Mainstream media wakes up to some questionable aspects of New Zealand’s military involvement in Afghanistan. And about time. The past pattern of official fact-fudging and secrecy is no basis for an expanded commitment

Some time this month, New Zealanders may see the outcome of an officials’ review of New Zealand’s military commitment in Afghanistan. Our government is clearly under heavy pressure from allies to expand the provincial reconstruction commitment and return to combat duties.

As the day of decision draws closer, mainstream media are beginning to wake up to the seriousness of the issue, and to ask some questions that have already been traversed on Pundit, here, here and here.

Freelance journalist Jon Stephenson broke the ice this past weekend with a Sunday Star Times expose headlined “Kiwi Troops in War Crimes Row”. He has revealed some detail about the treatment of SAS prisoners that has not been provided in any of the official information that has been grudgingly released to date. His story will stand or fall on the veracity of this detail.

On the basis of interviews with un-named SAS members of the unit’s first tour of duty in Afghanistan, Stephenson has named their commander [“Lieutenant Colonel Jim Blackwell”]. He has named the base where the SAS turned over 50 to 70 prisoners to the custody of American forces [Khandahar – also known as “Camp Slappy”]; and stated that while the SAS recorded the height, eye colour and place of detention of their prisoners, they did not obtain their names and date of birth.

Stephenson has also provided the approximate date of a meeting of special force commanders from Denmark, Norway, Germany, and Canada called by the New Zealand commander, Blackwell, to discuss the “robust” American treatment of their prisoners [“April 2002”].

He says that none of his SAS sources saw inside the Khandahar detention centre – where it is now known that prisoners were often slapped or beaten, some were tortured, and some were killed. These SAS members knew the brutal reputation of the centre, but say they were in no position to witness it.

However, Stephenson also reports the opinion of an American human rights lawyer, Michael Ratner, described as a teacher at Yale and Columbia law school. He quotes Ratner saying that by failing to accurately document the names of transferred prisoners, New Zealanders were effectively enablers of abuse and New Zealand was in breach of the Geneva conventions and the UN Convention against Torture.

The difficulty Ratner faces is our inability to be able to determine what actually happened to the SAS prisoners. Without proper identification, they are not traceable. It was the same difficulty that the New Zealand government encountered in 2006, when our officials finally got around to asking the Americans what had happened to the SAS detainees.

The NZ Defence Force did not provide the SAS with any resource to process their prisoners and record their identification. Surely a fingerprint was not beyond the realms of possibility? That is just one of the questions our defence chiefs still need to be asked.

To date, the response to Stephenson’s story has been pretty limp. The Greens say the Government should not consider sending the SAS back to Afghanistan until it knows whether prisoners New Zealand troops gave to US forces were mistreated. Labour is washing its hands of a mess that it certainly helped to create.

A spokesman for Prime Minister John Key has highlighted comments by Defence Force chief Lieutenant General Jerry Mateparae that the SAS has tightened its rules on handling prisoners since its first tour in Afghanistan. True, they did not take any more prisoners - according to the information I have from the General - and neither has the Provincial Reconstruction Team.

The Americans may have cleaned up their detention centres with the change of guard at the White House, but that does not address the problem that will face New Zealand troops if the government decides to commit them to combat duty this month.

Under rules agreed between the Karzai government of Afghanistan and UN-mandated International Security Assistance Force [ISAF], which New Zealand belatedly joined in 2006, prisoners taken by ISAF units must be turned over to the Afghan authorities for detention. The reputation of the Afghan prison system speaks for itself.

Since the beginning of 2006, New Zealand has been trying to negotiate a change to its bilateral military technical agreement with Afghanistan to ensure that any detainees captured by our troops will be treated in accordance with international human rights and humanitarian laws and will not be subject to the death penalty.

Other nations participating in the UN ISAF have such agreements, and some have provisions that enable them to inspect detention facilities and check out the treatment and condition of detainees taken by their troops. New Zealand does not. Why not? Another good question.

A month ago, I asked Foreign Affairs Minister Murray McCully if we had completed a new agreement with Afghanistan, and now wait, with interest, for his response.

Meantime, it is worth remembering that McCully's predecessor Phil Goff commenced the negotiations in 2006 with Dr Abdullah Abdullah, then foreign minister of Afghanistan and subsequently fired, and now President Hamid Karzai’s main rival in the current election campaign.

More than anything else, it is worth remembering how much, and how often, the facts have been fudged or hidden under the un-necessarily thick veil of secrecy that has been drawn over the actions of New Zealand troops on combat duty in Afghanistan. We would have known nothing about the NZDF prisoners’ problem, if the last Government and the defence chiefs had been left to their own devices.

Thankfully, there is no such thing as a private war – but New Zealand’s involvement in Afghanistan’s war has been about as close as you can get to one. This is no basis for a continued or expanded commitment.

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