Investigative journalists Nicky Hager and Jon Stephenson say deaths of Afghan civilians were covered-up.
As the crowd at Unity Books in Wellington awaited the arrival of Nicky Hager yesterday evening, the opening squeals of House of Pain’s Jump Around blared from the shop’s speakers.
Heads turned to the back door, but, disappointingly, the author didn’t walk out to “Pack it up, pack it in, let me begin, I came to win”.
And when Hager did emerge a few minutes later to give a sweaty crowd the lowdown on his new book, written with war reporter Jon Stephenson, the claims were dramatic.
Hit & Run alleges elite SAS troops planned and helped execute a raid on two small villages in Afghanistan. Rather than killing insurgents, for the sake of avenging the death of Lieutenant Tim O’Donnell weeks earlier, the book said six civilians were killed and 15 injured.
The authors said New Zealand soldiers, alongside US and Afghan troops, burned and blew up about a dozen houses and did not help the wounded; a three-year-old girl was among the dead. They said there has since been a cover-up to prevent details of the raid from becoming public.
They claim to have sourced information for the book from more than three dozen people, including about 20 from the New Zealand military and Afghan security forces, and from Afghan villagers.
It’s pretty explosive stuff, if true. Last night, in a statement released a few hours after the book launch, the Defence Force denied pretty much everything:
"As [a 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."
This reporter stayed up well past bedtime reading to bring you this - the five biggest questions raised by the book that are yet to be answered:
1 - DID SAS TROOPS KILL ANY CIVILIANS IN THE RAID?
Hit & Run doesn’t conclusively say this was the case. It said the SAS planned the raid on the villages of Naik and Khak Khuday Dad based on flimsy intelligence. The SAS enlisted the help of powerful US Apache helicopter gunships for the raid. But the book doesn’t definitively state whether people died as a result of fire from New Zealand troops.
Hager and Stephenson said the latter was possible. They said a school teacher who ran up a hill behind his parent’s house during the raid may have been shot by SAS snipers.
Nevertheless, they said the New Zealand forces were “responsible, both for what happened, and for not helping the injured people afterwards”.
2 - WHO KNOWS WHAT?
The book definitively claims the then-Prime Minister John Key was briefed before the raid and gave the go-ahead in a phone conversation with then-Defence Minister, Wayne Mapp. The same day, the helicopters departed.
However, the book doesn’t say whether Key knew about what subsequently happened.
Others, such as Mapp and the then-chief of defence, Lieutenant-General Jerry Mateparae, were allegedly more complicit.
The book quotes Mapp as having later confided in a friend that the raid was a “disastrous operation”. About Mateparae, Hager and Stephenson write he “would have surely been told soon after about the civilian casualties”.
3 - IS THE SAS RESPONSIBLE FOR THE TORTURE OF A CAPTURED INSURGENT?
The book alleges a large amount of blame for Tim O’Donnell’s death was put on one Afghan fighter.
The authors claim, about five months after the raid, the fighter was captured and beaten by SAS troops. They said he was then handed over to the Afghan secret police, who tortured him.
They said, despite the SAS gaining intelligence from the torture, it has a moral responsibility for what happened:
“The SAS knew the people they were handing him to were notorious for mistreating and torturing detainees, yet they transferred him anyway,” they told media.
“When they learnt he had been tortured, they did nothing.”
4 - HAVE WAR CRIMES BEEN COMMITTED?
As soon as Hager and Stephenson emerged at Unity Books, a series of press releases were sent to media on behalf of the authors.
A Q & A reiterates the book’s position on whether war crimes have been committed by New Zealand troops:
War crimes are a highly technical area of law and the authors will leave it to experts to determine whether they have been committed. What we are saying is that there are grounds to suspect that war crimes were committed and it is vitally important that these are taken seriously and investigated in an independent way. We asked human rights lawyer and former Chief Human Rights Commissioner Margaret Bedggood to read the book before it was published and her response is printed on the back cover. She says the alleged actions and decisions described in the book, “if confirmed, would seriously breach international human rights and humanitarian law and could amount to war crimes.”
If there is enough evidence, charges at the International Criminal Court may be laid.
5 - SHOULD THERE BE AN INDEPENDENT INVESTIGATION?
Hager and Stephenson have made a direct plea for a full, independent investigation to Prime Minister Bill English, who, along with John Key, is yet to publicly discuss the book.
Hit & Run ends with that plea - it said the Defence Force needs to fully co-operate in an inquiry and apologise to the people of Naik and Khak Khuday Dad. It also said the SAS needs to be restructured.
The authors said if the raid lives on as “a corrosive secret”, it makes “the crimes, and the wars, more likely to happen again”.
"[Bill English] is a decent man and I think we would appeal to him as a son, as a father, as someone who understands what it might be like to lose kids, that he will reach out and do the right thing here, because this is a wrong that's [laid] festering for years,” said Stephenson.