Hit & Run: Preface and Timeline
On any Anzac Day, someone is sure to talk about honour.
The word is used as if it means little more than wearing a uniform and having been in a war. But honour has to be earned. It is about trying to adhere to moral principles and stand up to wrong, even when it would be easier not to. It requires a special kind of courage.
What follows is a story of dishonour. It is set in the later part of New Zealand’s 2001–13 war in Afghanistan, when the rosy PR could no longer hide the fact that the conflict was going badly. The New Zealand military had prided itself on its good relations with local people: respect, empathy, an ability to sit down and talk over a cup of tea, a little country there trying to help. Then, in August 2010, the first New Zealand soldier died in combat.
Years of effort have gone into hiding and denying what happened next. In response to that death, New Zealand's Special Air Service (SAS) planned and led an ill-conceived and brutal attack on two remote Afghan villages. This raid and the events related to it have been a festering secret inside the Defence Force ever since, creating remorse for some but mostly an impulse to hide what happened. There has been a tacit pact of silence. A senior military officer who was closely involved called it a ‘guilty secret’ and urged the authors to dig deeper; an ex-SAS trooper who was there still struggles with what happened; another said that ‘the [SAS] guys know civilians were killed on that raid. They’re not happy about it.’ But others, up to the highest levels of government, have shown no concern and instead have joined in the cover-up.
Some parts of the story have already come to light over time, each time officially denied or ignored. Nicky Hager included it in his 2011 book on the Afghanistan conflict, Other People’s Wars, but only fragments had emerged by then. In 2014, on Maori Television, Jon Stephenson did a more detailed current affairs exposé called ‘Collateral Damage’, but still most of the story remained hidden. When, in late 2014, the authors discovered that they were both continuing to work on the story, they decided to combine their efforts. The result is this book.
So, were New Zealanders and their allies involved in war crimes? Hit and Run does not attempt to answer this as a technical legal question; the laws of war are complicated. Instead the book tries, as accurately as possible, to lay out the facts of the story. But no one will read what follows without wondering about war crimes. The authors conclude that there are reasonable grounds to suspect that New Zealanders and their United States allies were indeed involved in war crimes and other serious breaches of the laws of war. They call for an independent investigation.
It was extraordinarily difficult to gather reliable information about the events described. Everything had been kept very secret, the number of people in the know was small and those responsible had worked hard to prevent information from getting out. The research involved locating and gaining the assistance of people, often in very sensitive positions, who had taken part in or were close to the events – military personnel or villagers. The collaboration between Jon and Nicky was crucial to the investigation: both had good sources and putting this information together multiplied what could be achieved. Nicky focused on sources based in New Zealand, while Jon concentrated on those in Afghanistan. Jon brought a majority of the sources to the project; Nicky did the writing.
More than three dozen people provided information for the book, around 20 of them from the New Zealand military and Afghan security forces, most of whom participated directly in the events described. Critical information was also provided by more than a dozen Afghan villagers, by senior Afghan officials, and by medical and non-government organisation staff, as well as former US military officers. To protect them from bureaucratic retaliation in New Zealand and the risk of more serious retaliation in Afghanistan, most cannot be named or identified. However, these sources have proved, through multiple interviews and months of cross-checking, to be reliable and motivated by principle – to be acting honourably. The book is dedicated to them.
Timeline of events in the book
August 2009 National government agrees to send NZSAS back to Afghanistan.
June 2010 British court maintains block on British troops handing prisoners to NDS secret police owing to ‘real risk’ of torture.
3 August 2010 Attack on New Zealand patrol team in Bamiyan province, Lieutenant Tim O’Donnell killed.
4 August 2010 US commander, General David Petraeus, issues combat rules for all US and allied troops on limiting civilian deaths.
c. 4–10 August 2010 Human intelligence and phone monitoring to identify insurgent group.
c. 10–20 August 2010 NZSAS arranges JPEL authorisations and plans raid.
20 August 2010 Defence Minister Wayne Mapp and Chief of Defence Lieutenant-GeneralJerry Mateparae visit troops at Bamiyan provincial reconstruction team base.
21August 2010 NZSAS briefings at Camp Warehouse. Mapp calls John Key. Helicopters depart for raid.
22 August 2010 NZSAS raid, Operation Burnham, on the villages of Naik and Khak Khuday Dad, villagers find casualties, insurgents visit, funerals.
23 August 2010 Defence Force and Afghan news website report civilian deaths. ISAF military command issues news release saying 12 insurgents dead, no civilian deaths.
24 August 2010 New York Times publishes story, ‘New case of civilian deaths investigated in Afghanistan’.
27 August 2010 Hundreds of people demonstrate in Baghlan about raid.
29 August 2010 ISAF investigation says possible civilian casualties, apologises to families.
c.1 September 2010 Second NZSAS raid on Naik village.
January 2011 NZSAS detain Qari Miraj in Kabul, beat him, hand him over to NDS secret police. In the following days Qari Miraj is tortured.
February 2011 National government announces 12-month extension of NZSAS deployment.
8 March 2011 Jerry Mateparae announced as next governor-general.
20 April 2011 TVNZ reveals NZSAS raid hunted for Tim O’Donnell killers. Defence Force responds that no civilians were harmed.
20 May 2011 Targeted killing of insurgent Alawuddin at his home in Turmush.
23 May 2011 Targeted killing of insurgent Qari Musa and several others.
2011 Informer for New Zealand military, Mullah Shafiullah, killed by Taliban.
31 March 2012 NZSAS contingent withdraws from Afghanistan. Twelve personnel remain at ISAF Special Operations Forces HQ in intelligence and planning roles.
21 November 2012 Targeted killing of insurgent Abdullah Kalta and five others.
April 2013 New Zealand provincial reconstruction team contingent withdraws permanently from Bamiyan.
30 June 2014 Maori Television documentary on NZSAS raid. Defence Force and government deny NZSAS involvement in civilian deaths.