Gordon Campbell on the Hit and Run book

The ‘living in denial’ reactions to the Hit and Run book by Nicky Hager and Jon Stephenson – once you get past the ‘left wing conspiracy’ response raised on RNZ by a plainly out-of-her depth deputy PM Paula Bennett – all tend to minimize the military raid in question, and the level of carnage involved. Those reactions include the likes of
(a) within war zones mistakes will always happen, this happened years ago, and something similar happens in Afghanistan, Yemen and Syria every day.
(b) Civilians tend to be among the victims partly because in an insurgency it’s hard to tell the rebels from the civilians they live and operate among. And finally,
(c) Who should be surprised to find that when bureaucracies make mistakes, they deny and downplay their own errors to protect the wider mission.

All of those responses have been evident in the reaction thus far to Hit and Run, and they don’t stand up to analysis.

It’s easy to see why people think this way. In the years between 2001 and 2014, 26,000 civilians have reportedly been killed in war-related violence in Afghanistan, and a further 29,000 wounded. So, why care about these particular victims, among so many? One could easily say the same thing about Anne Frank. And as Anne Frank teaches us, each life and death among so many is utterly precious. Similarly, the reason why this book reminds us so forcefully about the needless killing of the 3 year old child Fatima and 22 year old teacher Islamuddin is because this is really the only antidote to the creep of callousness, whereby we measure innocent deaths by the numbers involved.

True enough, the nature of the Taliban insurgency in Afghanistan – and the habitual use of drones, aerial bombing and military convoys – make civilian deaths and injury inevitable. That’s why we need to question the validity of our presence there in the first place – since our presence renders us complicit – and then demand that the highest possible standards if and when our troops get sent into combat.

In the raid on the villages of Naik and Khak Khuday Dad central to the book, those standards were plainly not observed – before, during or after. The trigger for the raid seems to have been the death of the NZ soldier Lieutenant Tim O’Donnell, who was killed by an IED three weeks beforehand, and this fostered a “get the alah (sic) loving pricks!” sentiment ( see p.17) that someone somewhere and soon – had to be punished for it.

Right from the outset, the payback motivation helps to explain why the military intelligence that governed the raid (and in the manner in which it was conducted) was so badly mistaken. It explains the ferocity of the raid, the deployment of deadly US Apache helicopters and the systematic destruction of village housing that went with it. It was an SAS operation, done to avenge one of their own, with our allies in a sympathetic support role. Chances are, most of those killed were killed by the helicopters; but obviously, that doesn’t exonerate us.

In the end, the insurgents weren’t killed in the raid. Apparently, they turned up the next day (p75) at the funerals for the villagers, and their presence was videoed. Six innocent civilians had been killed, 15 more were injured and many homes were destroyed. If anything, the botched raid (p76) seems to have enhanced the status of the local Taliban leaders.

Subsequently, the NZDF was allowed to investigate and evaluate its own operation, in a context where validating the NZ presence in Afghanistan still remained an over-arching concern. This is one good reason why – seven years on- this incident is still worth the focus. We currently have troops in Iraq. How our military conduct their work in foreign locations in our name (and how we go about evaluating their efforts) remains a very live concern.

As the book amply documents, the internal NZDF investigations were a total whitewash. The initial NZDF claims were that nine Taliban insurgents had been killed in the raid, and no civilians. Both claims were demonstrably false. As was the press release issued by NZDF when the story of the SAS role in planning and carrying out the raid first broke on TVNZ in April 2011. There are many questions that need to be answered, in front of a fresh and truly independent inquiry. The book contains answers to the following questions, but – for the official record – there needs to be verification of these kind of issues:

(1) How many Afghan civilians killed, injured and had their homes destroyed in this raid?

(2) Were any Taliban insurgents killed?

(3) What role did the SAS play in the planning and execution of this raid?

(4) What was the source and nature of the military intelligence that pinpointed these villages as a Taliban hideout?

(5) Had the SAS believed these villages contained the insurgents responsible for the death of Lt Tim O’Donnell, and what was the basis for that belief?

(6) Were NZ troops directly responsible for the civilian deaths – and if US and Afghan allied troops were responsible, what level of overall responsibility does New Zealand retain, given the SAS role in the motivation, planning and execution of the raid?

(7) What kind of validating information had been provided beforehand to then-Defence Minister Wayne Mapp and then-PM John Key in order to obtain the green light for this mission?

(8) Were these politicians told that the raid would capture and/or kill the insurgents responsible for the death of Lt Tim O’Donnell?

(9) Subsequently, what were Mapp and Key told about the success/failure of the raid?

(10) What apology and compensation should now be made by New Zealand to the innocent casualties of our action?

Such questions can only be asked (and answered) before an independent inquiry. Thanks to the whitewash it has conducted since 2011, the NZDF has shown that it cannot be trusted with the investigation of its own actions. (Its palpably false finding that no civilians died in this operation casts a fatal shadow over their reliability. So does the knowingly false press release cited on page 100.) Getting access to all the existing videos, paperwork, etc related to the raid would also be valuable. This raises a wider issue, about the need for a permanent investigative body when it comes to the operations of our military.

When great power is vested in any arm of the state, the oversight role has to not only be independent and rigorous, but needs to be seen by the public to be so. Perception matters. When it comes to the operations of the security and intelligence services, the watchdog is the SIS Inspector-General. When it comes to the Police, there is the Independent Police Conduct Authority. In both cases, you can debate whether those watchdogs get given sufficient resources and investigative powers to their job properly. Still, at least the need for their existence has been acknowledged by Parliament.

However, there is no equivalent, independent oversight body for the military, with respect to the compliance of our troops with this country’s international human rights commitments and UN conventions. Almost all the existing NZDF accountability mechanisms are in-house.

The Afghan raid was not the first time that a question mark has been raised about our military operations in Afghanistan. Our handling (and handovers) of Taliban suspects subsequently subjected to torture by our allies had been a serious concern, prior to this incident.

Hopefully, Hit and Run will not merely bring about an independent inquiry into this incident – otherwise, it will remain a blot on our military record, and on any subsequent Anzac Day celebrations of the exploits of our troops abroad. If that military record is so precious, it surely merits the existence of a permanent independent authority to investigate the lapses from that tradition whenever they occur. For obvious reasons, that task can’t be left to the NZDF and to the politicians, given that they’ll always have a keen interest in covering their own tracks.

Footnote : Given the media’s belated attention to correct pronunciation on Treaty-related names and places, could the media – circa 30 years on from the media first encountering Nicky Hager – put some effort into learning how to pronounce his name correctly. Clue: it rhymes with lager.