Hit and Run: The New Zealand SAS in Afghanistan and the Meaning of Honour
Nicky Hager and Jon Stephenson
Potton & Burton, $35.00,
As someone who has been around the political traps a fair while, my heuristic for judging political actors in and outside party politics is not the colour of their political stripe. Rather, there are people one would want to share a trench with; others, one would not – and, although rare, the odd person best sent to the enemy trench for the chaos they would cause. My trench is very multi-partisan as a result, and Nicky Hager, a friend, is emphatically in it. He’s exhibited, over a long time, courage and commitment when challenging the unequal power of the state over matters mostly concerning their coercive powers, as well as showing strength of character to withstand the blowback for doing so.
I have met Jon Stephenson a couple of times and corresponded with him one or two times more. He taught me more about tribal affiliations and the political culture of Afghanis in one session than I’d picked up in 16 years of spasmodic coverage about our military involvement in the mother of all quagmires: a war bereft of a strategy. I respect Stephenson’s knowledge of Afghanistan, conditions on the ground, and his resilience in reporting on it, despite our military and political leadership’s unsuccessful attempts at destroying his reputation. (In late September 2015, after protracted proceedings, the New Zealand Defence Force (NZDF) settled Stephenson’s libel claim against them and expressed their “regret”, after they disputed his meeting an Afghan police Crisis Response Unit base in Kabul. Then Prime Minister John Key, in 2011, supported the NZDF while saying he didn’t find Stephenson “credible”.) Despite knowing the authors in the ways described, I actually first heard about the raid, and that then Prime Minister John Key had signed it off, not from either of them, but from an old friend in the media who’d been told about it by an ex-military type, some eight months after it happened.
Hit and Run, the story of a military raid gone wrong, raises issues that go to the core of the New Zealand state’s values and so to our honour as a people, as well as to the nexus of rarely-discussed civil-military relations. The book is also an expression of investigative journalism in an epoch defined by über-noise, a 24/7 cacophony of ear-splitting distraction – think: communications and public relations pandemics, mass propaganda, hacking and leaking in the new media environment – where the best strategy to maintain equanimity is either retreat or non-engagement.
Paradoxically, there is also a vacuum created by collapsing old media and universities eroding their role as “critics and conscience” of society. Low-rent, simplistic (dis)information, mediocrity, and institutional sycophancy result. By example, as best as I have been able to discern, not one academic from the fields most closely related to defence matters – security and strategic studies, or even international relations – critiqued the book or publicly weighed in on the issues raised in it. So it’s a noisy but lonely place for people like Hager and Stephenson: citizens who try to speak truth to power in a wholly asymmetrical and hostile context made up of hateful partisans and amidst an endless pile of public relations bullshit, much of it flushing out of government institutions.
Stephenson and Hager separately, and now together, have covered our military involvement in Afghanistan and the wider War on Terror for over a decade, and the story of the August 22, 2010 raid attracted more focus over time, embedded as it was in a 16-year, now mindless tragedy. The NZDF, in response to Hit and Run, have adopted a Great War posture; defending their ground inch by bloody inch. Every time sunlight is placed on aspects of its narrative, the NZDF is forced to give ground, but its basic denial of the book’s allegations remains in place, notwithstanding every major newspaper editor calling for an inquiry after Hit and Run was published.
The evidence offered in the book poses troubling questions about the performance that night of coalition forces, including our Special Air Service (NZSAS), all of which remain unanswered. A crucial mistake made about the location of the two villages in the book, although quickly acknowledged and clarified by Hager, has had the effect of buying the NZDF more time. However, with a judicial review of Prime Minister Bill English’s decision not to hold an inquiry into the raid being pursued, the story of the raid will only amplify as new voices and evidence enter the fray. It is not going away.
For a nation like New Zealand, shaped in part by an ability to stand up and apologise for past wrongdoing, I choose to believe that, if that is where the evidence leads, a future government, however far into the future, will do the right thing by the villagers of Naik and Khak Khuday Dad. A lot of Afghani civilians died or were injured that night, 25 in all, and according to the evidence offered in Hit and Run, no insurgents were killed. The authors’ account matches then Minister of Defence Dr Wayne Mapp’s depiction of the raid as our “biggest and most disastrous operation … a fiasco”, a comment that has not been recanted.
The official response to these inconvenient facts has seen the creation of an “alternative” raid on “alternative” villages on the very same night, one where there “may” have been civilian casualties, but also one where nine insurgents were killed, although they have offered no evidence to the public to substantiate either claim. With a judicial review, that branch of government will be better placed to resist political pressure than most formal or informal institutions in New Zealand, so a rational and independent investigation of competing facts is likely bad news for a military that has already exonerated itself, while controlling the evidence.
The most shocking revelation for me is how the raid was signed off and what it suggests about civil-military relations during this government’s tenure; that is, too chummy by half, and at a real cost to accountability. That a cabinet minister and prime minister got tangled up in operational decisions about a military raid blurred acceptable lines of accountability between the civilian and military leaderships in my reading of the desired relationship between the two. The ideal relationship between a prime minister, their cabinet, the relevant minister and department heads, and the military leadership, is that political leaders do not interfere in lower order decisions that are rightly the preserve of the military. Thus, the prime minister and his or her cabinet set policy (they determine the strategic policy ends sought) and then leave military operations to the professionals (who employ the appropriate means to achieve desired ends). When the lines of accountability are clear like this, the professionalism of the military is guaranteed.
