Afghanistan: Our Self-inflicted Wounds

Defence Minister Wayne Mapp and his Chief of Defence Force Rhys Jones stepped up their efforts this week to keep the gloss on New Zealand’s military involvement in Afghanistan. So far, they have succeeded in raising more questions than they have answered.

Lieutnant General Jones opened the campaign with a broadside aimed at Jon Stephenson, author of the Metro magazine article “Eyes Wide Shut”. Jones denied that NZ SAS troops had detained anyone during a raid on Kabul-based Tiger International to hand them over to the Afghan National Directorate of Security.”In fact, no detainees were taken, either by the SAS or anyone else,” he stated.

On he went. The NZ SAS never had to intervene to prevent Afghan troops dragging a detainee behind a vehicle in Wardak province, or anywhere else. The Afghan commander at the SAS-mentored Afghan crisis response unit – “Colonel M”- never spoke to Stephenson about SAS involvement in detaining insurgents. There was no evidence that Stephenson had ever entered the Kabul crisis response unit base, as claimed in a Sunday Star Times article “SAS HQ – Walk Right In”.

However, General Jones said absolutely nothing about the core of the “Eyes Wide Shut” story – a full account of the NZ SAS involvement the 2002 night raid on Band e Timur village, including statements Stephenson had recorded from some of the 55 detainees taken from the village by the SAS and handed over to US allies at Kandahar. They spoke of being stripped, shaved, paraded naked, humiliated, and being beaten by the Americans over a period of seven days before they were finally released and flown home. The next day, we discovered the reason for the silence.

In Parliament, the Green’s long-time war critic Keith Locke asked the Minister of Defence: what evidence did the Government obtain on the subsequent mistreatment of prisoners handed over by the SAS to American jurisdiction after the raid in Band e Timur in 2002, and does it square with the evidence that journalist Jon Stephenson obtained from those affected?

In his answer, Mapp made a startling admission.

“It is certainly acknowledged that there was mistreatment in 2002. That was complained of at the time by our senior officers present at the time… But essentially that is the responsibility of the United States Government which realizes of course that the events that occurred back then would not meet appropriate standards,” Mapp replied.

Mapp’s acknowledgment of mistreatment differs dramatically from the previous official account of the incident, given to me by Defence Minister Phil Goff in September 2007.

Then, Goff said:Following the transfer, the New Zealand officer in command of the NZ SAS element informally raised the issue of the handling of detainees with the local US Command, because the handling was more robust than the New Zealand approach. He was assured that the practice observed was consistent with US procedures prior to internment in a detention facility and was satisfied that the treatment was not inhumane.”

Mapp obviously disagrees. He tipped the bucket over the Americans when Locke asked him if the Government had done anything to follow up on the welfare of the Afghan civilians, or to offer some compenation “given that it was the SAS that handed them over to mistreatment”.

“Well, the mistreating authority was in fact the United States; surely the responsibility must lie with the United States, not New Zealand,” said Mapp.

The fact that the mistreatment occurred at American hands does not absolve the NZDF and the Government from following up on the recorded statements about beatings and other mistreatment that Stephenson has secured from the people who were taken captive by the NZ SAS.

Our troops were suspicious about their captive’s treatment when they were handed over to the Americans. Now, we have a Government minister stating plainly that they were mistreated by our major ally in the war. Surely New Zealand has a responsibility to follow up and see what can be done to compensate the victims now they have been located.

Mapp’s answers to Parliamentary questions this week indicate that we also have other and more topical detainee issues to address. Since the NZ SAS returned to Afghanistan in 2009, he confirmed that:

“People have been arrested by the [Afghan] crisis response unit on 24 occasions when New Zealand has been in support.”

Where are those people now? Judging from the Minister’s answers, it is most likely that some of them are in the infamous detention facility operated by the National Directorate of Security in Kabul. That does not worry Mapp.

We are advised that the NATO-International Security Assistance Force headquarters now regards the facility in Kabul as the detention facility of choice, and actually directs NATO-International Security Assistance Force nations to use this facility because it is, in fact, properly monitored.”

Here, we are at odds with another major ally. The British government stopped transferring detainees to the NDS Kabul facility in December 2008 because it had been refused access to check they were being treated in accordance with international human rights and humanitarian law. A British Court determined in June last year that the moratorium on transfers to NDS Kabul should continue.

“We are far from satisfied as to the sufficiency of safeguards for UK transferees. On the available evidence there is, in our judgment, a real risk that UK transferees will be subjected to torture or other serious mistreatment at NDS Kabul,” the Court judgment states.

The NZ SAS is mentoring and supporting Afghan security forces taking captives with our support. That makes us a party to the detention process and New Zealand has a responsibility to ensure those detainees are treated in accordance with international law. To meet that obligation, the NZ SAS-Crisis Response Unit detainees should not be held by the NDS in Kabul, until we have proof they will not be subjected to torture and other mistreatment, and a check system in place to make sure.

Another of Mapp’s revelations this week signals we have another detainee issue and another ally to worry about.

On 30 January, the New Zealand SAS detained a mid-level Taliban commander in response to a tasking by the International Security Assistance Force, because the Afghan authorities, including the crisis response unit were not available at the time. That person was transferred to a United States facility at Bagram, and is now being held at a joint US-Afghan facility at Parwan.”

Here’s what a BBC team found when it was allowed inside the new Bagram detention facility in April last year:

“In the new jail, prisoners were being moved around in wheelchairs with goggles and headphones on. The goggles were blacked out, and the purpose of the headphones was to block out all sound. Each prisoner was handcuffed and had their legs shackled. Prisoners are kept in 56 cells, which the prisoners refer to as ‘cages’. The front of the cells are made of mesh, the ceiling is clear, and the other three walls are solid.”

Sound familiar? Taking assurances from our allies at face value, and relying on the International Red Cross or the Afghan Independent Human Rights Council to do the monitoring are not enough to meet our legal or moral  obligations to the detainees that NZDF personnel capture in concert with Afghan forces or on their own. It is time for a full, independent inquiry into the detainee practices of NZDF personnel in Afghanistan.