The 2010 raid in Afghanistan detailed in Nicky Hager and Jon Stephenson's new book, Hit and Run, was first revealed on a TV interview I produced in 2011. It's time for some official answers
I know as little as most of you about Nicky Hager's new book. It investigates an SAS raid in Afghanistan in 2010, after the death of Lieutenant Tim O'Donnell whilst on patrol that August. It claims the John Key-approved raid went wrong, innocents died and the events of that day were subsequently covered up.
The details that fill the rest of the book will surely be pored over. As a (very) occasional contributor to Pundit, you can reasonably assume that we view him as a respected author, not a left-wing conspiracy theorist. But beyond that I know nothing of the book.
What I do know about, is how the raid was first reported. And the importance of continued investigation into New Zealand's role in Afghanistan under two governments.
It was the week before ANZAC Day 2011. At TVNZ's Q+A, we had booked an interview with Defence Minister Wayne Mapp. Because Mapp was away that weekend, we recorded the interview on the Wednesday, to air that Sunday. I wasn't delighted about that. It was the earliest we'd ever done an interview ahead of the Sunday live programme and the risk of any news being superseded as of course increased.
We'd booked the Defence Minister because it was ANZAC weekend, our presence and actions in Afghanistan were still very much a debateable issue, and that Saturday, Metro was due to release an extensive article by Jon Stephenson into New Zealand's record of handing Taliban detainees over to US and Afghan forces.
That was an issue David Beatson had written extensively about here on Pundit. (search under Afghanistan and Beatson in the search bar above and you'll see his excellent work). Questions around our handling of that issue have never been fully answered.
But Q+A's co-host Guyon Espiner (TVNZ's political editor at the time), came up with another angle, one he and reporter Michael Parkin had heard about. It was that following O'Donnell's death, there had been a raid in the province neighbouring Bamiyan, where our troops were stationed. ISAF had issued a press release and AP had reported it.
We knew little about the details, but wanted to know if New Zealand soliders had been involved and whether it was a response to O'Donnell's death.
We interviewed Mapp in a management office at TVNZ because we couldn't get into the studio at the time he was available. As we did on such occasions, I sat behind Mapp, in Espiner's eyeline so that I could count time for him and offer advice via hand signals.
We started with broad questions about ANZAC Day and Afghanistan, before zeroing in on the raid and the detainees.
I've since spoken to Mapp about that interivew. Despite the rants of some genuine conspiracy theorists, the interview wasn't a negotiated deal where Mapp could reveal the raid in his own way. He was blindsided by the question about the raid.
The way he described it to me, he knew he had two seconds to decide whether to confirm New Zealand's involvement, thereby revealing operational matters he would have had no desire to reveal, or try to dodge, evade or even lie.
In those seconds, he chose transparency. He didn't want to lie to the public and, he figured, we probably had more knowledge and sources than we were initially revealing. He was wrong on that front. We were flying a kite.
You can see in the transcript that he tries at first to deflect Espiner's questions, saying "operations do take place". But ultimately decides to not deny SAS involvement, thus implying it played a role.
But in the context of Hager and Stephenson's claims that the raid went horribly wrong, no insurgents were found and 16 villagers were injured and five killed, the rest of his answers are important:
GUYON Now, he [O'Donnell] died on August the 3rd last year in what was believed to be an attack by Taliban insurgents who perhaps came in from the neighbouring Baghlan province. There's a press release on the public record from ISAF dated around the 23rd of August which talks about coalition operations conducted in Baghlan province where 12 insurgents were killed a short time after Tim O’Donnell’s death. Do you know whether New Zealand forces were involved in that counterattack which followed Tim O’Donnell’s death?
DR MAPP Well, as you would imagine, New Zealand has been taking an active interest in what occurs in that region, and New Zealand forces were involved in that. They’re there to protect our people in Bamiyan.
GUYON 12 insurgents were killed, including two Taliban commanders, so New Zealanders took part in the counterattack which sought to... I won’t say revenge or avenge, but in terms of securing an area after Tim O’Donnell’s death?
DR MAPP To essentially protect our people. When you... When there are attacks occurring, you have to obviously deal with the cause of the insurgents.
GUYON So the people who killed Tim O’Donnell were in turn killed by allied forces, including New Zealanders?
DR MAPP Well, it is a war, and, you know, military operations do take place.
GUYON And so that is the case, though. My interpretation of that, which is largely stitched together from the public record – that is right?
DR MAPP Well, as I say, operations do take place.
