We can honour both our soldiers and the Afghans, but only by finding out what really happened on that August night in 2010... though that may not require a full inquiry 

War is different from any other organised human activity. Decades, even centuries, after military conflict, the reasons for it are examined and consequences are measured. A nation's conduct is weighed in the balance.

Over the past 25 years, New Zealand has spent a great deal of time examining the consequences of the New Zealand Wars of the 1860s. We have done so because we want to do right, not because we were legally obliged to do so. The restorative and recuperative value of doing so is internationally recognised. In the process we have built a fairer and more just nation.

The war in Afghanistan has been New Zealand’s biggest military engagement since Vietnam, which is now two generations ago.

As much as anything this explains why I agreed to be interviewed by Jon Stephenson. He has spent more time in Afghanistan than any other New Zealand journalist. As with many independent journalists reporting from war zones this has not been without controversy.

In August 2010 when Operation Burnham took place I was in Afghanistan on a visit arranged months before. I understood that the operation was among the most significant operations that New Zealand had undertaken in Afghanistan.

I had been fully briefed on the plan on the morning before it took place. Based on the briefing, and on the advice of the military professionals, I recommended that it proceed.

I have no doubt that New Zealand soldiers act to the highest ethical standards. That is why it has always been clear to me that the actions of our soldiers on the operation were done with honest intent and professionally. Lt Gen Keating’s press conference on Monday 27 March more than amply confirmed that.

But that is not the end of the matter. I knew that the operation had not achieved its stated aims of arresting or otherwise dealing with the people who had been identified as leading and organising Taliban operations against the PRT (Provincial Reconstruction Team). I knew this because I was formally briefed on that fact at the time. I also knew that other people had been killed. As I have said in interviews, these people were acting as insurgents, in effect acting as enemy combatants.

As in all guerrilla war, it is often a case of villagers by day and insurgents by night. It was a reasonable and appropriate decision to engage them as they looked to be attacking the New Zealand soldiers on the ground. In such a case we have an absolute right to defend ourselves.

But it became clear later that it was also possible there were other casualties. In particular, the death of a three year-old girl.

This emerged in a television documentary in 2014. Stephenson also told me enough about what had happened for it to be believable that this could have occurred, even if it was not fully proven.

The law of armed conflict accepts that civilian casualties might occur in military operations, and in many cases there is no legal liability for them, particularly if they were accidental.

But for New Zealand, is that the end of the matter? Do we hold ourselves to a higher standard?

For me, it is not enough to say there might have been civilian casualties. As a nation we owe it to ourselves to find out, to the extent reasonably possible, if civilian causalities did occur, and if they did, to properly acknowledge that.

This does not necessarily require an independent inquiry, such as lawyer Deborah Manning wants. In fact we are most likely to get this sort of information through diplomatic approaches to the Afghan government, and trusted NGO’s on the ground.

We do not require fault for injury to be compensated in our own country. ACC is a no-fault system of compensation. The Treaty of Waitangi compensation is not primarily motivated by an accounting for fault.  It is part of Afghan culture that compensation is made in recognition of loss.This is a process of restorative justice, rather than determining liability.

On this measure, the accounts of the NZDF and Stephenson are reconcilable, given the recognition that civilian casualties may have occurred.

New Zealand has good reason to be proud of the professionalism of its defence forces. The SAS are among the most highly trained and respected soldiers in the world. In our name, we ask them to undertake the most hazardous military missions, often deep within enemy held territory. They have an absolute right to defend themselves against attack. The risk of capture of our soldiers by the Taliban would be beyond contemplation.

Part of protecting their reputation is also finding out what happened, particularly if there is an allegation that civilian casualties may have been accidentally caused. In that way we both honour the soldiers, and also demonstrate to the Afghans that we hold ourselves to the highest ideals of respect of life, even in circumstances of military conflict. 

Comments (11)

by Ian MacKay on March 30, 2017
Ian MacKay

Good of you to front up Wayne.

When you say "They have an absolute right to defend themselves against attack," what do you mean? Does arriving at night with guns blazing constitute self defence, given that the residents fired no weapons. If so this would be grounds for police to attack a suspects house and shoot all who moved.

by Graeme Edgeler on March 30, 2017
Graeme Edgeler

Do you have any comment about the other allegations in Hit & Run? I think specifically of the allegations that:

  • the SAS went to the village again after the raid (the authors suggest approximately 10 days later) with the purpose of blowing up the homes that villagers were re-building.
  • on a later capture mission, a detained insurgent was assaulted in the back of a vehicle, before beign handed over the Afghan detainers who were known for their use of torture, and who provided evidence of that torture (through the release of a confession) to the New Zealand soldiers.

These seemed the much more clear-cut allegations in the book, with fewer suppositions involved in the reporting.

by Chuck Bird on March 30, 2017
Chuck Bird

Wayne, it is a shame that this site is going the way of the Standard.  I have had a warning by Tim Walkin when I responded to him dragging Bill English’s religion and his position on abortion and homosexual marriage into this debate.  I think Tim was very wrong to do so. 

