SAS – Now you see them, now you don’t

A newspaper photographer catches Willie Apiata walking home from an observation mission. John Key promises a new policy of openness about the SAS. The elite troops get involved in the first major fire fight of their mission. Where does the openness go?

The lid lifted briefly on SAS operations in Afghanistan last January. Then it slammed straight down again.

It lifted because it was going to be impossible to deny that the bearded warrior photographed stalking through the smoking streets of Kabul was New Zealand’s Victoria Cross winner – possibly the most highly decorated soldier in Afghanistan.

John Key made the call and confirmed for the first time the identity of an SAS soldier on operational duties. He knew that the media knew – and, in the age of biometrics, someone would have produced proof of identity sooner or later.

So, we had the John and Jerry show – a media conference in which the Prime Minister and the Chief of Defence, Lt. General Jerry Mateparae spelled out why they were changing their standing policy on providing information about SAS operations: i.e. minimal information - no comment.

Their problem was self-created by New Zealand Defence Force headquarters. They had decided to press Corporal Apiata’s case for the highest military honour for his bravery in action during first SAS deployment to Afghanistan that ended in 2005. They made sure it was a bells and whistles show. Apiata was media groomed and coached. A television reconstruction of the SAS in action was produced, with the unit’s commanding officer acting as executive producer. An official history of the SAS hit the book-stands.

After a celebratory tour – including a visit to his home marae – Willie Apiata went back to work. It was all that he wanted to do. He told us as much himself.

His comrades went further, according to the Sunday Star Times special correspondent on SAS matters, Jon Stephenson. In Stephenson’s latest dispatch, he says Apiata’s comrades in the unit told him that “Willie didn’t want the medal”. He had seriously considered resigning rather than being “outed” by the hoopla. He was talked out of walking by his C.O. Lieutenant Colonel Jim Blackwell.

According to Stephenson’s informants, Blackwell’s rationale was that publicity would enhance the reputation of the unit, encourage the government to commit more money and equipment, and help attract new much-needed recruits.

The SAS culture is notoriously publicity-shy. Apiata is said to fear the media more than he fears the Taliban. Stephenson’s report contains a classic illustration of closed cult thinking in an explosive quote from a fuming SAS veteran.

“Do the US public know what [their special forces] are up to? No. Does their government expose them? No. Do the US press expose them? No.”

The vet suggests the same goes for the British, the Canadians, the Australians and the Germans. Of course, he is part-right, part-wrong. Governments and military brass maintain secrecy about their special forces when it suits them and abandon it when they think it’s necessary or gainful.

The British and Australians have been advised that their special forces have been involved in targeting and killing Taliban leaders. The Americans talk freely about the tension between special forces and other military units in the race for resource. They have also repeatedly scuppered New Zealand attempts to veil our SAS in secrecy. So have the Norwegians and the Danes.

If you choose to include a soldier celebrated for earning one of the highest military honours held by anyone serving in Afghanistan in a special forces’ unit, supporting security operations in the world media capital of that country, do not expect its operations to be secret for long.

You do not earn many brownie points for pointing this out when you talk to serving soldiers or war veterans. They take the battlefield risks, and they are entitled to protection. Of course, but so are we. That is exactly why we need to know the risks that are being generated in our name.

Global terrorism knows no boundaries, needs no uniforms, and makes no distinction between military adversaries and non-combatant civilians. There are forces in Afghanistan that have the capacity to project terror to a soft, remote target like New Zealand.

Recent reports, sourced to Afghanistan intelligence officials, say the insurgents who fired on our SAS troops in the recent battle around foreign guest houses in Kabul were from a Pakistani militant group. They were targeting officials from India.

Prime Minister Key’s statement on this significant action has been a model of minimalism. As he said, last January, there would be openness “where possible, without compromising the safety and security of the personnel involved”. This policy would apply to the current deployment and would be reviewed “case by case”. It is case closed on the latest Kabul battle.

Unfortunately for John and Jerry, the SAS case has not been closed. In fact, General Mateparae created a new opening last January, when he confirmed that the unit helped an Afghanistan special operations unit take into custody a group alleged to be involved in staging rocket and improvised explosive device attacks. Now, the government can be asked quite specifically how it will monitor the treatment of these prisoners in detention facilities run by Afghan authorities.

The answer given by Foreign Affairs Minister Murray McCully to a broader question on this topic last month was: “The New Zealand Government has received assurances from Afghanistan covering the treatment of any detainees transferred to Afghan authorities. We have made it clear that we expect those assurances to be honoured.“

Given the sorry record of the Afghan prisons and courts, that bland answer will not do.