Hit and Run inquiry: Reactions throw doubt over trust in New Zealand military

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Analysis – Can we trust New Zealand’s military? There must now be serious doubt, given the landmark report released on Friday concluding the investigation into allegations made in the book Hit and Run by Nicky Hager and Jon Stephenson about a 2010 SAS killing raid in Afghanistan.

Hit & Run

The cover of Hit & Run by Nicky Hager and Jon Stephenson. Photo: RNZ / Hans Weston

The most recent Colmar Brunton Public Sector Reputation Index found the New Zealand Defence Force has the second best reputation with the public of any government agency in the country (behind the Fire Service, but ahead of agencies like the Department of Conservation, Customs, and Met Service). Trust in the agency is extremely high and has been improving lately.

Yet Friday’s report would suggest the Defence Force can’t be trusted. Attorney General David Parker even stated, in releasing the report, that government ministers have been unable to exercise political control of the military. That is a serious problem in a democracy.

Severe criticisms of the military over Operation Burnham controversy

A Stuff editorial on Saturday says New Zealanders “will probably be shocked and saddened” by the report. Although the inquiry had some good news for the military, in that the raids were found to be legal and professionally carried out, the newspaper notes, “in significant ways the report agrees with the journalists” Hager and Stephenson.

The editorial is severely critical of the military, saying “a picture emerges of a defence force that does not consider itself to be answerable to its political masters and the wider public. Civilian control of the military is an important principle of New Zealand’s democracy.”

Yesterday’s Otago Daily Times editorial is equally scathing, saying “there should be no chance of the Defence Force sitting back with satisfaction” after the report was so critical of its handling of the controversy.

Here’s the newspaper’s most interesting point: “These findings will sting the Defence Force, and rightly so. The New Zealand public needs to have confidence its national forces will not only operate in battle zones with the highest levels of integrity and professionalism but will come clean when things go wrong. It is of deep concern that multiple senior commanders at NZDF let the side down with actions that, to paraphrase Defence Minister Ron Mark, showed serious deficiencies. The inquiry has also shone a mostly favourable light on Hager’s work, and the worth of investigative journalism.”

The Spinoff’s political editor, Justin Giovannetti, has summed up the report’s criticisms of the NZ Defence Force, saying it “reveals a military headquarters that is inept and disorganised. Records couldn’t be found. Contradictory reports were ignored. A senior officer in Afghanistan was misleading his superiors in Wellington about civilian casualties. Those superiors didn’t question reports, despite evidence that civilians had been killed in the August raid. As a result, the military misled the public for seven years”.

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Giovannetti reports on the Attorney-General’s reaction to the report: “Parker was clear earlier in the morning that one of the country’s bedrock constitutional principles was compromised” by the operations of the military. He quotes Parker: “During those years, as a consequence of the ineptitude and the suppression of documents that should have been coming to ministers, ministers were not able to exercise the democratic control of the ministry. The military do not exist for their own purpose.”

Blogger No Right Turn says the operations of Defence Force bosses “obviously undermines the principle of civilian control of the military, striking at the heart of our democracy. These people need to be held accountable, dishonourably discharged and stripped of their honours, pour encourager les autres. Careers need to end over this, otherwise there is no incentive for NZDF not to do it again in future”.

According to Alexander Gillespie, professor of law at Waikato University, the actions of the military – particularly in their relationship with government – have been a “disaster”, and the institution “has now bombed its own position as the trusted military arm of the state”.

Gillespie says the military has “proved itself untrustworthy” in crucial ways, humiliating itself. He predicts the conclusion of the report “will almost inevitably mean it is stripped of the relative autonomy it has enjoyed to this point.”

Does the report agree with the military or Hager and Stephenson?

For a good summary of the report, see Stuff political reporter Thomas Manch’s article on it. Here’s the top line version: “A damning report into the Defence Force’s handling of 2010 SAS-led raid in Afghanistan says a child was likely killed during the raid, elite soldiers misled ministers and the public about allegations of civilian deaths, and an insurgent captured by New Zealand troops was beaten while detained.” Most disturbingly, the report finds that New Zealand troops handed over one of their prisoners to the Afghanistan forces, knowing he would be tortured, meaning the “Defence Force was therefore in breach of Geneva convention.”

