The Government’s spin machine cranks into action but its selective secrecy policy raises more questions about SAS operations in Afghanistan than it answers

Defence Minister Wayne Mapp must have seen it coming. His military brass would certainly have known that Jon Stephenson, the most active Afghanistan specialist in the New Zealand news media, was probing around his network of contacts in the SAS and asking other active and retired NZDF personnel awkward questions about prisoners and civilian casualties.

Metro magazine and the 60 Minutes team at TV3 would have been involved with Stephenson weeks before the magazine featuring his latest Afghanistan revelations went on sale last Tuesday, the day before a documentary version of it screened on the prime-time current affairs show.

The whiff of bad news coming must have been strong. In the week before ANZAC day, most of the mainstream media would have been sniffing around for a relevant war story to run during this special time of remembrance.

So, Mapp launched a pre-emptive strike almost a week ahead of Stephenson’s launch.

In an interview with TVNZ news political editor Guyon Espiner. he confirmed that NZDF personnel had been involved in an International Security Assistance Force operation in Baghlan province where 12 insurgents had been killed. The operation had taken place less than three weeks after Lieutenant Tim O’Donnell had been killed in a bomb and rocket attack on a New Zealand patrol in neighbouring Bamyan province.

Espiner quickly stitched the two events together, and, with a little more deft questioning, extracted enough from Mapp to build a story about “a deadly secret mission by the country's elite SAS troops to hunt down those who killed Tim O'Donnell.” ONE News broke the story on Wednesday 20 April– and promised more would be revealed when Mapp’s full interview was played on Q+A last Sunday.

As the news broke, the NZDF posted a much more guarded version of the story on its website. It did not mention the SAS, or that the operation took place in Baghlan province, or that it was connected in any way with the death of Lieutenant O’Donnell.

Instead, the NZDF release stated that “New Zealand Defence Force (NZDF) elements, operating as part of a Coalition Force in Bamyan province, Afghanistan, conducted an operation against an insurgent group.” It goes on to say that nine insurgents (not 12 as reported) were killed in the operation which targeted an insurgent group in the area where Bamyan Province borders neighbouring Baghlan province”. Then it went on to mention a piece of information that Mapp knew Espiner had – but had not yet revealed.

“Following the operation allegations of civilian casualties were made. These were investigated by a joint Afghan Ministry of Defence, Ministry of Interior and International Security Assistance Force assessment team, in accordance with ISAF procedures. The investigation concluded that the allegations of civilian casualties were unfounded.”

This is where Mapp’s pre-emptive strike starts to fall apart. When his pre-recorded interview with Espiner was played in its entirety, we saw him fluffing and bluffing his way through most of the crucial questions – but on the matter of civilian casualties, he was crisp and clear.

Espiner: There's an Associated Press report around that time that contains a claim that a number of civilians were killed during that operation.

Mapp: And that’s been investigated and proven to be false.

Espiner pressed harder: No civilians were killed – only insurgents were killed? Mapp didn’t say yes and he didn’t say no. His response was:

“I am satisfied around that”.

In fact, the official ISAF inquiry into the Baghlan operation is nowhere near as conclusive as the Minister and the NZDF suggest. The investigating team determined that, due to a gunsight malfunction…

“…several rounds from coalition helicopters fell short, missing the intended target and instead striking two buildings, which may have resulted in civilian casualties.”

The team leader, U.S. Brigadier General Timothy M. Zadelis, expressed his regrets.

"We regret any possible civilian loss of life or injury. Our first objective is to protect the people of Afghanistan, and in this case we may have failed. Our thoughts and concerns are with the family and friends of those civilians who may have been injured or killed."

Media accounts and ISAF records of combat operations around the time the SAS was engaged in the Baghlan raid on 23 August also call into question the notion that this was a specific counter-attack designed to strike at the Taliban capacity to mount raids into Bamyan.

In three months prior to the Baghlan raid, ISAF and US forces stepped up the nationwide hunt for insurgents. According to Spiegel On Line, at least 365 high-ranking and mid-level insurgent commanders were killed, nearly 1,400 people, were arrested in these operations.

Around the time of the Baghlan raid, special forces were being deployed on missions in that province alone almost every night.

Selective secrecy and spin are no substitutes for facts – and our troops deserve better treatment than they are receiving from the political and military masters.

Comments (3)

by Tim Watkin on April 28, 2011
Tim Watkin

For the record, from my understanding, 60 Minutes came rather late to the party, but yes, Metro with its printing deadlines was involved much earlier. The NZDF did know Jon was still investigating the detainees issue, not least because of the OIAs he was submitting.

Guyon and I had access to the Metro piece mere minutes before the Mapp interview was recorded, and Mapp knew nothing about it until Guyon asked the questions. That is, Mapp had no knowledge that Metro was running a piece by Jon and no knowledge that Guyon was about to ask him about the detainees... or the O'Donnell counter-attack for that matter.

That's interesting to see the ISAF report, David.

by Richard James McIntosh on April 29, 2011
Richard James McIntosh

And can anybody shed more light on why TVNZ has interviewed the 'security expert' from Waikato University, regarding these issues?

His business-as-usual, and one-dimensional appproach to New Zealand troops killing the enemy didn't impress me at all, doubly so given the proximity to ANZAC Day, and the implication that the NZ soldiers are doing their timeless 'duty', and as such are beyond criticism.

The 'security expert' blustered and bristled. We in New Zealand hadn't much concept of war or the big picture if we only examined the morality of the thing. It was Foreign Affairs, and we must expect killing.

It frustrated me that the interviewer declined to ask on what grounds were our soldiers actually improving anyone's security, or more to the point at what time will the Government decide that that our objectives have been met: that Afghanistan, South Asia and the World are a more secure for NZ's 10-year intervention?

But that, in turn, would beg the question of our exit. The relevant question to ask would have been, what is (or who makes) our decision, and based on what grounds? As you wrote last year David, what is our 'exit strategy'?

by David Beatson on April 29, 2011
David Beatson

Richard: I guess the strategy is simple: follow the leaders ... It's what we did when we signed up to Operation Enduring Freedom, and what we will do when leave a war that has lost its primary purpose. Al Qaeda lives - somewhere else.

Tim: I think Mapp knew Afghanistan was going to be on the media agenda. But I'd really be interested to know where the lead on the SAS Baghlan counter-attack story came from.... Mapp revealed details of an SAS operation, and that would would have been a deliberate decision taken somewhere in the system - given the selective secrecy policy that's followed on SAS matters - and the Baghlan raid didn't seem to have been on Jon Stephenson's radar. 

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