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Bill Ralston: Calling the shots

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 writers 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.

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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.