Bad Call: The Prime Minister's decision not to order an independent inquiry into Operation Burnham is as dishonourable as it is misguided.
NOTE TO READERS: As I was writing the following post, the Prime Minister announced to his post-Cabinet media conference (3/4/17) that he would not be ordering an independent inquiry into Operation Burnham. On the face of it, then, my last-minute appeal to the better angels of Bill English's nature had been overtaken by events. Re-reading the post, however, I felt that, far from blunting the point of the posting, the Prime Minister's reprehensible decision had sharpened it. I hope you agree.
THE PRIME MINISTER can still save himself from dishonour. There is still time for Bill English to set in motion an independent commission of inquiry into the events described in Nicky Hager’s and Jon Stephenson’s book Hit & Run. Over the past fortnight a powerful consensus has formed in support of such an inquiry. Senior parliamentarians, including the leaders of Labour, the Greens and United Future, have added their voices to those of the former National Party Defence Minister, Dr Wayne Mapp, and most of the nation’s leading newspaper editors and political journalists.
At the heart of that consensus lies a strong conviction that the reputation of the New Zealand Defence Force can only be protected by an independent and thoroughly transparent investigation into “Operation Burnham”. Anything less will, almost certainly, see our country subjected to the full rigour of international legal scrutiny. In the worst possible case, New Zealand could be found to have breached the rules of war. The Prime Minister owes his fellow citizens a better outcome than to be made the objects of international condemnation and censure.
Confronted with the painstakingly assembled evidence of Hager and Stephenson, English had only two options: to accept it, or, to reject it.
By accepting it, the Prime Minister would not be declaring Hager’s and Stephenson’s narrative to be accurate in every respect (mistakes have already been detected and acknowledged). What he would be saying, however, is that the authors have established a prima facie case for commissioning an independent examination of the evidence presented in their book.
The outcomes of any such investigation would, naturally, be unpredictable. The outcomes of a decision not to hold a full and independent inquiry, however, are readily foreseeable. A solid majority of informed New Zealanders will be left with no option but to conclude that English, his government and the NZDF have something to hide.
Deciding against an inquiry would also reveal something particularly shameful in the Prime Minister’s reasoning. English has repeatedly stated that there is insufficient “credible” evidence to justify an investigation. In other words, it is the Prime Minister’s contention that the investigation of Hager and Stephenson cannot/should not be given credence by his government.
What does this mean? The only logical conclusion to be drawn is that the Prime Minister is convinced that Hager and Stephenson have either concocted a false account of Operation Burnham; or, that the eye-witness accounts of the raid supplied by the villagers of Naik and Khak Khuday Dad; the death certificates and medical reports issued by responsible local officials (in which the names and injuries of 21 civilian casualties are listed) are not to be relied upon and should, therefore, be accorded no probative weight whatsoever.
The Prime Minister is further suggesting that the testimony of unnamed SAS troopers involved in “Operation Burnham”, gathered by Hager and Stephenson in order to corroborate the evidence of their Afghan witnesses, is without substance. Essentially, that they made it up. That everyone involved in Hit & Run: the authors, the villagers, the Afghan officials; are liars.
Just think about that for a moment. English had the option of treating the testimony of Afghan citizens (on whose behalf New Zealand undertook its 10 year military commitment) as a truthful rehearsal of the events of the night of 22 August 2010. Instead, he has described their evidence as lacking in credibility. But why would they lie? Presumably, because they were either fully-fledged “insurgents”, or Taliban supporters. (Even three-year-old, Fatima?!) Having killed a Kiwi soldier, these “enemy combatants” were now attempting to besmirch the reputation of his avengers.
Is this what the NZDF told the Prime Minister? Is this the essence of their classified briefings? That, in the villages of Naik and Khak Khuday Dad, and along the whole length of the Tirgiran Valley, there were no innocent civilians – only “insurgents”. That, wittingly or unwillingly, Hager and Stephenson have allowed themselves to be caught up in a Taliban propaganda exercise aimed at turning an “exemplary” SAS operation into a war crime.
But, surely, an “exemplary” SAS operation is something the NZDF would be only too willing to open up to the scrutiny of their fellow New Zealanders? What’s more, having been stung more than once by the investigative reporting of Nicky Hager and Jon Stephenson, the NZDF would presumably relish the opportunity to expose the authors of Hit & Run as Taliban dupes – or worse. If the NZDF has nothing to hide then, surely, it has nothing to fear – and much to gain – by recommending to the Prime Minister that he set up an independent inquiry into Operation Burnham?
And Bill English, himself? What are we to draw from his willingness to turn his face from the inhabitants of the Tirgiran Valley who have spoken so movingly of the terror, pain and loss they experienced at the hands of SAS troopers and US helicopter gunships acting in our name? Doesn’t he want to make certain that New Zealand does not have blood on its hands? And if there are SAS personnel out there with grave misgivings about the orders they were obliged to follow on the night of 22 August 2010 – doesn’t he want them to be heard? Or are a handful of weather-beaten Afghan peasants, and their brats, not worth the effort?
Because if that is the conclusion of our Prime Minister: and if that, ultimately, is his decision; then it is as dishonourable as it is misguided.
This essay was originally posted on The Daily Blog of Tuesday, 4 April 2017.