Following a remarkable press conference by the Chief of the Defence Force, we point to the critical disputes about what took place during the 2010 NZ-led raid in Baghlan Province, Afghanistan.
Starkly differing versions of events over what took place in a 2010 NZ-led raid in Afghanistan have been put forward by the authors of Hit and Run and the Chief of NZ Defence. Two opposing, and palpably angry statements – read them here – from last night have been followed by a media conference from Lieutenant-General Tim Keating.
Here we attempt to highlight the important areas of dispute …
Both the NZ Defence Force, as represented today by Lieutenant-General Tim Keating, and Nicky Hager and Jon Stephenson, authors of the book Hit and Run, AGREE that the August 21-22, 2010, mission was called Operation Burnham.
According to Hit and Run it was so named because Tim O’Donnell, killed days earlier, had been based at the army’s Burnham Camp outside Christchurch. The NZDF and the authors DISAGREE, however, on whether the raid was conducted in “revenge” for O’Donnell’s death in a roadside bomb. The authors quote at least three sources using the word; Keating today said, “Revenge was never a driver. We are a professional force.”
They DISAGREE about the location of the operation. While Hager and Stephenson say two villages in the Tirgiran Valley, called Naik and Khak Khuday Dad, were targeted, Keating insists that no New Zealand soldiers have ever visited these villages and the operation was conducted in Tirgiran Village, which is 2 kilometres away, separated by mountainous terrain. Keating argued, “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” and it is “irrefutable” that they did not operate in the areas detailed in the book.
The question that arises therefore is: are we talking about the same raids? Keating said he was not aware of any attacks on other villages by coalition forces around the same time. Asked if the NZDF had cross-referenced the names of the casualties enumerated in the book (six dead and 15 injured), he said: “No, those names in the book are from a village … we have not visited.”
(Scroll to end for maps from Hit and Run and the NZDF.)
Both sides AGREE that there may have been “civilian casualties”, but DISAGREE on both the scale and identities. While Hager and Stephenson have identified six dead, including a three-year-old girl, and 15 injured, Keating conceded only that civilian casualties “may have occurred – but [were] not corroborated”, based on a report into the raid by the Nato-led International Security Assistance Force (ISAF). This nevertheless represents a shift from the earlier NZDF position that reports of civilian casualties were “unfounded”, which Keating struggled to reconcile during the press conference.
They DISAGREE on how any civilian casualties may have come about. “If there were casualties, the fault of those casualties was a mechanical failure of a piece of equipment,” said Keating. He said this happened when some rounds of fire from US Apache helicopters fell short, and so were called off.
They DISAGREE on whether Taliban insurgents were killed in the raid. While the NZDF maintains that nine “identified insurgents” died as a result of the operation, Hager and Stephenson say that the insurgents, expecting a reprisal attack, had fled for the mountains, though returned later to funerals of civilians killed. Keating said they did not have a record of their names, but the NZDF has video footage which provides “irrefutable evidence” backing their account of events; it is “classified” but he would explore releasing it.
There may be ambiguity around how the NZDF judged an individual to be an enemy combatant, and it is possible that some of those categorised by the NZDF as insurgents are the people categorised as civilians by sources in Hit and Run. Keating did say that before air engagement could be authorised, any “target had to be identified as a direct participant in the hostilities”. He added, “under the rules of engagement they were engaged as meeting the criteria of insurgents … We have camera footage”.
They DISAGREE about the scale of the attack. The Operation described in Chapters 3 and 4 of Hit and Run is more elaborate, torrid and extensive than that which Keating portrayed in this afternoon’s press conference.
They further DISAGREE about the extent to which NZ ground forces were involved in Afghan deaths. Keating said: “During Operation Burnham, the SAS fired two rounds, two bullets,” killing one insurgent. The book suggests that two young men, both unarmed civilians, were shot dead by SAS snipers.
They DISAGREE on the “second raid”. Hit and Run describes a return to Naik about 10 days later, in which houses were destroyed by explosives, with an SAS member quoted saying “it was to punish them”. According to Keating there was a return to Tirgiran but it was many weeks later, unremarkable, and only one small explosive was used to access a building, not to destroy it.
They AGREE that the operation was carried out with the assistance of Afghan officers and US armed air support, all under the command of NZ forces.
They DISAGREE on the quality of the intelligence that informed the raid. According to the book it was faulty; Keating said it was “sound” and overseen by their legal officers.
They DISAGREE on whether the operation could be characterised as a “fiasco”. According to the book, Wayne Mapp, minister of defence at the time of the attack, had called Operation Burnham “disastrous” and a “fiasco”, which he later confirmed in an RNZ interview.
Keating said today: “There is no briefing that we gave the [then] minister of defence that would have inferred the operation was a fiasco.” He later said: “In all respects the conduct of the NZ ground forces was exemplary.”
They DISAGREE on whether an independent inquiry is required. Keating did say he personally “wouldn’t have an issue, but legally it would be a bit of a challenge” to summon witnesses.
Outstanding questions remain over the claims in the book relating to the beating of a prisoner and the transfer of prisoners into hands where they were likely to be tortured.