It is obvious from yesterday’s briefing by the NZDF that there are two detailed versions of the events surrounding Operation Burnham; and they both can’t be true. That by itself is reason for an inquiry.
Although the NZDF has gone to great lengths to lay out an alternative scenario, it has to be remembered that none of those who spoke at the briefing were on the ground when these events took place. Whereas, the book details a quite different account of events as reported by SAS and PRT personnel in Baghlan Province at the time. It is entirely possible that NZDF HQ have not been told the true story – in other words, that a cover-up occurred not at HQ, but at the operational level.
Last week, the Human Rights Foundation got a long awaited Official Information response from the NZDF that for the first time acknowledged a civilian casualty. From the NZDF briefing, it is clear that there were in fact several civilian casualties and that the original ISAF report referred to this possibility Yet you can read to this day on the NZDF website that “the allegations of civilian casualties were unfounded”.
Another clear difference is that Hit & Run names everyone – who they were, where they lived, which families they were from and so on. There is none of that level of detail in the reports of the NZDF.
Defence Chief Keating said at the outset that in a matter of days from local and international intelligence services they knew who had attacked their patrol and the village they came from. After Operation Burnham, they are unable to name even one insurgent killed – they just define an insurgent as someone who “fitted a profile”. Surely they would want to know that they got the right people – otherwise, the job hasn’t been done. Yet it appears the NZDF approach is: if they were dead after the raid, they must have been an insurgent. This, of course, helps if you want to deny there were civilian casualties.
Finally, it’s now clear there were indeed civilian casualties of Operation Burnham and that NZDF knew this at the time, as they say civilians were being used as “human shields”. There are international protocols, which NZDF personnel are required to follow, that where civilians are injured in these circumstances they must search and care for the wounded. Even on the NZDF version of events, nothing was done for the wounded.
All this surely needs resolving. It may be the NZDF version of events that turns out to be the more accurate account. But there is a vast amount of information in Hit and Run that completely contradicts the NZDF account and it that information is verified, or even a significant part of it, NZDF needs to be held to account.
There was another report in the Herald yesterday about the entire Afghan operation and the fact that a critical report had been buried by the NZDF. If the Hit & Run version of Operation Burnham is verified, it will be clear that there is a culture of lack of accountability in the NZDF that needs serious attention. Surely, the only way to resolve these differing accounts is through a truly independent, judge-led Inquiry.