'She was in her mother's arms when a piece of shrapnel hit her head', a local told the authors of 3-year-old Fatima. Photograph: Jon Stephenson

The fog of time: why the Defence Force’s Hit and Run admission really matters

A year after the publication of a book alleging civilian deaths in a botched NZ raid in Afghanistan, the NZ Defence Force has quietly conceded its operation was in the same village depicted by the authors, and it makes the case for an inquiry overwhelming, argues Toby Manhire.

“The central premise of Nicky Hager and Jon Stephenson’s book, Hit and Run, is incorrect.”

So reads the opening line to a media statement issued in the name of the chief of Defence Force, Lieutenant General Tim Keating, on March 26, 2017. The book’s central premise, to anyone paying reasonable attention, was that a 2010 NZ SAS raid in Baghlan province Afghanistan had been botched, and that it had led to a number of civilian deaths, including a three-year-old girl.

But the “central premise” as identified by Keating was something else: the location of the villages raided. The authors had got the villages wrong; the SAS had undertaken no operations in those villages, he said, leaving open the possibility that the victims and witnesses cited in the book were from a different place entirely. And so the whole house of cards, went Keating’s argument, came tumbling down.

Opening his only press conference on the issue – every media request for a sit-down interview with the Defence Force chief was rejected – Keating reiterated his contention that the location of Operation Burnham was the overriding question. “It seems to me that one of the fundamentals [should be] to tie the alleged perpetrators of a crime to the scene of a crime,” he said. Then prime minister Bill English circled his wagon. “We believe in the integrity of the Defence Force, more than a book that picks the wrong villages.”

Hager and Stephenson were wrong about the location of the villages. They acknowledged as much. The map in the first print run of the book placed them two kilometres out. But none of that, they insisted at the time, “changed the story in any significant way”.

Now, almost a year on, it has emerged that the NZDF basically agrees: it doesn’t change the story in any significant way. The photographs published in Hit and Run were from the village in which Operation Burnham took place, Tirgiran. We know it accepts this because the Ombudsman obliged the NZDF to release the information to Hager under the OIA after it was withheld.

NZDF did, of course, have other objections to the version of events laid out in the book. There is plenty that Keating rejects. The same report that accepts the crucial point on village location continues to reject the suggestion civilians were killed. Only two shots were fired by the SAS through the course of the operation, it says.

But it was the NZDF that heaped such an emphasis on the place the boxes on the map. It declared this to be more than an error, but “the major” inaccuracy of the book.

As we were reminded recently on a separate matter, there is no better neutraliser of controversy than the passage of time. Even the broader issues around the Hit and Run revelations have blurred. Had the acknowledgement from the NZDF emerged within a few months of the story breaking, it would undoubtedly be a bigger story than it is today. Instead, the military fixation on the precise location of the villages begins to look like a smokescreen – an attempt to obfuscate and muddle what was really at issue.

The allegations laid out in Hit and Run are very serious. They stem from a raid that even the defence minister of the time would later have serious misgivings about, particularly in regard to the death of a child.

Last week, the Afghan civilians whose experiences are documented in Hit and Run wrote via lawyers to the New Zealand attorney general, urging an inquiry into what took place. They ask that an independent panel investigate the allegations that six non-combatant civilians, including a three-year-old, were killed and another 15 were injured, that civilian homes and properties in the villages raided by NZ forces were damaged and destroyed, that forces failed to provide any assistance in repairing damage, that a prisoner subsequently arrested was subjected to torture with NZDF complicity and whether anything happened that amounted to war crimes.

For all that we might claim some inquiry fatigue under the new government, the case for an independent probe was already compelling – now as the “central premise” of the NZDF rebuttal turns to dust, it is overwhelming.

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