A review of the book “Hit and Run: The New Zealand SAS in Afghanistan and the Meaning of Honour” authored by Nicky Hager and Jon Stephenson (ISBN 9780947503390)
“What is it that we don’t understand? We’re going to lose this fucking war if we don’t stop killing civilians”: General Stanley McChrystal’s outburst at his morning staff briefing in the summer of 2009 reflected his concern about the steady trickle of Afghan civilian deaths from operations conducted by the International Security Assistance Force (ISAF). He wrote that the “instinctive way we reacted to alleged incidents made it worse”. Investigations and apologies meant little if the incidents continued as they did. As a group of Afghan elders told one of his fact-finding teams: “Afghans hear with their eyes, not just with their ears.” In essence, it is not what you say, but what you do – which is the story of Nicky Hager’s and Jon Stephenson’s Hit and Run: The New Zealand SAS in Afghanistan and the Meaning of Honour.
I went out and bought a copy of Hit and Run as soon as it was published. I already had Hager’s Other People’s Wars, which is a fascinating read. Not so much for his agenda, which was obvious, but for his detailed research and his ability to get people to talk to him – great ferreting skills. He produced a book whose detail and footnotes will be an essential tool for whoever writes the history of New Zealand’s commitment to Afghanistan.
New Zealand committed the New Zealand Special Air Service (NZSAS) in 2001 to assist the United States Forces in Afghanistan in the hunt for the Al-Qaeda leadership. It followed up with the deployment of the New Zealand Provincial Reconstruction Team (NZPRT) in 2003, which, as the name implies, was geared to assist Afghan recovery. It was deployed to Bamyan Province, a pro-government area. It was a very astute choice of ground by the New Zealand Defence Force (NZDF) reconnaissance team. In 2010, New Zealand had been in the country for nine years, and Bamyan was no longer as benign as it had been. McCrystal had gone, but General Petraeus continued his counterinsurgency policy. A New Zealand PRT patrol was ambushed, and the patrol commander, Lieutenant Tim O’Donnell, was killed. He was the first New Zealand combat death in Afghanistan. It is this ambush and its consequences that is the story of Hit and Run.
After the ambush, the NZPRT “did everything it could to reduce the target profile of our people operating up the Shakera Valley and into the north-east of Bamyan Province.” Under normal circumstances, it would have few other options, but the presence of the NZSAS in Kabul presented a strike option to ensure that the insurgent group were taught a lesson, so they would think twice before doing it again.
The NZSAS, who won high praise on their previous deployments from 2001-2005, were based in Kabul, where they were involved in counterinsurgency operations with the Police Afghan Crisis Response Unit (CRU) with whom they had a mentoring role. New Zealand asked for the NZSAS component to be used against the insurgent leadership, who had conducted the ambush. They, together with the Afghan CRU, were made available for Operation BURNHAM – a New Zealand-directed SAS/CRU operation against villages in the Tirgiran Valley in the neighbouring province of Baghlan, which intelligence indicated was the location of the group that had ambushed the New Zealand PRT patrol.
Hit and Run pieces together the evolving intelligence picture and planning for this New Zealand operation. It is a jigsaw puzzle of accounts and interviews that shows how the key insurgents were identified and tracked to their home villages in the Tirgiran Valley. It differed from previous NZSAS operations in that this had a totally New Zealand focus. By chance, both the New Zealand Chief of Defence Force, Lieutenant-General Mataparae, and Wayne Mapp, the Minister of Defence, were in Afghanistan and were involved in the pre-operational briefings. Final confirmation to proceed with the operation involved a phone call to John Key, the prime minister. Despite the presence of the Afghan CRU and helicopter support, it was very much a New Zealand show.
The book paints a picture of an operation that goes badly off the rails. The principals were not at home, and Hit and Run asserts that 21 civilians were dead or wounded, mostly women and children, with one of the six dead being a three-year-old girl. A dozen houses were destroyed by fire or explosives.
This is where the NZDF account and that of Hager and Stephenson diverge. The initial ISAF report after the operation was one of unqualified success. One assumes it was also the tenor of the immediate briefing to the Minister of Defence and the Chief of Defence Force (CDF). ISAF Joint Command Afghanistan reported: “Numerous insurgents killed and weapons recovered” in a combined operation involving Afghan National Security Forces and coalition forces; “No civilians were injured or killed during this operation.”
This was immediately contradicted on the ground. The provincial governor of Baghlan Province, Governor Mojid, received a delegation of villagers who claimed that “a very big operation had occurred with helicopters … that some landed and the operation was firing at civilians and left.” The locals claimed that six civilians had been killed: four adult males, one adult female and one child aged six. Additionally, two adult females were being treated in a local hospital for wounds.
Hager and Stephenson go into great detail on the raid and its aftermath, and produce a list of 21 named casualties drawn from Afghan sources. The complaints prompted an ISAF investigation which concluded that a weapon-malfunction from supporting helicopters may have caused casualties, for which they apologised. There was no publicity on it being a New Zealand-led raid or of NZSAS’s involvement.
Hit and Run examines the ongoing determination to find and eliminate or capture the insurgent leadership. A further operation into the Tirgiran Valley was conducted by NZSAS on 2/3 October 2010 which targeted houses already attacked in the initial raid.
