Like the proverbial All Black test match, the nearly 400-page Arnold-Palmer report into the Special Air Services actions in Afghanistan, is very much a game of two halves.
In the first half, Sir Terence Arnold and Sir Geoffrey Palmer literally blow authors Jon Stephenson and Nicky Hager out of the water for their claims in their book Hit & Run about the SAS conduct of the raids. In the second they rightly chastise the NZ Defence Force over what can best be described as muddied, incompetent maladministration and misleading briefings to ministers.
For the first half, take this example:
” … the principal allegations in Hit & Run about the conduct of TF81 personnel (the SAS troopers) on Operations Burnham and Nova are not accurate.
“First, the operations were not revenge operations; nor were they ‘ill-conceived’.
“There were legitimate reasons for them—there was reliable intelligence indicating there were insurgents in the villages who had been conducting attacks in Bamyan province (where the NZ provincial reconstruct team was based) and who were planning further attacks on the NZPRT and Afghan security forces. The operations aimed to disrupt the insurgent network and improve security in Bamyan province.
“They were also planned and approved in accordance with standard national and ISAF processes. Further, there was no ‘air of rage and lack of control’ to the operations. The New Zealand forces involved acted professionally, although several miscalculations or errors may have been made.
“Second, the book describes what happened on Operation Burnham as an ‘attack on innocent people’, claiming that there were no insurgents in the villages (Khak Khuday Dad and Naik) at the time of the operation. This claim is incorrect.
“One of the two individuals being sought on Operation Burnham, Maulawi Neimatullah, was in Naik on the night of the operation, as was another insurgent leader, Qari Miraj, who had played a prominent part in the ambush that resulted in Lieutenant Tim O’Donnell’s death.
“Qari Miraj had two armed bodyguards with him. The other objective (or target) of Operation Burnham, Abdullah Kalta, may also have been present, but we have been unable to confirm that. An ammunition cache and a rocket-propelled grenade launcher were found in Kalta’s house and an AK-47 in Neimatullah’s house.
“In addition, available video footage shows that men with weapons emerged from a house in Khak Khuday Dad and began to climb to high ground as the first CH-47 Chinook transport helicopter arrived at the start of the operation. Some of the weapons were capable of bringing down helicopters (for example, rocket-propelled grenades).
“The actions of the men were consistent with the pre-operation intelligence, to the effect that the area was under the influence of the Taliban and that there were insurgent leaders and fighters there
“Third, the operations were not conducted in the way alleged in Hit & Run. In particular:
“(a) Hit & Run alleges that the Apache helicopters started a ‘ferocious attack’ on Khak Khuday Dad almost immediately after they arrived there. In fact, they began firing only after they had seen the men carrying weapons, and after receiving clearance to fire from TF81 personnel. That clearance was granted on the basis that
“(i) insurgents were positively identified,
“(ii) there were no ‘collateral damage’ issues, and
“(iii) friendly forces were not nearby.
“(b) Hit & Run alleges that the Apache helicopters ‘bombarded’ and ‘fiercely attacked’ houses, destroying 12 of them.
“It is clear from the video footage that the helicopters did not attack houses; they were aiming their fire at particular men or groups of men. Some of the firing did land close to or hit the roofs and/or walls of two or possibly three houses in Khak Khuday Dad. However, that was found by a United States Army investigation to be the result of a misaligned weapon on one of the helicopters.
“Moreover, the rounds that landed near houses were from 30mm calibre cannons, not rockets or missiles as the book alleges. No significant damage appears to have been caused to the houses, although there may well have been injuries to any occupants or others in the vicinity.
“(c) TF81 personnel searched only the three buildings that were targets of the operations (two houses and one agricultural building identified as A1, A3 and A2 respectively), not the upwards of 15 houses alleged in Hit & Run. There was some damage to A1 and A3, but we are satisfied it was not caused by improper conduct. Rather, it resulted from:
” (i) in the case of A1 and A3, the use of a standard military technique to gain entry to houses associated with active insurgents (that is, explosive method of entry);
“(ii) in the case of A1, the detonation close to the house of the weapons found during the operation; and
“(iii) in the case of A1 and A3, fires that we consider were started accidentally.
“(d) There was no further significant damage to A1 or A3 on the follow-up operation, Operation Nova, contrary to the allegations in Hit & Run.
