Government must lead in seeking the truth about SAS in Afghanistan

by The Listener / 30 March, 2017

Photo/Getty Images

One way or another, there will be some form of inquiry into the conduct of our Special Air Service (SAS) troops in a military raid in Afghanistan six years ago – even if it’s highly unlikely to be conclusive.

New Zealanders are understandably unsettled by allegations our elite soldiers led a “revenge attack” and knowingly or recklessly killed and injured civilians. These claims are so serious as to risk undermining both public confidence and our international reputation.

The Government may wish to accept the New Zealand Defence Force’s assurances that the allegations are false, and to rely on widespread public scepticism. But legal activism makes it highly likely an international authority will take this matter further. And since terms such as “war crime” and “attack on civilians” have been used, the Government owes it to the military quite as much as the public to initiate an inquiry.

That the allegations come from authors who regard the SAS’s deployment and even its existence as wrongful undeniably clouds things. This is longtime peace activist Nicky Hager’s latest election-year book, released with the usual masterly array of manipulative PR tricks to achieve massive and uncritical initial media coverage. Hit & Run co-author Jon Stephenson has been promoting versions of this story for several years. The authors are as invested in its being true as the NZDF is in its being false.

Without a credible authority to disprove or reconcile the conflicting accounts, this will remain that most antithetical issue in a free democracy: a serious ethical question that citizens can only assess according to their own biases. Those distrustful of authority may readily accept that the military have erred, or worse, and that their political masters are abetting a cover-up. Others will discount the book’s claims, first, because of mistakes already exposed over the location of villages – despite Hager earlier saying it was “impossible” to be wrong – and, second, because of Hager’s history: the serial election-time release of polemical books couched to spook voters.

Although Hager has previously uncovered some uncomfortable truths about our politics, his conclusions, and sometimes his facts, are unreliable. Judith Collins is back in Cabinet after being cleared of allegations arising from his book last election. Hager was also among those exposed as having been hoaxed into reporting on phantom Security Intelligence Service surveillance in 2004.

Yet it may not be up to us to decide how thoroughly his anti-SAS accounts are tested. This was not, as Hager calls it, a “New Zealand raid”, but an operation involving coalition forces and Afghan authorities. Video and other documentary evidence chronicling the operation exists, but the NZDF may not be allowed to provide them to an inquiry, though it says it is willing. If there are objections from other participants, such as the US, whose helicopter reportedly malfunctioned that night, key evidence may be withheld. The Trump administration appears to be enforcing a new hard line concerning US military engagements.

Of course, we could move a little closer to the truth if Hager and Stephenson’s military source or sources agreed to break cover and/or testify in camera. But the complexities of a multi-agency night-time operation make individual participants’ perceptions of limited value. Equally, chains of command and information flows in such operations are variable. We simply cannot tell from what has emerged so far who knew what, when, let alone who did what, where.

The NZDF is adamant its forces fired only on insurgents. Hager and Stephenson claim they fired on civilians. However, in war zones, they can be the same thing – insurgents can have day jobs. Any inquiry would struggle now to clarify this.

Official admissions that the US aircraft fired on a house unintentionally, and that the guiding intelligence proved unreliable, are of distressing concern. But unless gross negligence was also a factor, neither would constitute a war crime. The authors’ charges of revenge remain untested.

And yet the Government looks uneasily defensive (or at least it did until the authors' concession about the location of the attack). It must avoid any impression that it is refusing an inquiry out of animus towards Hager, or towards Stephenson, who won a defamation claim against the NZDF in 2015. Though controversial, their claims need testing. If some or all of their facts and/or inferences are correct, we deserve to know. If they’re wrong, the same applies. We may never find certainty, but the Government must lead from the front in seeking the truth.

This editorial 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.

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