Tuesday, 4 April 2017

Not Worth The Effort: Decoding Bill English’s Response to “Operation Burnham”.

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.

21 comments:

Bushbaptist said...

Billyboy wants the problem to go away, tis election year and this could do his bunch some damage.

The Veteran said...

Chris ... none of the above. Let the whistle-blower out himself from under the skirts of journalistic privilege so we cam assess his credentials as a supposed member of the SAS including whether he was a participant in the raid. At that point you can make a judgement call whether to over-ride the advice of the NZDF.

As for the Afghan villagers ... ever heard of blood money? Quite an industry over there assisted by 'ambulance chasing' lawyers. It is in their interest to talk the incident up. Look, shit happens in war. Especially in insurgent war where one side is wearing civilian clothes, where there is no front-line and where there is a weapon in virtually even house. Sometimes planned operations are failures viz WW2 and Market Garden. Civilians killed there too.

The thesis of Hager's allegations is that any casualties were extra-judicial revenge killings. As a sometime professional military officer I find that very difficult to accept. I'll finish where I started ... time for Hager's 'informant' to front up. Until that happens I'll go with English. As for Little ... looks like his reputation is about to be dealt a body blow in the Courts. His comments carry little weight.

Scouser said...

I presume I am somewhat representative of the general public in that I won't be reading Hager's latest offering and am unlikely to have my opinion of the NZDF damaged because there is no inquiry. I mention this as the consensus you mention probably isn't as wide and important as implied. It likely exists among a specific group or groups with either a more nuanced view of the world who view the aim of protecting the reputation of the NZDF as important, faithful followers of Hager or are already pre-disposed against either military forces and/or the government.

This is not helped by Hager proclaiming it's impossible he is wrong and then apparently being wrong about some basic facts. This perceived hubris has IMO caused a big hit in the general public's perception of the matter. There are other influences such as calling-for-an-inquiry fatigue (every single raised issue seems to need an inquiry scream the media) and an underlying understanding that Hager himself has self interest in such an inquiry as it would boost book sales. His motives are suspect to many. There is also scepticism whether an inquiry would make a difference. There would be claims of a cover up should the answer not match the authors’ and various supporters’ world view and based on his statements to date Hager would never believe anything that did not match his book. Why bother? Spend the large sums of money somewhere useful like on the health system.

If we add to this the basic premise of the book, as I understand it. An organised revenge attack where civilians are wantonly killed (including women and children) sounds more like something out of Rambo XX. That does not gel in the public perception of the armed forces especially as we’re led to believe they’re barely armed and spend most of their time building bridges or houses. What’s more believable? The authors have either been misled and/or over egged their case or we have out of control psychopaths running wild. I, personally, find the former much more believable as, I suspect, do many.

Possibly of interest is I decided to stop reading this type of book as, without fail, all required a conspiracy frame of mind. They were incredibly poorly written, boring, repetitious and had few facts and huge gobs of opinion where flimsy edifices of situations and motives are somehow meant to persuade the reader of some great nastiness. In short, not a good read and never left me believing the author had done anything other than enrich himself (I cannot recall reading such a book by a woman), sully a reputation or 3 and steal some of my time. I certainly never came away believing some great conspiracy. I suspect the reason such books are so hard to read is because they have to pad out a small number of actual facts to be big enough to make a book. I include Wishart et al in this so I'm not picking on Hager.

Your implied superior view with the “A solid majority of informed New Zealanders …”, which does highlight a blind spot. In a democracy, typically it’s what the majority believe that tends to matter and being “well informed” does not embody some magical importance – “One man, one vote”. The echo chamber of well-informed people I hang around have views broadly matching my own. For instance, these well-informed people have a major problem that Nicky Hager has a history of performing well planned hits on his targets without allowing his targets to respond prior to publication. He is viewed with suspicion by many.

On that note. I’ll call your well-informed people with mine and raise you by a majority.

Kat said...

Did you really think National were going to do anything different. Talk about wishful thinking. "dishonourable as it is misguided".....this is National you are talking about and a very accurate description indeed.

The Veteran said...

Hi Chris ... thought my comments were in accordance with the BR rules. You're not editing me out because I'm offering an alternative opinion are you?

peter petterson said...

