Gordon Campbell on war crimes and the Afghan insurgency

Truly, with friends like former defence Minster Wayne Mapp, the SAS does not need enemies. At the very least, the Hit and Run book has raised the possibility that the New Zealand SAS committed war crimes in the attack they led in Afghnistan upon the villages of Naik and Khak Khuday Dad. This possibility hinges on article 33 of the Fourth Geneva Convention, which says:

No protected person may be punished for an offence he or she has not personally committed. Collective penalties and likewise all measures of intimidation or of terrorism are prohibited… Reprisals against protected persons and their property are prohibited.

Without doubt, the ordinary villagers who became targets in the raid led by our SAS were ‘protected persons’ under the Geneva Convention. Mapp’s attempted defence of the SAS on RNZ this morning unintentionally indicated that collective punishment was baked into the planning exercise for the raid, and also into how the raid proceeded on the ground. From the outset, the village of Naik was regarded as a ‘hostile village’ and once the firing began, all of its inhabitants became treated as enemy combatants. Read this morning’s RNZ account closely:

But [Mapp] clarified there was no reason for either him or the Defence Force to suspect there were civilian deaths at the time, and that the people killed in the raid were “moving towards the New Zealanders on the ground… And I knew of course that the people we were actually targeting had not been arrested, or killed, but we were in a village that at least from that direction, we’d been under constant attack, the PRT [Provincial Reconstruction Team] had been under constant attack.”

The village was “hostile”, Dr Mapp said.”Bomb-makers and the like lived there. Bear in mind [it’s] insurgents here, it’s not like it’s a full-time job wearing a uniform, you can be a farmer by day and an insurgent by night, that’s the reality.”

Right. So to summarise … previously, the PRT had been under constant attack from this village or “from that direction” which could mean anywhere in that stretch of the mountains. And the village was regarded as hostile – “hostile in essence” in Mapp’s words – allegedly because “bomb-makers and the like lived there”. Apparently though, none of these bad guys who were the entire rationale for the raid were captured or killed during the operation.

Crucially, once the villages were attacked and people began running for cover, this action defined them as enemy combatants, especially if they were unlucky enough to be running towards the SAS: “ They were moving towards the New Zealanders on the ground”. Incredibly, Mapp invoked the SAS rights of self defence in that situation – even though the SAS (and the US Apache gunships deployed at Khak Khuday Dad) were patently the aggressors.

So to repeat: you define an entire village as “hostile” on the grounds that (a) attacks have occurred from the “direction” of their village, and (b) because “bomb-makers and the like” lived there, even though they were obviously only part-time residents, at most. Then, when you attack the village… any attempt at escape by anyone is treated as an act of aggression that justifies shooting them in the name of self defence! In the book, civilians trying to run away to cover are called “squirters” (page 62-63) and the Apache gunships used body-heat tracking technology to follow the people fleeing, and finish them off.

Even before you get to the punitive, deliberate destruction of the village housing (page 60-61) the operation looks very much like an indiscriminate collective punishment, whether that be by conscious intent, or by wilful negligence.

The independent inquiry that authors Nicky Hager and Jon Stephenson are advocating would be able to establish whether the raid’s conception and execution infringed the Article 33 prohibitions. At the very least, an inquiry would establish whether and how the SAS planned for civilians and insurgents to be separately identified, and rendered capable of differential treatment.

Under international law, the fact that insurgents may look like the civilians in daylight – much less during this night time raid – is no excuse for treating everyone as a target, until proven otherwise. That kind of attitude would take us back to the barbarism of the Catholic Church’s 13th century war on the Cathar heretics. “Kill them all,” Pope Innocent III decreed, “and let God sort them out.”

There’s an irresistible temptation to resort to circular reasoning in this kind of situation: if they’re dead they must be insurgents, otherwise why would we have killed them ? The Mapp interview, which can be heard in full here contains some classic circular reasoning, starting around the 5:40 mark.

Mapp: You come back to this point: insurgents, civilians, often in fact the same people . At the time, they were acting in a military fashion. Otherwise, why would they have been engaged? That’s why they were engaged. The NZ Defence Force thought they were under attack. That’s pretty clear actually. Even the authors of the book admit that.

Well, actually the authors don’t concede any such thing. At page 58, they quote villagers who cite that rationale, but only in order to show how unreasonable that belief was, in the circumstances. Those villagers must have been “acting in a military fashion” Mapp reasons, because otherwise, why would we have been shooting them? Let God sort them out.

As things stand, the English government is relying on assurances and investigations carried out by heavily involved parties – the Afghan government and the ISAF coalition – soon after the event. Subsequently, assurances were given by the NZDF that nine insurgents had been killed during the SAS operation, and no civilians. Both these assurances have since been proven to have been false. (No insurgents and six civilians died.) That alone is reason enough for an independent inquiry.

But there is more. Thanks to the work of Hager and Stephenson, we have a prima facie case that the SAS may well have infringed the article 33 prohibitions of the Geneva Convention against collective punishment. Ultimately, the argument for holding an independent inquiry is that such an investigation exercise would not only identify the failings of this particular “ fiasco” – as Mapp calls it – but would also help ensure that nothing similar happens again.