The death of the three year old is unfortunate but to hold NZ responsible for US air support is not reasonable.  It is well known how trigger happy the US military is often killing their own and allied forces.  No successful military action against evil barbarians can take place in the ME without US air support.  We have our military in the ME now.  I do not know what the ramifications are for trying to implicate the Americans in what some call a war crime.  Do you?

I do not think you examples of ACC and treaty claims which do not involve fault are good reasons why we should investigate highly motivated political claims.  No other country has taken up ACC which paid criminal in the commission of a crime.

I was not fan of John Key as he is a narcissist and untrustworthy.  He would only lie if he was sure it could not be proven.  He would have a phone conversation of a meeting and conveniently and when it is proven he had such a meeting claim he forgot and he has meetings all the time.  That may be true once but one gets sceptical after a time. 

I am very pleased to see Bill English in charge.  I am very happy with his moral compass.  He has a lot to consider like alliances, trade and five eyes which Hager would like to see an end of.  He may have very good reasons for not making public all his reasons for his positions on this issue.  Do you have confidence how competent your former colleague to lead the country?


by Andrew Geddis on March 30, 2017
Andrew Geddis

 No other country has taken up ACC which paid criminal in the commission of a crime.

Mybe so. But other countries do permit individuals involved in criminal activity to sue others for injuries they may suffer while committing those crimes. 

by barry on March 30, 2017

In a guerrilla war it is often difficult to distinguish who are combatants and it is difficult to find a definition of "acting as combatants".  Were they advancing with guns in their hand, running away offensively or something in between?

It is also difficult to co-operate with another armed force that has different rules of engagement.  We know that the American army's rules of engagement approach those of "Llap goch" (http://www.llapgoch.org.uk/) .  see e.g. (https://collateralmurder.wikileaks.org/

Whereas NZ army is supposed to withdraw if they can't avoid civilian casualties or there is uncertainty as to who are combatants.  Self defense does not always require deadly force.  It is hard for us in our comfy chairs to imagine what soldiers are thinking in battle and we have to rely on their training and professionalism.

The story about a malfunction causing the helicopter to hit a civilian target doesn't pass the smell test.

There is room for both stories to be "right" but I trust Hagar and Stevenson much more than I trust the military.  There are plenty of questions to be answered.

by Chuck Bird on March 30, 2017
Chuck Bird

Andrew, when it comes to what the law is you are an expert.  However, when it comes to judging if a law is good or bad one does not need a law degree.  The gist of the law in the US sounds a lot fairer than NZ ACC which was a huge blunder and has so many anomalies is very unfair especially to the taxpayer.  However, I do not think any political party will get rid of it anytime soon.

I am certainly not a redneck who thinks private property is worth more than human life.  Now suppose a person steals a bicycle like happened here in NZ that does not allow someone to knock him off with a vehicle.  A person should have the right to sue.  However, if a drunk person is 100% responsible for a fatal head on collusion it repugnant to justice that the criminal gets any compensation. ACC in an ass.

My point to Wayne was that NZ ACC system is hardly a justification for an inquiry that may likely embarrass one of our allies at a very bad time with Trumps presidency.  

by Kevin McCready on March 30, 2017
Kevin McCready

I seriously wonder if Wayne is playing us in some sort of Good Cop Bad Cop Dirty Politics ploy. Three points to keep in mind: 1. Wayne says it was OK to kill people who "looked to be attacking" NZ soldiers. This preempts inquiry and is contrary to the rules of engagement which require max efforts to positively ID targets. We don't yet know if max ID efforts were made by the sniper nest which killed the young teacher. Also the evidence that the second guy was followed negates the notion that he was attacking a mission position. 2. Wayne says "diplomatic approaches to the Afghan government" better than inquiry. LOL. Not in the universe I live in. Corrupt Afghan govt is a major part of the probem. 3. Wayne praises the SAS. I'm wondering if he's read #HitandRunNZ ? The chapter detailing SAS role in lobbying to get into the war was devastating. NZDF needs a radical restructure, not warrior culture praise.

by Wayne Mapp on March 31, 2017
Wayne Mapp

It is not my intention to actually make further comment to the various questions posed by some of the posters.

But one point of clarification (it arises on another blogsite). The use of words "recommended that it proceed" is suppossed to indicate that I refferred the matter up, though with a recommendation. 

by Brendon Mills on April 02, 2017
Brendon Mills

Perhaps we shouldnt have sent the SAS to Afghanistan in the first place. The reality is, that the SAS are trained killers. That is their job. They were there to teach children how to play rugby, or do the haka at schools or anything like that, they were there to kill. Such incidents are bound to happen. Especially when you send them for political reasons.

Sending a medical team and perhaps a C-130 or two would have been sufficent to help with whatever the West wanted to do in Afghanistan.

by Brendon Mills on April 02, 2017
Brendon Mills


by Chuck Bird on April 02, 2017
Chuck Bird

Brendon, you make some very good points as does Rodney Hide in the Herald today.  He is a regualar contributer so I am sure he will be paid so I think that makes him journalist.  Another point I would concur with you on is that they were sent there for political reasons. To be blunt it is not smart to piss President Trump off.  If NZ troops or SAS need air support would we want to be told sorry we would like help but would not want to risk killing innocence little girls?

I say Bill Engish has NZ's total interest at heart.  I wonder if Wayne Mapp thinks he could do a better job as PM.

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