Afghanistan: the war of words – and friendly fire

The Government’s spin machine cranks into action but its selective secrecy policy raises more questions about SAS operations in Afghanistan than it answers

Defence Minister Wayne Mapp must have seen it coming. His military brass would certainly have known that Jon Stephenson, the most active Afghanistan specialist in the New Zealand news media, was probing around his network of contacts in the SAS and asking other active and retired NZDF personnel awkward questions about prisoners and civilian casualties.

Metro magazine and the 60 Minutes team at TV3 would have been involved with Stephenson weeks before the magazine featuring his latest Afghanistan revelations went on sale last Tuesday, the day before a documentary version of it screened on the prime-time current affairs show.

The whiff of bad news coming must have been strong. In the week before ANZAC day, most of the mainstream media would have been sniffing around for a relevant war story to run during this special time of remembrance.

So, Mapp launched a pre-emptive strike almost a week ahead of Stephenson’s launch.

In an interview with TVNZ news political editor Guyon Espiner. he confirmed that NZDF personnel had been involved in an International Security Assistance Force operation in Baghlan province where 12 insurgents had been killed. The operation had taken place less than three weeks after Lieutenant Tim O’Donnell had been killed in a bomb and rocket attack on a New Zealand patrol in neighbouring Bamyan province.

Espiner quickly stitched the two events together, and, with a little more deft questioning, extracted enough from Mapp to build a story about “a deadly secret mission by the country's elite SAS troops to hunt down those who killed Tim O'Donnell.” ONE News broke the story on Wednesday 20 April– and promised more would be revealed when Mapp’s full interview was played on Q+A last Sunday.

As the news broke, the NZDF posted a much more guarded version of the story on its website. It did not mention the SAS, or that the operation took place in Baghlan province, or that it was connected in any way with the death of Lieutenant O’Donnell.

Instead, the NZDF release stated that “New Zealand Defence Force (NZDF) elements, operating as part of a Coalition Force in Bamyan province, Afghanistan, conducted an operation against an insurgent group.” It goes on to say that nine insurgents (not 12 as reported) were killed in the operation which targeted an insurgent group in the area where Bamyan Province borders neighbouring Baghlan province”. Then it went on to mention a piece of information that Mapp knew Espiner had – but had not yet revealed.

“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.”

This is where Mapp’s pre-emptive strike starts to fall apart. When his pre-recorded interview with Espiner was played in its entirety, we saw him fluffing and bluffing his way through most of the crucial questions – but on the matter of civilian casualties, he was crisp and clear.

Espiner: There's an Associated Press report around that time that contains a claim that a number of civilians were killed during that operation.

Mapp: And that’s been investigated and proven to be false.

Espiner pressed harder: No civilians were killed – only insurgents were killed? Mapp didn’t say yes and he didn’t say no. His response was:

“I am satisfied around that”.

In fact, the official ISAF inquiry into the Baghlan operation is nowhere near as conclusive as the Minister and the NZDF suggest. The investigating team determined that, due to a gunsight malfunction…

“…several rounds from coalition helicopters fell short, missing the intended target and instead striking two buildings, which may have resulted in civilian casualties.”

The team leader, U.S. Brigadier General Timothy M. Zadelis, expressed his regrets.

"We regret any possible civilian loss of life or injury. Our first objective is to protect the people of Afghanistan, and in this case we may have failed. Our thoughts and concerns are with the family and friends of those civilians who may have been injured or killed."

Media accounts and ISAF records of combat operations around the time the SAS was engaged in the Baghlan raid on 23 August also call into question the notion that this was a specific counter-attack designed to strike at the Taliban capacity to mount raids into Bamyan.

In three months prior to the Baghlan raid, ISAF and US forces stepped up the nationwide hunt for insurgents. According to Spiegel On Line, at least 365 high-ranking and mid-level insurgent commanders were killed, nearly 1,400 people, were arrested in these operations.

Around the time of the Baghlan raid, special forces were being deployed on missions in that province alone almost every night.

Selective secrecy and spin are no substitutes for facts – and our troops deserve better treatment than they are receiving from the political and military masters.