NZDF has changed it's position on civilian casualties and never explained itself. It has two ministers with different versions. How does any government agency get away with this?
There’s so much to digest in the confusion surrounding the book Hit & Run.
But there is a key shift in the position of the New Zealand Defence Force that has become lost in the chaos swirling around the accusations made.
For six years, the NZ Defence Force maintained that claims of civilians casualties were “unfounded”.
In relation to the raid, it has repeatedly referenced an investigation by two Afghan government ministries and the International Security Assistance Force and stated: “The investigation concluded that the allegations of civilian casualties were unfounded.”
By almost any common definition of the word, “unfounded” means it is not true. Baseless. Fiction. False.
And yet, now we know differently. And we know this because the Chief of Defence, Lieutenant-General Tim Keating (a former NZSAS commander) now says it is possible civilians were killed.
In his press conference last week, he said: “There may have been (civilian casualties), rather than ‘unfounded’. I’m not going to get cute here and say it’s a twist on words but it’s the same thing - ‘unfounded’, ‘there may have been’. The official line is that civilian casualties may have occurred.”
There’s nothing cute about the shift in position and this is why.
The question of civilian casualties arose in a New Zealand context in 2011, when then-defence minister Wayne Mapp was asked if they had occurred.
“That’s been investigated and proven to be false,” said Mapp in a 2011 TVNZ interview. Asked if he was satisfied no civilians had been killed - and if he had seen reports to support his belief - he said: “I am satisfied around that.”
This is important because Mapp is definite on this. His position came at the same time as NZDF made its first public statement, citing the investigation and saying claims of civilian casualties was “unfounded”.
That’s when the definition of “unfounded” was established. It meant no civilians had died. You can bet that interview was watched by NZDF commanders and they saw his rock-solid, cast-iron assertion that there were no civilian casualties.
Mapp’s position is in lock-step with NZDF’s at that stage. We all knew what “unfounded” meant, because Mapp had told us. NZDF also knew, unless (incredibly) it had decided not to watch any of the media around the previously unknown role of the NZSAS in the raid.
If Mapp had gone too far, then this was NZDF’s chance to correct its minister and the public.
But it did not.
In 2014, one of the Hit & Run authors Jon Stephenson produced a documentary for Maori Television on the raid. This is when NZDF’s definition of “unfounded” started to come apart.
Mapp’s successor Jonathan Coleman was then asked if civilians were killed and he said "you probably can't rule out" civilian casualties from the Apache gunship air support. NZDF referred any queries to its statement of three years earlier - the “unfounded” statement.
So right then we had a new definition. In 2011 “unfounded” meant no civilians died and in 2014 it meant they might have.
Forget about Hit & Run - this was NZDF’s opportunity to clear matters up.
But it did not. It let the conflicting definitions of “unfounded” - defined by its ministers’ statements - to continue through to 2017 when Hit & Run was published.
When the book was launched, NZDF released the statement afresh saying “allegations of civilian casualties were unfounded”.
Almost a week later, Keating got up in front of the press to explain that “unfounded” didn’t mean what almost all dictionary definitions said it meant. No, he said, it meant something else.
In making that case, it raises the question as to what it knew at the time Mapp was briefed. It also begs the question as to why it did not clear the matter up when it became clear Mapp had - it appears inadvertently - misled the New Zealand public.
Put to one side about whether civilians were actually killed, if revenge motivated the raid (a claim I personally find incredibly hard to accept), if international laws were broken and come back to this six-year position put by NZDF.
Government agencies - military or not - really should not be able to get away with misleading their ministers.
There was no doubt as to the question of civilian casualties among the NZSAS. It was a point of conversation among the elite unit in the months after the raid and through 2011 when Mapp went on television and said there were none.
Military leaders of those men should not underestimate the impact it has on soldiers when they see their ultimate political commanders making statements they know not to be true. And they knew, at the time Mapp was interviewed, that it was highly likely (if not certain) civilians had been killed.
I have reported on NZDF with some regularity. I visited the Bamyan base in Afghanistan where Tim O’Donnell - our first casualty of 10 in Afghanistan - served. I met men and women who likely served with him, albeit before the fatal attack in 2010.
The rank-and-file are good people who impress constantly. They are subject to high standards and strive to meet those. I believe those core values to be also present among those in the NZSAS I have met.
One other point. Among those fine men and women in uniform that I have had the privilege to meet and see at work in other countries have been those who are conscious their experiences have injured them in ways that can’t be seen.
There have been questions raised about the level of mental health support available to NZDF personnel. PTSD is real and it is affecting our returned service personnel.
When this issue arose in 2012, NZDF responded. In a statement, it said: “Recent criticism in the media about the Government’s lack of support for ‘shell-shocked’ soldiers is unfounded says the NZ Defence Force.”
Unfounded. There’s that word again. Looking back, I wonder which definition NZDF was using that time.
* This article also appears at the NZ Herald.