“Hit & Run alleges that six named civilians were killed on Operation Burnham, including a three-year-old girl named Fatima, and that 15 named civilians were injured. In relation to the six alleged to have been killed:
“(a) We are satisfied that one of those named, a university student named Islamuddin, son of Abdul Qadir, was not killed in Operation Burnham but died in an incident in late January 2010, seven months earlier. He was the innocent victim of gunfire between an offender and police officers at a bazaar.
“(b) In relation to Fatima, we are satisfied that the girl depicted in the photograph at page 52 of Hit & Run was not killed on Operation Burnham. However, based on the available evidence we consider it is likely that a female child approximately 8-10 years old (whose identity remains unknown) did die as a result of the operation. Obviously, she was a civilian. Despite this, we have concluded that TF81 personnel had a proper basis for clearing the engagement in which the girl was most likely killed. Based on the information available to them at the time, they would not have known that there were civilians in close proximity to the man who was the target of the firing.
“(c) One of those named is Mohammad Iqbal, the father of the insurgent Maulawi Neimatullah. He was killed while walking along a track below A3 towards the south. He was carrying an AK-47 at the time. We have not reached a firm view on whether he was a civilian, and it is unnecessary for us to do so. The air assets did not seek clearance from TF81 personnel before engaging him. Accordingly, there is no basis on which NZDF could be responsible for his death.
“(d) Another of those named, Abdul Qayoom, son of Sakhi Dad, appears to have been shot and killed by an NZDF marksman as he approached the overwatch position. We have been unable to determine whether he was a civilian or an insurgent. However, based on the information available to the TF81 Ground Force Commander at the time, we conclude that his killing was in accordance with rules of engagement and the principles of International Humanitarian Law applicable to a non-international armed conflict.
“(e) That leaves two men—Abdul Qayoom, son of Mohammad Iqbal and brother of Neimatullah; andAbdul Faqir, son ofAbdul Rahman. We are satisfied that both were killed during Operation Burnham. There is some evidence linking both to the insurgent group, but we are unable to express a firm conclusion about whether they were insurgents. It appears likely that Abdul Faqir was part of the group of men who removed weapons from a house in Khak Khuday Dad before moving to high ground. We consider that there was a proper justification for engaging those men. It seems likely that Abdul Qayoom’s death resulted from the final engagement, to which we now turn.
“It appears that at least four men were killed in the final engagement of the operation, which occurred over a kilometre south of the main area of operations. All were identified as insurgents in an intelligence report soon after the operation, although they were not named.
“One may have been Abdul Qayoom, son of Mohammad Iqbal, as noted above. The others, however, do not appear to be any of those named in the book or identified by villagers.
“This engagement was cleared by the TF81 Ground Force Commander. On the basis of his understanding at the time, as revealed in contemporaneous material, we consider that his clearance of the engagement was consistent with the applicable rules of engagement and International Humanitarian Law / the Law of Armed Conflict.
“As to non-fatal injuries, we agree with the authors to the extent that at least six civilians were injured during Operation Burnham. Based on hospital and health centre records, we are satisfied that at least two women and two girls suffered injuries. We have also established from health centre records and other information that at least two men were injured.
“Although there is some information suggesting the men may have had links to insurgents, it is insufficient to enable us to determine whether they were insurgents. We therefore assume they were civilians. We accept that others may also have suffered injuries.”
Sir Terence and Sir Geoffrey devote much of their report criticising the way in which the NZDF, after the operation, handled the whole case in terms of administration, how crucial documents took months to discover, were mislaid, found in cupboards and so on.
They rightly blame the NZDF for the misleading, dilatory briefings to ministers. They propose an independent inspector-general to oversee NZDF activities, as opposed to the existing arrangements which are embedded inside the Defence Force.
Placing the Afghanistan campaigning in context, they cite Sir Angus Houston, former chief of the Australian Defence Force and before that the Royal Australian Air Force. During his time, he made some 30 separate visits to Afghanistan.
“In his presentation to the Inquiry he said the war in Afghanistan did not involve a fight against a known and formally organised adversary – it was not conducted against formed military units and adversaries wearing uniforms who had set orders of battle of which we already had well documented intelligence.
“Rather there were very few set-piece battles. There were no easily demarcated front lines. This was irregular, guerrilla, asymmetric and counter-insurgency warfare. Quite literally a soldier could be standing beside someone in an Afghan village who hours or days later might take up arms against him. Similarly, there was a vast civilian population whose tribal and ethnic structure was intricate and complex.”
Such is the fog of war.