Minister 'very disappointed' in Defence Force

Defence Minister Ron Mark at Armistice Day commemoration in November. Photo: NZ Herald
Defence Minister Ron Mark at Armistice Day commemoration in November. Photo: NZ Herald

The New Zealand Defence Force has received an upgrade - its minister has gone from being "disappointed" to being "very disappointed" over release of information about the SAS raid in Afghanistan in 2010, soon to be examined by a Government inquiry.

Defence minister Ron Mark issued the public rebuke after the NZDF was forced to admit it had wrongly told him that the NZSAS went into the mission instructed there was no allowance for civilian casualties.

It has since emerged that what it meant to say was the opposite.

In a statement, Mark told The New Zealand Herald: "I was very disappointed that my office received inaccurate information.

Lt-gen Tim Keating. Photo: ODT files
Lt-gen Tim Keating. Photo: ODT files

"As you know this is not the first time, and I will be reiterating my expectations to the Defence Force.

"I expect them to get it right the first time, particularly in matters which are of high public interest. These mistakes at HQ level risk undermining the wider NZDF and the men and women of the Defence Force."

It's a stern telling off and comes after the release, through the Official Information Act, of an email to Mark's office from the office of Chief of Defence Lieutenant General Tim Keating.

The email was attempting to explain an earlier error made by the NZDF over releasing information about the NZSAS mission, called Operation Burnham.

On that earlier occasion, the NZDF had changed the wording around the rules governing the mission from saying "collateral damage would be minimal at most" to saying "collateral damage would be avoided".

It did so without telling Mark's office, who had been sent the draft version which containing a number of differences.

On that occasion, Mark said he was "disappointed" his office had not been told of the changes before they were published online.

The next apparent error occurred after the NZDF was asked for an explanation, to which it said: "On checking … the rules of engagement required no collateral damage.

"The mention of 'collateral damage would be minimal at most' is inaccurate. So we are tidying up an inaccuracy."

It was an explanation which contradicted Keating's own explanation a year earlier when he said air support was only allowed if the target was "a direct participant in the hostilities" and if the NZSAS commander on the ground "was satisfied that any collateral damage would be minimised".

The government inquiry will be heard before Sir Geoffrey Palmer and Sir Terence Arnold but is yet to have a start date - or location - finalised. NZDF has set up a "Special Inquiry Office" with 12 staff and hired a QC to represent it.

Mark said he expected the NZDF's special inquiry team would "co-operate fully" and "ensure the information provided is accurate and timely".

"It is important to get this right so that New Zealanders can have confidence in the results of the inquiry."

Hit & Run authors Nicky Hager and Jon Stephenson. Photo: NZ Herald
Hit & Run authors Nicky Hager and Jon Stephenson. Photo: NZ Herald

Meanwhile, new information released in response to OIA requests appeared to add some clarification to the points of difference between the version of events in Hit & Run and the NZDF's position.

The NZDF said it was aware of the identity of all nine people killed during the raid, even though earlier statements made it clear it had been unable to collect identifying information.

NZ Army leader Major-General Peter Kelly has said in an internal email those killed were "positively identified carrying weapons, those being RPGs, AK47s and PKS machine guns".

The number differs from Hit & Run's position, which said "none of the fighters" connected to the death a few weeks earlier of Lieutenant Tim O'Donnell were killed. Instead, it claimed six civilians were killed and 15 others injured.

Hit & Run claimed among those killed were Mohammad Iqbal and his son Abdul Qayoom, described as "farmers" in the book.

NZDF's latest information disclosure said: "Insurgents known by the names Mohammad Iqbal and Abdul Qayoon [different spelling] were among those identified as killed during the 22 August 2010 operation."

NZDF also responded to a question asking if a school teacher called Islamuddin was among those killed. Hit & Run claimed Islamuddin was shot dead by a sniper.

NZDF said: "No-one with the name Islamuddin was among those identified by the NZDF as killed during the 22 August 2010 operation."

Hit & Run included a detailed breakdown of the names of the six villagers said to have been killed and wounded. It also listed those the NZDF suspected to be behind the attacks. No names appeared on both lists.

The book, by journalists Nicky Hager and Jon Stephenson, claimed the attack was a "revenge" raid over O'Donnell's death while the NZDF has maintained it was a properly planned and controlled attack on an insurgent force which threatened Kiwi troops in the neighbouring province.

- By David Fisher 

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