Afghanistan: Mapp's raid spin is wearing thin

Defence Minister Wayne Mapp’s categoric denial that there were civilian casualties when New Zealand SAS troops took part in a night raid in Baghlan province is wearing thin as more evidence comes to hand from Afghanistan.

The first news of the Baghlan raid came from the governor of the Tala Wa Barfak district, Mohammad Ismael. On 22 August 2010, he told Agence France Presse:

"On Sunday, we saw 11 helicopters coming... Some of the helicopters landed deploying troops. They carried out attacks there. They killed eight people, all civilians."

The allegation was denied in the incident report produced at the time by International Security Assistance Force headquarters.

“No civilians were injured or killed during this operation.”

ISAF stated that the combined night raid by Afghan National Security Forces and ISAF service members had resulted in 12 insurgents killed and the seizure of a cache of small arms ammunition and a rocket-propelled grenade launcher.

Eight months later, the New Zealand Defence Force issued its first statement confirming that NZDF personnel had been involved in the raid – and that it had sparked an official inquiry into Mohammed Ismael’s allegations about civilian casualties.

“Following the operation allegations of civilian casualties were made. These were investigated by a joint Afghan Ministry of Defence, Ministry of Interior and International Security Assistance Force assessment team, in accordance with ISAF procedures. The investigation concluded that the allegations of civilian casualties were unfounded.”

Wayne Mapp was just as emphatic when he spoke about allegations of civilian casualties during the raid on Q+A a week ago.

“That's been investigated and proven to be false.”

As I reported last week, the ISAF joint assessment team sent to the scene of the raid was not so categoric.

The assessment reported that a number of civilians may have been killed when a gunsight malfunctioned on one of the helicopters and sent a spray of bullets into a building that was not its intended target. The assessment team leader expressed his regrets for the incident.

I’ve now learnt that the ISAF Joint Command commander, Lieutenant General David M. Rodriguez ordered a further inquiry into the operation on the basis of the assessment team’s report. The results of this inquiry were to be provided “on its completion”

Since then, no more has been said about the inquiry in any statement issued by ISAF. However, the raid did not escape the attention of the United Nations Assistance Mission to Afghanistan or the Afghanistan Independent Human Rights Council.

Last month, UNAMA and AIHRC issued a joint report on “The Protection of Civilians in Armed Conflict”. It refers specifically to the raid in the Tala Wa Barfak district, and states -

“International military forces conducted an investigation into an air strike on 22 August in Tala Wa Barfak district in Baghlan province that caused six civilian deaths and four injuries.

“Reportedly, the strike was not coordinated with Provincial Reconstruction Teams based in Baghlan or with Baghlan authorities.

“Although the investigation team was sent from Regional Command North on numerous occasions, it received minimal cooperation from district authorities. The team was unable to interview victims, was not shown grave sites and was not able to visit the incident site.

“Although the district governor presented a list of victims to the investigation team, the official ISAF investigation report has not been shared with district and provincial authorities, the AIHRC or UNAMA Human Rights in spite of requests. According to the district authorities there was no further government follow up.”

On the basis of this report, it looks like Defence Minister Mapp and NZDF have some explaining to do about their categoric statements that the allegations of civilian casualties in the Baghlan raid have been investigated and proven to be false. Watch this space.