Brian Rudman: We all deserve to know the truth about the 2010 SAS raids in Afghanistan

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Brian Rudman is a NZ Herald feature writer and columnist.

 Prime Minister Bill English might have successfully stonewalled the clamour for a public inquiry into the 2010 SAS raids in Afghanistan if he and the military had been able to sell the lie that it was all the figment of the fevered imaginations of a couple of conspiracy theorists.

But Wayne Mapp, the National Government Defence Minister at the time of the raids, has effectively blocked that escape route. Dr Mapp says that “As a nation we owe it to ourselves to find out, to the extent reasonably possible, if civilian causalities did occur, and if they did, to properly acknowledge that.”

Mapp can’t be vilified as a leftist trouble-making peacenik. Before politics he was an Auckland University professor teaching commercial and international law. He was also a reservist major in the NZ Army, specialising in intelligence. Since 2012 he’s been a Law Commissioner.

Mapp was in Afghanistan at the time of “Operation Burnham” and wrote last week that he was fully briefed on the morning of the raid and “on the advice of the military professionals, I recommended that it proceed.”

He says he was told at the time that the raid had not achieved its stated aims, but it was not until 2014 he learned that civilians might have suffered, in particular, a three-year-old. Because of that, and author Jon Stephenson’s long experience covering the Afghan conflict, he said he agreed to be interviewed for the just-published book, Hit & Run by Nicky Hager and Jon Stephenson.

In it, an unnamed friend of Mapp’s quotes the Minister later confiding that the raid was “our biggest and most disastrous operation. A fiasco.”

Mapp has not denied the accuracy of this report. Or the book. Indeed he says it is possible that the Defence Force and the Hager-Stephenson accounts “are reconcilable.”

However, playing the academic, he also rather fancifully proposes the truth might be uncovered without the “necessity” of a full inquiry. He suggests instead, the Government make diplomatic approaches for information to the Afghan government “and trusted NGOs on the ground”.

This is rather naïve from a former minister of defence who says he first discovered there might have been civilian casualties by watching Stephenson’s 2014 documentary on Maori TV.

In rejecting an inquiry, English says that Hit & Run is a “wildly inaccurate piece of journalism.” This after a home movies session with the “independent” Chief of Defence Force, Lt General Tim Keating, of carefully edited clips from the US helicopters involved in the controversial night-time, killer raids!

To suggest the military are independent bystanders is risible. In October 2015, Keating had to publicly apologise to Stephenson for a press release issued by his predecessor, attacking the accuracy of his 2011 Metro magazine article alleging SAS troops had passed prisoners to local Afghan authorities known to use torture.

Stephenson sued for $500,000 over the claim he’d invented an interview with a top Afghan police official and, after a long legal battle, won an undisclosed settlement.

To suggest the military are independent bystanders is risible.

At the time of the 2011 press release, then Prime Minister John Key, sounding very much like English today, said “I’ve got no reason for the NZDF to be lying, and I’ve found [Stephenson] myself personally not to be credible.”

Revelations in Hager’s 2011 book on the Afghanistan conflict can have earned him no friends within the military hierarchy either.

The military says everything smells of roses. Hit & Run suggests otherwise. It contains interviews with SAS soldiers involved in the raids, along with local villagers, Afghan officials, local journalists and many others. Out of necessity, they’re mostly anonymous.

What Mapp said of the 2014 television programme, is equally applicable today. “Stephenson also told me enough about what had happened for it to be believable that this could have occurred …”

We all deserve to know the truth.

And with US President Donald Trump now threatening to “handle” North Korea, the sooner we know what the SAS gets up to abroad the better. In 2011, well after the controversial raids, Key was reassuring us the SAS in Afghanistan had a purely “mentoring role”.

Yet in their book, Hager and Stephenson reveal a secret 2003 Ministry of Defence report proposing our SAS “integrate seamlessly” into a joint global strike force with our English-speaking allies, USA, UK, Canada and Australia. Next stop North Korea?