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Stuff, April 11, 2018

Missing the target: The Government inquiry into Afghanistan raid

A bold Government would have taken on these issues. Instead, it has wilfully turned a blind eye

By Eugene Bingham & Paula Penfold

Last year, far away from Defence Headquarters where top brass squirmed at questions and fought off calls for an inquiry, the parents of Fatima, the youngest victim of the Operation Burnham raid, sobbed and sobbed.

Over cups of green tea, they'd been telling us of the night in 2010 when helicopters emerged from the night sky and started firing on their village in rural Afghanistan, when they broke down at the memory of their three-year-old girl.

"I feel that my heart is exploding," Fatima's father told us. "She was not just a daughter, she had become a real sweetheart."

But their tears were not just of grief; they were borne of frustration and disbelief. The raid had been led by the New Zealand SAS, but no one was taking responsibility.

Three-year-old Fatima was killed during a New Zealand SAS raid in Afghanistan
According to the book Hit and Run, three-year-old Fatima was killed during a New Zealand SAS raid in Afghanistan. Now the Government has announced it will hold inquiry into allegations of civilian deaths at the hands of Kiwis.​ (Photo: Hit and Run)

The doctor who treated the victims of the raid had come with them too, to meet us and Jon Stephenson, co-author with Nicky Hager of the book Hit and Run.

Through us, the doctor wanted to plead with the New Zealand Government.

"[New Zealand] should send a high-ranking delegation, one of their best delegations, with full authority to Kabul so that I can bring all the wounded people and families of the martyred so they investigate this case, but if they're not going to do this it means that they're breaching human rights," he said.

Weeks later, he was dead. In one of the countless cruel twists Afghanistan suffers every single day this man who so valued human rights was murdered, captured by the Taliban and slaughtered.

In some way, the announcement from the Government that it will hold an inquiry into Operation Burnham, honours the doctor and his wishes. At last, the people he battled for, including the parents of Fatima, can hopefully have a voice.

But there are many, many others in Afghanistan who deserve to be heard too.

Kudos to the Government for seeking answers to questions raised in the book.

However it has blatantly ignored an opportunity.

Because 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.

Those problems run very, very deep. A bold Government would have taken on these issues. Instead, it has wilfully turned a blind eye.

On the same trip to Afghanistan last year to film the documentary series The Valley, we met with others who had encountered New Zealand forces.

We sat in a small, mud hut in Bamyan with the uncle of one of the Afghan soldiers who died in the Battle of Baghak in August 2012, a battle in which two New Zealand soldiers died and six others were wounded. Our investigation showed the deaths may have resulted from friendly fire, rather than caused by insurgents, as the New Zealand Court of Inquiry found.

We met villagers from Uruzghan who told us SAS troopers provoked the firefight in 2004 which led to Willie Apiata receiving his VC. They described how the bodies of their dead were dumped on the ground of the village bazaar in a gruesome show of force, and that our troopers then kicked in doors and flexi-cuffed men.

We spoke to an MP in Kabul who expressed his anger that New Zealand soldiers were collecting biometric data from innocent Afghans, a fact Defence did not tell the New Zealand public, nor even the Defence Minister at the time.

We asked Defence for an interview with Chief of Defence Lieutenant General Tim Keating - or an interview with anyone at all. None was forthcoming. Not one person within Defence was willing to answer our questions. Actually, worse than that, there were frontline soldiers who wanted to talk to us, but they were gagged by their bosses.

The Attorney General's announcement specifically rules out inquiring into issues raised in The Valley. Spuriously, it says the the matters raised in the documentary were dealt with in a Court of Inquiry.

This ignores two important facts: the documentary showed how key conclusions of the Court of Inquiry were wrong (a fact now even acknowledged by Defence); and The Valley raised far more than just the matters that were dealt with in the Court of Inquiry.

More importantly, there are the deeper issues that overlap with themes raised by the book.

The allegations in Hit and Run and those made in The Valley are in essence the same: of lack of transparency and accountability. Of a culture of cover-up and obfuscation.

And at the heart of it all are questions raised by families of fallen New Zealand soldiers in The Valley: why were we even in Afghanistan in the first place? What were we trying to achieve? These are questions which other countries have been mature enough to deal with - why aren't we?

The families we met in Afghanistan, and the New Zealand families of our fallen soldiers, deserve more than this very limited inquiry will deliver.

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