A thought provoking and excellent post. Did the National Party err badly in persuading John key to retire? Bill English is still the 21% leader of 2002.

Nick J said...

The Veteran a response from a military family. Long time multi generation navy types. My son just left. My father did 20 years....being a sometime officer does not greatly impress us. Our experience of the forces hierarchy is that they need to be constantly asked hard questions.

Credibility is as you say on the line. And sweeping accusations under the carpet is not credible. I have no doubt there are dubious practices by Afghans so have an open enquiry to highlight them. And if some staff officers are shown as incompetent and out of order good: nobody is above corrective practice if our troops (our children) are out there in a place where "shit happens".

Polly said...

Chris, I have not read Hagar's book, but I did read Dirty Politics which was full of supposition and few facts.
Revenge and military mistakes are a part of any war and so are civilian casualties, two major examples of revenge are Dresden and the collusion Russia / America and the subsequent Russian attack and conquering of Berlin.
The unfortunate fact of revenge is well documented throughout military history.
Hagar is trying to besmirch other New Zealanders, all of whom individually, would be a better persons than Hagar and Stephenson combined.
We should all move on.

Charles E said...

Struth. You and your mate have copped it above. Although I agree with a lot of it I remain very keen on not shooting messengers.
But Hager does not help his cases by being such an obviously political attacker. I mean, the timing... silly bugger. Only increases support for Key & English, which is fine by me.

But back to the topic and your essay. I have an issue with your knowledge of how law works in a sound rule of law country such as ours. I once was a Court lawyer so know some of this stuff btw.

You say:
....the authors have established a prima facie case ...
No they have not. Until they name & produce their evidence, their alleged witnesses, it is a charge, or allegation they make.
So that is why the public has actually mostly dismissed H & S, as they refuse to do so. Why have they refused? Perhaps to spin things out and sell more books, some will think. Or they can't since their witnesses refuse to appear.
Then they don't have evidence.

You and other supporters of them almost all fail to mention that Afghan & US military were on this raid. Why do you ignore this?
Perhaps because it would be more likely they were responsible for the deaths? Not our SAS. After all our guys had a lawyer along!

I note this morning we hear from Stevenson in Afghanistan (what?) saying his NZ witnesses would like to disclose themselves. Opposite of what Hager said so perhaps these two are falling out or are scrambling to shore up their case? Stevenson sounds a more solid & reasonable man so I look forward to him producing his evidence. Until he does English has made the call absolutely correctly. Little has not.
Show us the evidence.

greywarbler said...

Cripes the usual suspects return your volley Chris. I have just spent time with some members of the Immaculate RW Brigade. Finding fault with everyone not forming part of their in-group is their main activity. Searching their minds to find bias, looking for deep truth is a bridge too far.

As for the present Gnashional incumbents and their Leader, they are a greasy fush'n'chups lot, swallowing the fishy stuff whole, wiping their hands of the mess, and throwing the leftovers out of sight to be picked up by other more responsible citizens.

Chris Trotter said...

Well, Polly, if you have not read the book, and you reckon "Dirty Politics" contained "few facts", then you are simply not qualified to comment any further on these issues.

Less so, on the basis of your attempt at a moral argument re: civilian deaths in wartime.

To argue that because wrong-doing has always been a part of human existence, there is nothing that we either can, or should, do about it, is simply risible.

Though it pains me to state it publicly, your comment marks you out as a moral imbecile.

I strongly recommend you enrol in some basic ethics classes.

David Stone said...

Hi Chris

Quite a lot of artillery aimed at the messengers here. The Veteran's point that "look shit happens in war..." does put the episode into perspective. In such an uncertain situation this may well happen continually and probably does. This doesn't diminish the unacceptability of it. Two people can't examine every episode in such an engagement. It's just an example of the shit that happens . The public need to understand that this is what they are being signed up to when their government agrees to a request (demand) to participate in an American war.
It should be recognised as the shit that will happen, not as an unexpected accident.
Cheers David J S

AB said...

