan was our prime role in Afghanistan. Again, newsflash : knowing how to combat the spreading use of IEDs is a growing part of keeping Afghan civilians safe as well:

IEDs and suicide attacks accounted for 49 per cent of all civilian deaths and injuries in the first six months of 2011. Civilian deaths from IEDs increased 17 per cent over the same period in 2010, making IEDs, with 444 victims, the single largest killer of Afghan civilians in the first half of 2011 and causing 30 per cent of all civilian deaths.

Bamiyan, no doubt, has been a safer place than most Afghan locations. That is no reason to live in denial, and to assume that it is not going to be subject to the typical tactics of a spreading Taliban insurgency, though. When it comes to IEDs, the ability to call in air strikes are a related skill. Many IEDs are manually triggered as the target passes by – so the fleeing culprits can be identified and eliminated by a quick and efficient air response. Ironically, the apparent incompetence of New Zealand troops at calling in air strikes could be a blessing in disguise for the people that we are supposedly there to protect:

Air strikes remained the leading cause of Afghan civilian deaths by Pro-Government Forces, with an increasing proportion resulting from attacks by helicopters. In the first six months of 2011, 79 Afghan civilians were killed by air strikes, a 14 per cent increase compared to the same period in 2010. Forty-four of the total 79 civilian deaths were from helicopter attacks.

The key question now is – are our LAVs adequately armour-plated to withstand IED attack? If they aren’t, the same ambush scenario could easily play out. Being better than a Humvee is not really good enough. It would be good to have some reliable publicly available information on the resistance capacity of the LAVs current armour plating – sometime before the next inquiry into a combat-related deathfrom the use of IEDs.

In passing, it is striking that Defence Minister Wayne Mapp refused to appear on Morning Report this morning to answer questions about the investigation into Lieutenant O’Donnell’s death. The decision to deploy our troops in Afghanistan was a political decision – and John Key was more than willing last week to bask in the photo opportunities at the White House that those decisions have afforded him. Surely, there is a related obligation when things go sour. Politicians like Mapp should be feeling morally obliged to front up and answer questions when an inquiry shows that our troops in Afghanistan were not adequately trained and equipped for the job that the politicians have been asking them to perform.


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