“Hit and Run” – so who is keeping score of the mounting costs of an inquiry to maintain confidence in our Defence Force?

So what  is  going on   with  the  inquiry    which  the government decided  should be held  into Operation Burnham and related events?

Operation Burnham,  you  will  recall, happened  nearly  nine years  ago – to be  precise, in August 21-22, 2010, in Tirgiran Valley in Afghanistan.  It was  an  action by soldiers  of  NZ’s elite SAS,  operating as a part of the International Security Assistance Force.

Reviews   of what occurred by  two former defence ministers  as well as  by a former  prime minister found that Operation Burnham was conducted with the  highest  level of  professionalism.  Over-riding this, the Wellbeing Government  decided  to hold an  inquiry,  “bearing  in  mind  the need for   the public to have confidence in the NZDF”.

This  followed  the controversy  stirred  up  by the publication  in  “Hit and Run”, a book written  by  Nicky Hager  and  Jon Stephenson,  of  allegations that   six civilians were killed and 15 injured in a raid on villages by the NZ SAS. 

The government   appointed  two  of  the country’s top legal brains, Supreme Court  judge  Sir  Terence Arnold,  and  former  Attorney-general  (and onetime Prime Minister)  Sir  Geoffrey Palmer,  to conduct  the inquiry, with an  initial budget of  $2m  (but this is   expected to run to  $7m by the time their work is done).

The decision   to  hold the inquiry  provoked  diverse  reactions. On one side,  critics   said  it   would be a  “whitewash”.  National  said it  would be  a   “waste of  money”.   Hager and  Stephenson, and their supporters, were “over the moon” (as Hager put it)—initially at  least.

Attorney-general  David Parker, when announcing the  inquiry  in  April,  insisted  ‘continuing controversy’ around the operation had played a role in his decision, even  though  he  had considered material including certain video footage of the operation which did not seem to him

“ … to corroborate some key aspects of the book Hit & Run. The footage suggests that there was a group of armed individuals in the village”.

He  added  the aim of the inquiry is to

” … get to the bottom of the allegations that were made in Hit & Run as to if they are correct or not”

Let’s remember  what Hager  said  in 2017:

The SAS believed, based on flimsy intelligence, that they would find a group of Taliban fighters who’d attacked a NZ patrol 19 days earlier.   But the group wasn’t there, and the 21 people killed and wounded in the operation were all civilians – mostly women and children”.

Against  that, the NZDF  has  spent thousands of hours  going over the  material   it holds about the   raid  and  successive defence chiefs have  declared they had no doubts   the  SAS   followed the rules of engagement.

Last year the  NZDF emphatically said NZ troops did not raid the villages named in the book and that Operation Burnham took place about two kilometres away from those identified  in the  book.  More recently the head of the defence force, Lieutenant General Tim Keating,  emailed his staff to say that the “conduct of the NZSAS ground forces was exemplary” and the evidence he has will clear “the soldiers of any wrongdoing.”

As  one commentator  noted, the way a government inquiry is set up has a significant impact on what is revealed and whether justice is served.  That’s why so much attention was paid to the terms of reference provided to the inquiry.

Supporters of  Hager and Stephenson had worried that these terms of reference would be too narrow or that not enough resources or independence would be supplied by the government.

Such fears appear to have been unfounded.  Both  Hager and Stephenson have expressed their support for how the inquiry was established.

Stephenson has said:

It appears that the terms of reference are sufficiently broad to enable Sir Geoffrey Palmer and Sir Terence Arnold to ask the questions that I believe need to be asked”.

He was “pleased” that the issue of NZ involvement in transferring detainees to the Afghan secret police who he  said  are well known to torture detainees is going to be examined.

What  is  of  wider   concern  is the  virulent  mood  of those  who,  believing  what  Stephenson and Hager wrote,  then argue that the specific concern over civilian casualties in Operation Burnham represents only a fraction of the problems with culture and lack of accountability at the top of Defence, particularly regarding the decade-long deployment to Afghanistan.   They  say those problems run very deep and they argue an inquiry is needed to look broadly at the NZDF’s “lack of transparency and accountability. Of a culture of cover-up and obfuscation”.

Both  the eminent  jurists  appointed to  hold the inquiry  were clearly  seized  with  the  need to   ensure   they   heard  all  sides  of  the   issues  and they   even  made preparations  to  gather   evidence  from  the  residents  of  the  villages,  said  to be  targeted in the  operation.  But  despite taxpayer  money  being provided  to legal  representatives of  those people, they  have since  withdrawn  from the inquiry.

So  what  have  been  the significant  developments  since the  inquiry  opened  in Wellington?

The  most important – surely  – has been the  admission  by one of the authors of Hit & Run, Jon Stephenson, in an article for Stuff and again on RNZ’s Morning Report, that he and his co-author, Nicky Hager, had erred in declaring that no Taliban insurgents were present in Naik, the village attacked by NZ troopers, supported by US helicopter gunships, during Operation Burnham.

As  a  blogger on  the Left,  Chris  Trotter commented:

Stephenson’s correction of his own, and Hager’s, original story will transform the whole event into something much more opaque….The black and white certainty of Hager, and the villagers’ lawyer, Deborah Manning, will be overwhelmed by fifty different shades of sceptical grey”.

Trotter  added   that the intelligence supplied to the International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) in which the killers of  NZer Lieutenant O’Connell were said to be hiding in the Tirgiran Valley, was correct.  It is also clear, from the testimony gathered by Stephenson, that these fighters were being sheltered in the village of Naik.

On the other hand, it also appears that ISAF’s American helicopter gunships, in attempting to kill the Taliban insurgents, killed and injured a number of Afghan civilians.

It  appears  the US  had video from the  night of Operation  Burnham  which showed two men  visibly carrying weapons – a rifle and a rocket-propelled grenade launcher – when emerging from a building in Tirgiran  which is said to have included a woman.

Newstalk  political  editor  Barry  Soper  had  some scathing comment on  Stephenson’s  admission  there  were  insurgents  in the  village on the  night of Operation  Burnham.

“Why then did the authors (of  Hit and Run)  go to the publisher with only half the story?  The excuse from Stephenson is a lame one.  Hager it seems, wanted the book published two years ago.  He was of the view that it needed to proceed then.  Stephenson says it was a judgment call that they now have to live with.  It’s a call unfortunately that we all have to live with.  Credit to Stephenson for finally telling the whole story – but it’s a pity it wasn’t told from the start, it could have saved the taxpayer the money now being spent on the inquiry”.

But will  the  learned  heads of the inquiry  see Operation  Burnham   in the same light as  Soper  who  says:

“In reality this was a firefight and unfortunately some innocents lost their lives, which tragically happens in war zones”.

As  Point of  Order  sees  it,   the  worry   is  now  that  the   inquiry goes off   at some tangent.

One  of the  terms of reference in the  inquiry  relates to whether

“ … the rules of engagement or any version of them authorised the pre-determined and offensive use of lethal force against specified individuals (other than in the course of direct battle)”.

 This  could  offer  plenty  of  scope for  extensive analysis, if  in fact  those conducting  the inquiry   decide the  real   facts about  Operation Burnham were  not  as  presented  by the authors of  Hit and Run,  but by the  NZDF.     

Let’s not  forget  the soldiers  engaged  in  Operation Burnham   were members of the  highly  trained  SAS,  serving  their  country,  as part of an international effort  seeking  to bring peace to a  region  wracked by turmoil and  warfare  for decades.



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