Polly is creating an equivalence with WWII (Dresden, Berlin) where the moral purpose of destroying Nazism stands over all the suffering and brutality inflicted on Germany.
But to equate that with America's insane wars of imperial domination and over-reach is just ridiculous. NZ should never have gone there in the first place and when John Key screamed "get some guts" in parliament at the opposition for not wholeheartedly supporting the Afghanistan deployment he should have been carted off in a strait-jacket.
The unfathomable thing to me is why so many conservative NZers like Polly will support established authority and institutions like the NZDF almost entirely without question virtually whatever they do. How do their brains get wired like that?

AB said...

@Polly "We should all move on"
Some have already moved on - or more accurately - have been moved on. Including Fatima who doesn't matter because she was Arabic, lived in an "unimportant" part of the world and was until a few weeks ago, nameless.
Spare me - before I puke.

Polly said...

Chris, I am not a moral imbecile.
War is a fact of mankind.
Military revenge is a fact of war
Military mistakes are a fact of life.
Collateral civilian casualties are a fact in residential battle areas.

What good did the My Lai militarily trial in 1968 do?, 26 servicemen charged, most had charges dropped, one conviction occurred and the guilty person has always claimed that he was following orders.
Did the My Lai trial stop anything of the evilness of war since 1968?.Has war become gentlemanly or honourable because of My Lai?.

Unless Hagar and Stephenson produce witness's from the US or Kiwi side then we are all waisting each others time. I predict no such witness's shall appear.

I sympathise with your viewpoint. Unfortunately in my opinion war is a part of our existence, morals have always taken second place.


























Polly said...

AB, the bombing of Dresden and the Russian only attack on Berlin were not about the "moral purpose of destroying Nazism", they were about the futile murder, rape and destruction of civilians because they were Germans. Revenge in other words.

I also feel revulsion at the Fatima and other innocents killings but war has never handled morality in good stead. In my opinion it never will.

Guerilla Surgeon said...

Shit happens in war – fine – but not so much shit in this particular New Zealand war that we can't afford to have a look at it. It's not as if we are overrun with possible laws of war breaches. Let's get it out in the open and see what actually happened. Sorry but "shit happens in war" is not a good reason to ignore it. After all, don't Conservatives believe in transparency? They often campaigned on it, but seem to honour it more in the breach than the observance in my estimation.

Kat said...

AB @13:54
"The unfathomable thing to me is why so many conservative NZers like Polly will support established authority and institutions like the NZDF almost entirely without question virtually whatever they do. How do their brains get wired like that?

Been happening since time immemorial, the wiring gets crossed and then becomes fused through a washing process that contains among other ingredients, ignorantia. Same sort of "wiring" had so many supporting John Key's "brighter future".

greywarbler said...

Kat
I agree that many RW can't countenance any critique or reflection on their approved position. Heard exact thing recently. Sheeple! Any amorality is accepted as long as it can be rationalised away, even with a "Well, they did it first". Baah.

Nick J said...

Charles E, I think that you are technically correct from a legal viewpoint re definitions of a prima facie case. And I think you are correct on the public reaction.

Where we differ however is in the context: how the hell can a prima facie case be constructed unless the sources come forward? This is where we get into the murky waters of ethics and areas that legal definitions do not cover. And don't get me started that a legal process is related to ethics, we have in this country a law system, not a "justice" system as you have no doubt observed at close hand.

Re evidence: are you judging who is a witness / source? According to Hager and Stephenson there are Afghans making these claims. Does that not give the story credibility? Are they not credible witnesses? If not would not an enquiry confirm that?

So lets get to the point. The public want to see their troops as the good guys. So do I. But fairly obviously sizable minority of our community (and maybe some troops if we are to believe H & S) think that there is something askew. To return to full confidence what better than an enquiry?

No enquiry....the allegations remain to fester. The obvious question is who is hiding what? Or perhaps do the hierarchy and political class think that they are above examination?

From a personal viewpoint I am delighted that we as a family currently (for the first time in decades) have no family member active in the military. If we did I would want to know that I had confidence in the politicians and staff officers. Currently I would not, and there are a lot of military families out there who probably need reassurance.

Guerilla Surgeon said...

" Are they not credible witnesses? "

Not to conservatives.

1. They are not white.
2. They are not Christian.
3. They are not "civilised".
4. They are poor. And everybody knows that poor people will go for the money without any ethics whatsoever. As opposed to rich people./Sarc.