The official report doesn’t agree with all of the allegations made by Hager and Stephenson. Most importantly, it finds that the raid was legal and professionally carried out, and that there was no strategic cover-up by the military of the civilian killings.

Hager has responded. He argues that “after nearly ten years of denials, the Inquiry has confirmed the main allegations in the book Hit & Run.” And he concludes “The report contains the most serious findings against the NZSAS and NZDF in their history. This should prompt a lot of soul searching inside the New Zealand Defence Force.”

Gordon Campbell doesn’t accept the report’s findings at all. He has written a scathing response, suggesting it amounts to a whitewash and does not sufficiently deal with the military misadventure and misinformation in question.

Campbell doesn’t accept there was no Defence Force cover-up. Furthermore, he does not believe the Defence Force will fix the problems identified: “Can we really expect an organisation with this bunker mentality to reform itself voluntarily, from the inside?”

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The response of the NZ Defence Force

Defence Force chief, Air Marshal Kevin Short, has responded by saying that the military must change as a result of the report, becoming more accountable and open, involving structural and cultural change. Here’s his key statement: “If we are to maintain the trust and confidence of the people we serve, we must be accountable. We must be better at the way we record, store and retrieve information, and then subsequently present that information to ministers and the public. I will ensure this happens.”

But has the Defence Force really learnt anything from the report and demonstrated genuine willingness to change? Justin Giovannetti questions this, pointing out that on the release of the report, the military’s obfuscation has continued: “There seemed to still be a lingering reluctance today by the NZDF to take responsibility for what happened during the raid. In a prepared statement, Short said that the inquiry confirmed ‘New Zealand forces were not involved’ in the civilian deaths. That’s not correct.” In fact, although it was the US military that killed the civilians, it was in an operation in which New Zealanders were in control and gave the orders.

This is also dealt with by Stuff political reporter Thomas Manch, who points out that Air Marshal Kevin Short’s “charitable interpretation of the facts is what got the Defence Force into this mess in the first place”.

So, are the military bosses still playing down the severity of what happened? That’s the view of Hit & Run co-author Jon Stephenson, who says he feels vindicated by the report but “is worried its severity is not being fully conveyed”.

Here’s Stephenson’s view: “I’m concerned that they are being downplayed by the Defence Force, not only initially and throughout the inquiry, but even now it seems like the Attorney-General is not really prepared to accept the extent to which the inquiry has condemned some of the actions of the Defence Force.” According to this article, Stephenson also says he has “serious doubts” on “whether the Defence Force could change because of their record and their performance throughout the inquiry”.

The role of former Defence Minister Wayne Mapp

Former Defence Minister Wayne Mapp, has been asked to account for his role, and has been contrite. He claims he continued to tell the public that allegations of civilian deaths were unfounded – despite being briefed that they were possible – because he forgot about a briefing informing him of this.

This is dealt well with in RNZ political reporter Katie Scotcher’s article. Mapp is quoted as saying that it was “a major failing on my part” and that he had asked himself “a huge amount of times” how he could forget such a crucial piece of information.

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Mapp says New Zealand now must remedy the damage caused by Operation Burnham: “I’ve always been of the view that New Zealand as a nation owes compensation to the victims. I have always felt that we haven’t done enough as a nation to find out. Well now we have the report, we have more information. And I think is now incumbent upon the government now having got the report to do more for the villagers.”

An apology is also being demanded by the Hit & Run campaign group. Spokesperson Sarah Atkinson says: “It is a huge injustice and the New Zealand Defence Force owes apologies and reparations to the Afghan families of the victims”.

Others involved in the campaign for uncovering the truth about Operation Burnham are celebrating the release of the report. Amnesty International’s Meg de Ronde has written about how the report vindicates human rights defenders like Stephenson and Hager who have fought “tooth and nail to hold those in power to account”, and have had to battle not just an inquiry that was stacked in favour of authorities, but also faced ridicule.

Finally, cartoonists have been scathing over the years about the official version of what happened in Afghanistan.

*Dr Bryce Edwards

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