Bill Ralston: Calling the shots

by Bill Ralston / 03 April, 2017
RelatedArticlesModule - Afghanistan
Hager, Keating, English and Stephenson. Photo/Getty/Supplied

Let’s wait for all the facts before jumping to hasty conclusions about the SAS operation in Afghanistan.

If you interviewed a dozen witnesses to a road accident several years after the event, you would probably have a dozen differing accounts. So it is with the Hit & Run story about an NZ Special Air Service (SAS) raid in Afghanistan.

Investigative journalists Nicky Hager and Jon Stephenson, who wrote the book, say the SAS and its support botched the operation, killing several civilians in what they call potential “war crimes”. Lieutenant General Tim Keating and the military say that is not true, that Operation Burnham occurred 2km away across rugged hills surrounding the Tirgiran Valley from where Hit & Run claims and that there were almost certainly no civilian casualties. Prime Minister Bill English looks a little uncomfortable, but for now is standing by the military and has not ruled out an inquiry.

Hager and Stephenson quote Afghan villagers and anonymous Defence sources who they say were involved or had knowledge of the incident. Keating quotes military records and inquiries done at the time of the raid seven years ago, claiming any casualties were insurgents.

But this week, Hager and Stephenson admitted the village location in their books is wrong – and the attacks took place about 2km from where they stated. In a letter to the Prime Minster, Afghan villagers agreed the raid happened in the location identified earlier this week by the NZDF, but disputed it was a village called Tigiran.

Who to believe? The one thing I feel sure about is that the SAS did not commit “war crimes”. In war, civilian casualties occur. In World War II, more than 30 million civilians were killed. Although some died as the result of war crimes – for example, in Eastern Europe and Russia – many more were killed in bombings or by falling shells and stray rounds in battle zones. The words “war crimes” imply an atrocity, a deliberate act of murder of unarmed civilians rather than inadvertent deaths that occurred as a result of fire exchanged during a conflict. Even Hager and Stephenson do not allege the SAS deliberately lined up civilians and shot them.

I know personally many of the main protagonists in this argument. Keating is a rugged, intelligent and, by all appearances, decent man. Hager, in my experience, is a committed, bright and passionate researcher. English is an earnest, thoughtful man who would not knowingly take part in a cover-up of war crimes. Stephenson is an enthusiastic and dedicated journalist. But if I were the editor, I would want to constantly check and recheck his facts in case his enthusiasm led him a step too far in his story.

I know a couple of ex-SAS servicemen. I would not like to be their enemy. The SAS are highly trained, ruthlessly efficient and probably among the most accomplished special forces in the world. Several years ago, when in Washington, I met a senior US intelligence official who was fulsome in his praise of the SAS. Again and again he stressed the importance of the role the SAS was playing in Afghanistan. By contrast, he was dismissive of the Defence reconstruction team in Bamyan, as he was completely focused on the need for the SAS. Understandable, I guess, as he was a blood’n’guts intelligence guy.

A recent newspaper story said our involvement in Afghanistan cost us more than $300 million, an entire decade of time and, most importantly, the lives of eight service people. We need to remember those eight dead when we consider our response to Hit & Run.

Many folk have seized on the issue to politically attack the Government, via the military. Many have automatically believed the authors because it suits their political beliefs. I would rather wait for all the facts to emerge before rushing to judgement but, as with the road accident I mentioned earlier, a single clear story of those events is highly unlikely to emerge.

This article was first published in the April 8, 2017 issue of the New Zealand Listener. Follow the Listener on Twitter, Facebook and sign up to the weekly newsletter.

MostReadArticlesCollectionWidget - Most Read - Used in articles
AdvertModule - Advert - M-Rec / Halfpage

Latest

New 'treaty' for Aboriginal empowerment owes much to New Zealand Maori
75169 2017-06-27 00:00:00Z World

New 'treaty' for Aboriginal empowerment owes much …

by Bernard Lagan

It's an overdue voice for Aboriginals and was wildly misinterpreted by those who should know better.

Read more
Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band revisited
75317 2017-06-27 00:00:00Z Music

Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band revisited

by Graham Reid

Half a century ago the Beatles released Sgt Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band. Graham Reid considers the album and its reissue.

Read more
Small business by the numbers – why the sector defies generalisation
75517 2017-06-27 00:00:00Z Small business

Small business by the numbers – why the sector def…

by Rob O'Neill

Small businesses are vital to New Zealand’s economy, but efforts to understand them continue to fall short.

Read more
What to do and see in Wellington
74641 2017-06-27 00:00:00Z Sport

What to do and see in Wellington

by Noted

You lucky little blighters! Wellington really is a fantastic place to… well, do almost anything.

Read more
One smart way to win the America's Cup is to dare to be different
75588 2017-06-27 00:00:00Z Sport

One smart way to win the America's Cup is to dare …

by Paul Thomas

Team New Zealand’s grinders use their legs; Oracle’s use their arms, as did the grinders on every other boat that took part in the America’s Cup regat

Read more
On Radio: July 1, 2017
75492 2017-06-26 10:18:52Z Radio

On Radio: July 1, 2017

by Fiona Rae

The best of the week.

Read more
Crossword 1033 answers and explanations
Winston Peters: Kiwis in regions should get their fair share
75466 2017-06-26 08:35:11Z Politics

Winston Peters: Kiwis in regions should get their …

by Benedict Collins

Winston Peters wants New Zealanders in the regions to benefit more from the wealth they help generate.

Read more