Almost a week after the release of Hit & Run, we have more questions than answers from the Defence Force and the Government.
Here’s some that have been rattling around in my brain this week:
1. Who knew what, and when? We know the first reports of the civilian casualties surfaced just days after the raid - there was a report in the New York Times, although responsibility for the raid was attributed to generic NATO forces rather than New Zealand in particular. ISAF first acknowledged the possibility of civilian casualties as early as August 29, just seven days later. So why did then Defence Minister Wayne Mapp apparently not know about civilian casualties until the Native Affairs story in 2014? And when did the NZDF top brass find out?
2. Was a night raid necessary? The practice of night raids by coalition forces in Afghanistan was common at the time, but also extremely controversial. Almost 100 civilians were killed in night raids in 2009, and by 2011 one raid that killed four people led to a more than 2000-person, multi-day protest. A report by the Open Society Foundation in 2011 found that anger over the raids obscured the efforts coalition forces were making to improve stability. ISAF’s own directive from earlier that year states night raids should be used only as a final resort:
"The first and most preferable course of action is to explore all other feasible options before effecting a night raid that targets compounds and residences. Afghans must be in the lead wherever possible, and we must coordinate these operations with GIRoA officials, ANSF, and local elders whenever possible.
So what other efforts were made to capture the insurgents responsible for the death of Tim O’Donnell 19 days earlier? Had other feasible options been explored?
The directive also states that property seized or damaged must be recorded and instructions provided on how to claim compensation. According to Hit & Run, that didn’t happen.
3. What did the ISAF report find? Aside from the Chief of Defence Force’s comments to the Herald earlier this week the only comment the NZDF has made is this:
As the 2011 statement says, following the operation, allegations of civilian casualties were made. These were investigated by a joint Afghan Ministry of Defence, Ministry of the Interior and International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) assessment team, in accordance with ISAF procedures.
The investigation concluded that the allegations of civilian casualties were unfounded.
The NZDF does not undertake investigations or inquiries into the actions of forces from other nations. That was the role of the joint Afghan-ISAF investigation.
The NZDF is confident that New Zealand personnel conducted themselves in accordance with the applicable rules of engagement.
We know, thanks to a United Nations report in 2010 that ISAF never made it to the grave sites in Talah wa Barfak, let alone interviewed victims. Is the NZDF really satisfied with that report? And what else does it say?
4. What about the other allegations in the book? Most of the focus so far has been on the events of August 22 and the immediate aftermath, but there’s much more to this story. The book outlines a second raid carried out on the villages a few days after, which appears to have little purpose other than further destruction of property.
The second half of the book also makes serious claims about the treatment of a prisoner in New Zealand custody - that he was beaten by an SAS soldier and handed over to Afghan authorities who tortured him. I rang the Defence Force to ask for a response on Thursday and was told to send an email (although to be fair, that’s becoming standard practice when dealing with government communications staff). When I hadn’t received a response by Friday morning, I rang again and was told they had no further comment.
5. What other skeletons might we have in our closet? I have family and friends who have served in the armed forces, including in Afghanistan. They’re good and honourable people and I’m not for a second implying that they or others have done wrong. But we clearly need more transparency about what’s being done in our name, and it should start with the Chief of Defence Force Tim Keating fronting to the media.