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Hit & Run author Jon Stephenson responds to ‘wrong village’ claim from NZ Defence Force

The Chief of NZ Defence has dismissed Nicky Hager and Jon Stephenson’s book, pointing to ‘major inaccuracies’, saying Operation Burnham took place not in the villages they identify but instead in Tirgiran Village, 2km south. And it turns out Stephenson himself said, in a 2014 report, that the raid occurred in Tirgiran Village. We asked him to explain.

In Hit & Run, published a week ago today, Nicky Hager and Jon Stephenson lay out what they believe, based on a range of sources in Afghanistan and New Zealand, took place in Operation Burnham, a “revenge attack” on two villages in Baghlan Province on August 22-23, 2010.

According to the book, six civilians were killed and 15 wounded in attacks on Naik and Khak Khuday Dad, villages in the Tirgiran Valley. The operations were led and commanded – and all appear to agree on this point – by New Zealand’s SAS special forces, supported by Afghan troops and American helicopter gunships. Hager and Stephenson’s account contradicted the official position of the NZ Defence Force, which long maintained, in line with an investigation by the Nato-led International Security Assistance Force (ISAF), that complaints of civilian deaths were “unfounded”.

In a bolt from the blue, however, on Sunday afternoon the NZDF issued a statement saying: “the central premise of Nicky Hager and Jon Stephenson’s book, Hit and Run, is incorrect”. New Zealand forces had never operated in these villages.

In a press conference yesterday, Lieutenant General Tim Keating elaborated (read our summary of the major points of difference between the book and the NZDF here), saying not only was the revenge attack claim wrong, SAS officers had never been to the villages named. Video footage, he said, proved this to be “irrefutable”: “[It is] geo-referenced so it gives the location of where those engagements occurred.”

Lieutenant-General Tim Keating at today’s press conference. Screen grab: RNZ

Keating said, “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 that the Defence Force’s reputation was at stake. “It’s not only the New Zealand Defence Force reputation, it’s the New Zealand reputation. The clear contrast to me between the book and what actually happened during Operation Burnham was in all respects the conduct of the NZ ground forces was exemplary.”

It has further emerged that Jon Stephenson, in a 2014 item for Native Affairs, said he had “been told that the mission took place in Tirgiran – a village in Baghlan”, albeit a “sprawling village”. Two of the men he spoke to for the 2014 piece, Mohammad Iqbal and Said Ahmad, are named in Hit and Run as hailing from Khak Khuday Dad.

So is it Tigiran village, as Stephenson in 2014 and Keating today both stated? Or Khak Khuday Dad and Naik as  described in Hit and Run? Does this critically undermine Stephenson and Hager’s account?

Asked about the discrepancy, Stephenson last night said, via email, “When I first met the villagers in early 2014 they explained that they came from ‘Tirgiran’. When I subsequently spoke to them in more detail, they explained that the villages which were attacked were Naik and Khak Khuday.”

Stephenson added that, having undertaken “a close analysis of Tim Keating’s media conference” he was of “no doubt that New Zealand SAS troopers were in Tirgiran, at both Naik and Khak Khuday Dad”.

Jon Stephenson on Native Affairs, 2014

Below, Jon Stephenson’s response in full …

‘There is no doubt that New Zealand SAS troopers were in Tirgiran, at both Naik and Khak Khuday Dad’

“When I first met the villagers in early 2014 they explained that they came from ‘Tirgiran’. When I subsequently spoke to them in more detail, they explained that the villages which were attacked were Naik and Khak Khuday.

“It is possible there was a slight misunderstanding in translation. The point is, Tirgiran is more a general area – a name for the valleys that run off the Tirgiran river. It could be described as a sprawling village with numerous small settlements – two of which are Naik and Khak Khuday Dad. But my interpreter referred at the initial meeting to Tirgiran as their village, in the same sense that someone might refer to a town as a village which has smaller hamlets within it.

“One point is clear to me, following a close analysis of Tim Keating’s media conference: there is no doubt that New Zealand SAS troopers were in Tirgiran, at both Naik and Khak Khuday Dad.

“The name of the operation they were involved in that night – 22 August, 2010 – was Operation Burnham. We revealed this in the book, but it was previously secret. The NZDF has confirmed that operation was named thus.

“We have been told, and the NZDF has confirmed, that there was only one Operation Burnham that night.

“The main targets of the operation were several insurgent leaders identified as being responsible for the attack in Bamiyan that had killed Lt. Tim O’Donnell – Maulawi Naimatullah and Abdullah Kalta. This appears to have been confirmed by the NZDF.