Hit and Run reveals however that then Chief of the Defence Force, Jerry Mateparae, sought sign-off for the August 22 raid from Minister Mapp who then kicked it upstairs to Prime Minister Key, who gave the green light. By doing so, it looks like the military leadership opportunistically exploited Mapp’s presence in Afghanistan to spread its own operational risk(s) and, by doing so, they crossed the line into playing politics. Lieutenant-General Tim Keating, the current Head of the NZDF, has confirmed that, soon after O’Donnell’s death, approval was sought from the government for more forceful action to protect the base and operations in Bamyan. That approval was given, so all was good in terms of civil-military relations. There has also been no suggestion that the approval was conditional in any way.
Given the government’s green light, why did the political leadership have to sign-off a second time, on August 22, on what was now an operational plan? Whatever the reason, its effect was blurred accountability. Now enmeshed in the decision-making matrix of the operation, how could either Mapp or Key hold any in the military to account for what was now their shared “fiasco”? Because Key and Mateparae are caught up in this, an inquiry is a fraught proposition for the National government, especially after English embraced the NZDF’s “alternative” raid. Given acute political sensitivity, any future inquiry would need the calibre of a retired former governor-general or prime minister to head it. Such a person would be trusted by the public (and, hopefully, Hager and Stephenson’s anonymous sources inside the military) to hear or view any evidence in camera to get to the bottom of what happened, by whom, so as to determine what lessons should be learned. An inquiry should include the unusual chain of decision-making raised here to provide assurance that the civil-military relationship is working as it ought and, if not, then recommend steps to re-establish necessary boundaries.
In San Francisco recently, I marvelled at the gaudy brass statues and ornaments for sale down Grant Street, which runs through the heart of Chinatown. Larger-than-life Roman tribunes, giant bears: it is fantastic stuff. One work particularly caught my eye. Three life-size brass monkeys shared a bench in classic pose. It was the same pose as that struck by Hit and Run’s detractors: speak no evil (our military is the best in the world); see no evil (shit happens), and hear no evil (oh, it’s Hager again).
The idea that our military is somehow exempt from mistakes is absurd and not born out by its history. Nor does such fallibility lessen the deep respect we hold for the long histories of professionalism and sacrifice made by our military, when serving all over the globe. For some New Zealanders, however, our military’s performance must never be questioned. This jingoistic response is like mindless flag waving; it is blind patriotism that rarely acknowledges, as historian Malcolm McKinnon so eloquently did in an op-ed in The Dominion Post on April 25, 2017: moral courage (to be different or to dissent); moral responsibility (by accepting that we are perpetrators as well as victims of war); and recognition of our common humanity and the limits of nationalism.
Another type of response to Hit and Run was to say that “shit happens” in war. In this case, villages were collateral damage by virtue of their association with known insurgents. Or, it was the American gunship that did it. Nudge, nudge. Wink, wink. Shit happens. The death of little Fatima, a three-year-old innocent, explodes that logic, but plenty have employed it. War is a fog, to be sure, and an inquiry would better cut through the thicket of the raid’s happenings, but there are still “Rules of Engagement” and a “Geneva Convention” to protect weak and vulnerable civilians, to prevent, in other words, too much shit from happening, and for good reason, not least, because, in realist terms, at some point collateral damage becomes disproportionately counterproductive.
Last, and not least, among the critiques of Hit and Run is Nicky Hager fatigue. For as long as he has shed light on government (mis)conduct, Hager has had to cope with retaliation for doing so. His political opponents and their proxies in public relations have done a professional job of making anything he produces about him and his motives. There are lots of people who tune out when Hager publishes. Some people otherwise sympathetic to his role in civil society are also starting to move in that direction.
Unlike many of his detractors, however, Hager is conscious of how he and his methods are perceived, so has been adapting them. His collaborative work with media organisations on the Panama Papers is a recent example which I think worked. It led to an inquiry, greater disclosure rules, and a sudden unexplained collapse in the number of foreign trusts operating here. Aside from his most partisan and churlish critics, Hager (and Stephenson) decoupled Hit and Run from this year’s electoral cycle, which represented another, in my view, necessary adaptation from Hager’s earlier works like Dirty Politics in 2014 or pre-Hollow Men emails in 2005 or Seeds of Distrust in 2002.
With all of that said, if one traces the work of whistleblowers like Daniel Ellsberg through to Julian Assange and WikiLeaks, the tension is always between the public interest value of secret information and the (always mixed) motives of the person exposing it. I came to the view a while back that, if hidden information is truly in the public interest, let it speak for itself. The identity and motives of the person who brings it to the market mostly detract or distract from the information. They certainly complicate its landing. My approach is not without its own set of complications (Russian intelligence would likely endorse my approach), so there might be just different ways of failing, but too often now the person(s) who bring information to light become the focal point, and that is not as it should be.
Details about the “fiasco” raid outlined in Hit and Run, as well as the NZDF’s response to the publication of the book, suggest that our military crossed the Rubicon into politics, and continues to do so. It is unacceptable, because when the military gets involved in politics its professionalism is impaired and that is corrosive to our democracy. If the NZDF ceases to be accountable, we must through our voices and our votes persuade “the civic hand”, as Eliot A Cohen put it in Supreme Command: Soldiers, Statesmen, and Leadership in Wartime (2002), to limit the military’s scope, reduce its size and budget, so as “without one hint of apology [to] hold the control that has always belonged as a right”.
If every New Zealander could read Hager’s and Stephenson’s body of work on Afghanistan and then read all that the NZDF’s and government’s media releases and statements say about why we were and still are in Afghanistan, what our purpose and role is, and what difference we have made to that country, he or she would be left thinking there are two alternative realities, and one enormous credibility gap. Because, since the publication of Hit and Run, there are now, literally, two alternative realities, with the actual villagers of Ur-Naik and Ur-Khak Khuday Dad still waiting for justice, liberation, and Godot.
Jon Johansson teaches in the political science programme at Victoria University of Wellington.