A botched raid by New Zealand special forces in Afghanistan, which led to the deaths of six civilians including a three-year-old girl, was the subject of a military and political cover-up, according to allegations contained in a book by investigative journalist Nicky Hager.
Hit & Run: The New Zealand SAS in Afghanistan and the Meaning of Honour, co-authored by war correspondent Jon Stephenson, appears to contradict official statements that raids on two villages in Baghlan province in August 2010 killed “numerous insurgents” but no civilians.
In the book, the authors say “there are reasonable grounds to suspect that New Zealanders and their United States allies were indeed involved in war crimes and other serious breaches of the laws of war”.
The raid in question was launched as retaliation for the death of a soldier in a roadside bomb and signed off by then prime minister John Key. The authors have called on Key’s successor, Bill English, who faces an election in six months, to commission an independent investigation into the case.
According to the book, which relies predominantly on unnamed sources, there were in fact no insurgents present in the areas targeted by the raid, undertaken by New Zealand forces supported by US helicopter gunships, with six civilians killed and 15 more injured. The subsequent denials, its authors argue, amount to a “dark and guilty secret of New Zealand’s recent history”.
The elite troops involved in the raid failed to meet the requirements of their code of conduct, which requires them to give aid to the wounded, and instead “shot through”, Hager told media following the book launch in Wellington.
It is unclear, he said, how much Key knew about what had taken place. “I suspect we know far more about what happened than John Key was told.”
The chief of the NZ Defence Force at the time, Lt Gen Jerry Mateparae, was later appointed as governor general, the Queen’s representative in New Zealand, and is due to take up the appointment of high commissioner in the UK.
In keeping with his practice in previous books, Hager did not seek comment from the government or military officials, largely to forestall injunctions. “You don’t get a comment, you just get people trying to sabotage you,” he said.
The NZ Defence Force has rejected the book’s claims, saying: “The NZDF is confident that New Zealand personnel conducted themselves in accordance with the applicable rules of engagement.” It said it stood by its response in 2011 to claims of civilian deaths.
It added that a joint investigation had been conducted by the Afghan ministry of defence and Isaf, the Nato-led security mission in Afghanistan, which “concluded that the allegations of civilian casualties were unfounded”.
A spokesperson for acting defence minister, Chris Finlayson, said in a statement: “The matter was investigated at the time and I am advised by the New Zealand Defence Force they stand by what they said at the time.”
In a 2014 interview, Key said: “We don’t discuss the detail of SAS operations, but what we do say categorically is that no New Zealand soldier was involved in killing civilians.”
There had been speculation that the book had been timed for the eve of Key’s valedictory speech. The authors said that was a coincidence, with printing under way before Key’s early exit from parliament was announced. “I would rather it hadn’t got tangled up in that,” said Hager.
They also said they did not believe the publication of the book or its contents influenced Key’s decision to resign as prime minister in December last year.
The chief executive of Amnesty International NZ, Grant Bayldon, has called for an inquiry. “This is crucial, for not only the integrity of New Zealand and its operations overseas, but also for the women, men and children who may have been victims of this raid and have seen no justice,” he said in a statement.
Key, who has yet to comment on the book, has previously dismissed Hager as a “conspiracy theorist”. Hager’s 2014 book Dirty Politics, which drew on hacked emails to expose links between the then prime minister and an attack blogger, was published weeks before the last election.
While it dominated the campaign and led to the resignation of a cabinet minister, Key’s National party was re-elected with almost exactly the same level of support.
More than 31,000 Afghan civilians are estimated to have been killed since the US invasion in 2001.