The NZDF compiled a “target package” and had Maulawi Naimatullah and Abdullah Kalta placed on the Joint Prioritized Effects List (JPEL), allowing for their capture or killing on sight. I was given the details, and those of the other Tirgiran insurgents who the New Zealanders placed on the list. It is published in the book. The NZDF have not denied this (indeed, they cannot deny it).

The targets of Operation Burnham were Maulawi Naimatullah and Abdullah Kalta, both from Naik (spelt Dehane Nayak on the JPEL list). Another insurgent from Naik, Abdul Hakim, was also on the list. He was reportedly in Pakistan, acting as an ideological leader for the Taliban.

“Both Abdullah Kalta’s house and that of Maulawi Naimatullah were attacked during the raid. This is stated in our book, and it is clear, if you read the accounts in our book, that our description of the raid on Maulawi Naimatullah’s house (where we say the SAS found RPG warheads and small arms ammunition, and blew up his house) matches the NZDF account.

“If you look at our description of the raid on Abdullah Kalta’s house, you’ll find similarities there between our account and that of the NZDF. For instance, we say that an SAS trooper was injured there when a wall of his guesthouse, weakened by fire from an Apache helicopter, collapsed on that trooper, Mo. We describe minute details from people at the scene, who carried him on a stretched to be airlifted to hospital by a Blackhawk helicopter. That account matches the NZDF’s account, and a separate account of David Fisher in the Herald.

“It is incontestable that Maulawi Naimatullah and Abdullah Kalta lived at Naik. And it seems fairly obvious that their neighbours and fellow villagers, who’ve assisted with research, know the name of their own village

“Moreover, SAS members on the raid have described the name of the target village as ‘Naik’.

“All the SAS and CRU [the Crisis Response Unit, Afghan counterterrorism police officers] members on the ‘first’ Chinook have given accounts of their landing and operations at the neighbouring village, Khak Khuday Dad, that are compatible with information by the villagers. For example, the commandos have described landing at Khak Khuday Dad in a wheat field; it left a strong impression on them, because the wheat was very high – up to their chests. The villagers describe a wheat field being flattened by the Chinooks, and said that its wheels left a major indentation in the ground. They measured this indentation and it matched a Chinook’s wheelbase specifications precisely.

“The villagers of Khak Khuday Dad describe a 22-year-old graduate teacher being shot, apparently by sniper fire. He had three small entry wounds to his chest – all with larger exit wounds. This is consistent with the wounds from an assault rifle or sniper rifle, but not with the sort of wounds that would be caused by fire from a 30mm Apache cannon.

“The NZDF say they shot someone during Operation Burnham, and their description of the location they shot that person is not inconsistent to our description of the location he was shot in. However, they say he was an insurgent, not a civilian. (This is a common special forces ruse to disguise civilian deaths; basically, any ‘military-aged male’ between certain ages can be is considered an insurgent.) But what they have not asserted is that he was carrying or presented a weapon at them – and ISAF almost always points that out if they can.

“The NZDF have also, to the best of my knowledge, not claimed that any of the other residents presented weapons at them or fired upon them.

“The villagers claim Apache helicopters fired relentlessly on Khak Khuday Dad, damaging or destroying many homes. Shell casings from a 30mm cannon were found everywhere.

“After the SAS and Afghan commando assault teams had finished at Khak Khuday Dad, they walked through the lush fields, on either side of the stream, down to Naik, where they joined SAS and Afghan commandos from the ‘second’ Chinook. They were not walking in a dry river bed; Nail and Khak Khuday Dad were probably the ‘lush’ area described at the NZDF media conference.

“The kicker is that, according to the villagers, Khak Khuday Dad village is in a side valley off (the main) Tirgiran valley. Surely the villagers, who drew a map of this, would know that. And the maps we have appear to clearly confirm that. Yet the NZDF claim the operation they took part in, two kilometres from Naik and Khak Khuday Dad, involved two villages that were both on the river – not with one village up a side valley as the villagers of Khak Khuday Dad have described (and photographed) their home.

“Given that we know from multiple sources that SAS and Afghan commandos raided the homes of Maulawi Naimatullah and Abdullah Kalta, given their village is at Naik, and given that the accounts of what happened at Khak Khuday Dad and Naik are almost all consistent with the NZDF accounts, Nicky and I are confident that the villages the NZSAS raided were those two villages.

“In short, we are very confident our account of Operation Burnham is correct.”

Maps from Hit and Run

Maps released by NZDF