Running parallel to this was a determination to refute any suggestion that NZSAS had been involved and then, when this came out, to insist that they were not involved in any of the civilian casualties. Revelation after revelation followed, each being rejected. The standard response was to attack the veracity of the messengers, Hager and Stephenson. The gradual unravelling of the government’s and the NZDF’s position makes fascinating reading. Today, NZDF still holds firm to their original stance. The current CDF, Lieutenant- General Tim Keating, dissected the book in a briefing to journalists on 27 March 2017. He outlined the care and preparation that went into the planning and preparation for the raid and states that this was matched in its execution: “The conduct of this operation, as with the numerous other New Zealand SAS operations in Afghanistan, would be led by the best intelligence available and executed with professionalism.”
Keating’s key argument was that the locations given for the attack in the book differed from where the operation occurred by a distance of some two kilometres, so whatever happened in the two villages identified by Hager and Stephenson was not carried out by NZSAS. Keating then highlighted the degree of control exerted in the operation. The air assets supporting the raid were under the control of NZSAS who directed the aircraft fire at insurgents leaving the villages. He accepted two houses may have been inadvertently destroyed, but claimed nine insurgent deaths and regretfully that of the three-year-old child due to weapon-malfunction.
I weighed up the layers of evidence that the authors had garnered from both anonymous New Zealand servicemen and from Afghan official sources, including members of the Afghan CRU who took part in the operation, and evaluated it against Keating’s rebuttal. I asked the question, how likely is it that there were two major operations involving ISAF security forces with helicopter support in the Tirgiran Valley on the same night: very unlikely indeed. I also noted that Hit and Run spoke of further destruction to houses in a raid on 2/3 October 2010 that had previously been attacked in the first raid. Lightning striking twice in a place that, according to CDF, was never targeted. Wherever the villages are in the valley, it is obvious we are talking about one and the same location. The only operations that took place in the Tirgiran Valley that night were those conducted by NZSAS. I also asked why we should doubt Afghan reports of civilian casualties that are well documented. ISAF suggests weapon-malfunction; if so, it seems to have malfunctioned all over the place to have caused the casualties in question. The bottom line is that it was a New Zealand-led and controlled operation and that the buck stops accordingly with us.
I have an enormous respect for the New Zealand soldier and the NZSAS, but, with the best of intentions, in war things go wrong. Despite training and professional skills, the human factor clouds judgement, and people get killed. I put down Hit and Run, thinking that the accrued weight of accounts drawn by the authors across the spectrum of those involved rang true. Things went awry that night, and the soldiers knew about it – one senses that from the way they talked afterwards. None are more self-critical than soldiers, their life and those of their mates depend on such judgement. I have studied the after-action reports of the NZSAS cross-border operations in Borneo, which are remarkable for their detail and identification of what went right and wrong. I experienced similar briefings as a young platoon commander in the battalion in Singapore – when the commanding officer, a former NZSAS troop and squadron commander, went through each incident in every battalion exercise with everyone involved from the lead scout and on up the chain of command with everyone having their say – so that we could learn from it. I am sure that the same debriefing techniques are followed today. It is inconceivable that the full picture of what actually happened in the Tirgiran Valley was not known in-house in the immediate days after the raid. There is a sense of this in the whispers picked up by Hager and Stephenson.
The CDF’s briefing on Hit and Run concluded with the Director of Defence Legal Services stating that this was a “non-international armed conflict”, that is a counterinsurgency, subject to the Law of Armed Conflict. The Colonel stressed that each soldier received training in the rules of engagement and carried a Code of Conduct card that stated their individual obligations. She then stated:
It is a tragic reality that civilian casualties occur in times of armed conflict. Civilian casualties are, however, not necessarily unlawful at [sic] international law. Subsequent information, received after Operation Burnham indicated that civilian casualties may have been possible.
All this is true and indeed stated by Hager and Stephenson in their book. I read these words and thought how this compared with Lieutenant Eru Manuera’s NZSAS ambush at Mankau in Indonesian Kalimantan in 1965 where they killed the four Indonesian soldiers in the boat, but left the two civilian boatmen terrified, though unharmed. I also remember the disappointment in Lieutenant-Colonel Bob Gurr’s battalion in Borneo, when a night ambush killed an Iban trader who was leading the Indonesian raiding party. His death meant that links with the local Iban community had to be rebuilt. I then applied it to Afghanistan and wondered how General McChrystal would have reacted to this brief.
Hit and Run is an important book, which raises uncomfortable questions that needed to be asked. On the balance of probabilities, the CDF’s robust defence does not stand up to scrutiny – a New Zealand-led and controlled operation resulted in a large number of civilian casualties relative to the size of the rural hamlets involved. Our soldiers are well trained and professional, but that does not grant them infallibility – in this case, things appear to have gone badly wrong. I trust we learn from it.
Lieutenant-Colonel Christopher Pugsley is a retired infantry officer who served 22 years in the New Zealand Army and, among other books, is the author of From Emergency to Confrontation: The New Zealand Armed Forces in Malaya and Borneo 1949-1966 (2003).