Pulling the Teeth of the Tiger

Extracting information on military operations in Afghanistan from the New Zealand Defence Force is difficult at the best of times. The Christmas Eve NZSAS raid on the business premises of the Afghan Tiger Group in Kabul last year was not one of NZDF’s best times...

The so-called “combined forces” Christmas raid on the head quarters of the Kabul company that supplies vehicles to the U.S. military seems to have been a messy operation from start to finish. It went something like this.

International Security Assistance Force headquarters received credible intelligence that a bomb attack on the U.S. Embassy was imminent. There was suspicious activity in the car-park at the Afghan Tiger Group.

The Afghan Crisis Response Unit being mentored by our SAS was called out, and the Kabul police were alerted. But the Afghan CRU was slow to respond. The NZSAS team arrived at Tiger Group first. They moved in to secure the premises. The Tiger Group’s armed guards thought they were under attack by Taliban. One of them opened fire. The SAS unit responded. Two of the Tiger guards were shot dead and two were wounded. The Tiger staff were ordered to hit the floor and stay down. At that point, the Afghan crisis response unit arrived. The scene was searched. No bombs were found. No-one was detained – unless you call the period the Tiger staff spent on the floor under NZSAS gun-sights “detention”.

Here in New Zealand, we remained blissfully ignorant of the whole schermozzle – until Jon Stephenson stirred the pot last May with his Metro article “Eyes Wide Shut”. He said “the SAS handed their prisoners to the NDS [Afghan National Directorate of Security] who recognized them, vouched for them, and released them immediately.”

Stephenson’s article provoked an angry response from our Chief of Defence, Lieutenant General Rhys Jones, who made much of the point that “no detainees were taken by either the NZSAS or anybody else” in the Tiger Raid.

What Jones did not mention was the uproar that the shooting of civilians in the raid caused in Kabul. The following quotes come from the New York Times and the McClatchy newspaper chain, two days after the event.

“It was murder,” said the director of criminal investigations for the Kabul police, Colonel Mohammed Zahir. “I have seen lots of cases like this but I have not seen an incident where they kill civilians like this for no reason.” He also complained that the troops had even shot at the police when they arrived at the Tiger premises.

“The Afghan Interior Ministry is deeply concerned, and this incident should not have happened,” said the Ministry’s spokesman, Zemarai Bashary. His Ministry accused ISAF of flouting an international agreement that requires Afghan security forces to lead any such operations in the capital.

Basharay’s Government immediately disciplined two high-ranking Afghan security officials who helped ISAF carry out the raid. Bashary said a general was suspended from duty, and a colonel – believed to be “Colonel M”, the leader of the Afghan Crisis Response Unit – was fired.

I found the newspaper reports after I sent an Official Information Act request to General Jones My questions were prompted by his own statement rebutting Stephenson’s account of the Tiger Raid. Jones had claimed the operation had been cleared by the Kabul police, and an ISAF investigation had confirmed that a Tiger guard had fired the first shot.

Specifically, I wanted to know if the clearance was provided to the NZSAS prior to the initiation of the raid. Jones declined to provide this information on the grounds that it would be likely to prejudice the security or defence of New Zealand or the international relations of the New Zealand government.

He would not confirm that NZDF and the Afghan crisis response unit were operating as a “combined unit” at all times from the start to the finish of the Tiger Raid. Instead, he referred me to a statement by the Minister of Defence, who said: ”They [the NZSAS] then went into the rooms and asked the people to stay down, and the Afghan unit arrived a few minutes later”.

Effectively, this seems to confirm that people were temporarily detained by the NZSAS in the raid; that the Afghan unit did not lead the operation; and the procedural complaint made by the Afghan Ministry of the Interior was valid.

The General’s response to a question about the reasons why an ISAF inquiry was initiated into the Tiger raid was more fulsome. “When it is alleged that civilian casualties have been a result of operations conducted by ISAF personnel, it is ISAF practice to conduct an initial investigation to establish what has occurred and whether further investigation is necessary. Both the ISAF initial inquiry and an internal NZDF inquiry concluded that the NZSAS soldiers involved carried out the operation appropriately. ISAF advised there would be no further investigation of the operation because proper protocols and rules of engagement were correctly followed.” So, now we know that ISAF only conducted a limited scope, initial investigation, not a full inquiry into the Tiger Raid.

The General declined my request for an account of any steps taken by NZDF personnel to make contact with the next-of-kin, or other associates, of the two civilians who were shot dead during the raid. I also asked for details of any apology or offer of compensation for the deaths. He claims the release of this information would be likely to endanger the safety of some Afghans.

I have sent General Jones a copy of the McClatchy report and asked for his response to the concerns reported to have been expressed by Ministry of the Interior about the conduct of ISAF and the NZSAS.

If the report is incorrect, he should have no difficulty in responding. If it is accurate, the public has a right to know what NZDF has done to address the concerns expressed by the Afghan officials and the civilian deaths and injuries inflicted by our troops in the Tiger raid. I don’t expect a quick response.