GUYON Yes, and you can confirm that New Zealanders were involved in an operation which killed those Taliban commanders who’d been responsible for Tim O’Donnell’s death?
DR MAPP Well, as I said, military operations do take place to protect our forces in Bamiyan.
GUYON I’ll take that as a yes. I understand that SAS soldiers were involved in that attack. Can you confirm that that is the case?
DR MAPP Well, our special-operations soldiers are obviously deployed to undertake special operations. Beyond that, I’m not going to elaborate, because... for reasons, but you can imagine that we have our special forces to be able to undertake military operations. That is part of their overall remit.
GUYON And so you’re not denying that?
DR MAPP No, I’m not denying that.
GUYON Is it within our remit in our rules of engagement to go into that neighbouring province for military action?
DR MAPP It’s in the remit of the special forces to be able to undertake operations at the direction, essentially, of ISAF, NATO and, in this case particularly, to protect our people.
GUYON Why didn’t you put a press release out about that? Why didn’t you communicate that with the New Zealand public? Was it necessary to do that?
DR MAPP Well, as you know, we have a general principle of not, basically, discussing the operations of the special forces. In Kabul, it’s been a bit different, but as a general proposition, we don’t.
GUYON There's an Associated Press report around that time that contains a claim that a number of civilians were killed during that operation.
DR MAPP And that’s been investigated and proven to be false.
GUYON So no civilians were killed in that? You’re satisfied about that? You’ve seen some reports on it?
DR MAPP I am satisfied around that.
GUYON Only insurgents were killed in that operation?
DR MAPP I am satisfied around that.
GUYON Did you... And this, I hope, isn’t a macabre question, but did you inform the family – Tim O’Donnell’s family – that this action had taken place?
DR MAPP Not specifically, but, as I say, this is about protecting our people for the future specifically, and we do keep, as we know, as much as possible, special operations are kept in the domain of confidentiality.
GUYON Before I leave that aspect, that action, which obviously took out a number of insurgents – has that secured the area to any extent? Because I know that there were several incidents where there was a belief that people had come in from the Baghlan province to attack the provincial-reconstruction team. Is it a safer area, more secure area as a result of that operation?
DR MAPP Well, as you would imagine, we do, through ISAF generally, take particular attention to what's happening there, and it remains dangerous. There's no question about that, and we have to be prudent about that.
The parts in bold are arguably the most important parts of that interview, given the claims made by Hager and Stephenson. Mapp was very clear that day it was insurgents who were killed, not civilians.
If the authors are right and Mapp wrong, there are many questions to be answered.
Now, as you will also appreciate, Mapp is a pundit on this site; an experienced and considered politician and lawyer. The fact that Hager and Mapp both have their photos to the left of this post is a coincidence, but perhaps a sign of just what a small country New Zealand is.
The good thing about this book is that it again shines light on New Zealand's years in Afghanistan. Because questions do remain, most notably the details of this raid and our treatment of the detainees. The use of our SAS was always contentious -- a chance post-9/11 for the Clark Labour government to mend bridges with America after the anti-nuclear arguments and the end of ANZUS. The SAS was, ironically, our peace offering to them in their time of need. National then doubled-down when it came to power, building towards the Wellington declaration.
Awful to think how the geo-politics of the Pacific may have had such fatal ramifications for some villagers living half a world away.
But beyond the politicians, the person who most needs to be asked the hard questions is our Governor-General Sir Jerry Mateparae. He was head of the Defence Force ultimately responsible for both the detainees and raid.
It's time the buck stopped with him as well.
As for that interview, Guyon and I couldn't believe what we had been able to get from the interview. I still remember signalling him to stay on that line of questioning; as if he needs that! It was a fine piece of interviewing on the fly.
Afterward, an argument ensued about how the news might be used. I didn't want Q+A to have become irrelevant and played out by Sunday and so wanted to delay the release of our exclusive. Quite rightly, I lost that argument and the story led the news that night.
While I thought there would be more to tell, I didn't for a second think it would be leading the news again six years later. Of course it's not news that innocent people die in war. Certainly, New Zealand soldiers have killed innocents in other wars. Yet equally, war is meant to be for the combatants, not villagers caught in the crossfire between competing ideologies. There are rules and there is - or should be -compassion for innocent victims of any kind. What we need to see from the book is what the orders were, why innocents died and what the authors mean when they talk of a cover up.
Hopefully, this time the questions we asked then will be more comprehensively answered and we will come to know - officially - more about our involvement in Afghanistan, so New Zealanders can decide for themselves the rights and wrongs of that war.