Scoop Review of Books

Why Are We in Afghanistan?

Book Review
Hit & Run: The New Zealand SAS in Afghanistan and the meaning of honour
by Nicky Hager & Jon Stephenson (Potton & Burton, $35)
Reviewed by Vaughan Rapatahana

hit-run-600px-max-800This slim, 159 page soft cover book – for anyone who never goes near online news sources – has swiftly metastasised into a much larger and harder online tome replete with finger-pointing, counter-story, accusation and allegation, even calls for a commission of Inquiry. As I pen this review, it has taken on a life larger than its own

Hager and Stephenson are colleagues in a very rare Aotearoa corps; namely that of investigative, penetrating – some would say mud-slinging – journalists, who are never afraid to cast guilt when they think it is merited, which is certainly a key impetus here.

For the authors repetitively claim that the New Zealand Defence Force, camouflaged in the more specialised garb of the supposedly-elite SAS, blitzkrieged two small rural villages in Bamiyan province, Afghanistan during a raid codenamed Operation Burnham, on the evening of August 22, 2010. Not only were the SAS responsible for advocating and then actioning the actual raid, they also pinpointed what homes to destroy and which people to obliterate for the ever-ready fingers in U.S. Air Force Apache helicopter gunships lurking there as an important weave in an overall allied eiderdown.

More heinous still, Hager and Stephenson claim – with purported extensive research, interviews, photographs and victim-impact statements – that the SAS  via its frontline minions, murdered and maimed several innocent non-combatant villagers, including Fatima, a three year old girl. Then – they state – the SAS revisited the scene two weeks later and finished their jobs of property demolition – this further aftermath programme extending to what the authors see as the illicit capture and subsequent incarceration and demise of some of the actual Taliban insurgents — whom they had never even sighted during what they describe as the original, misguided, poorly planned, retributory raid.

Poorly planned as well-expressed by one of the military sources for Hit & Run, ‘The main issue needing publicity is that there was no strategy for Bamiyan from the start. Never was. Just went.” (p. 97)

Retributory, as the writers claim that the entire raft of over-the-top sorties stemmed from the Taliban killing of a Kiwi soldier located in Bamiyan province with the unfortunately named NZDF Provincial Reconstruction Team, two weeks beforehand. In other words, the entire affair was impelled by utu – by a rampant desire to extract revenge for the killing of a soldier during a war/insurgency.

There is more, rather a lot more. Hager and Stevenson insist on calling into account the NZDF, and especially the SAS, primarily because both corps have – pretty much up until publication of this slim volume – denied any civilian deaths and indeed had counter-insisted that 12, later 9, Taliban radicals were killed on the original night – which seems probable baloney and which Hager and Stephenson cast as deliberate and culpable cover-up. Probable baloney, because The New York Times had pointed out that up to 8 civilians were indeed killed, their report being published soon after the raid on 24 August, 2010 – a raid both parties to this ongoing parry admit did occur. Then there was the rather amorphous body, the International Security Assistance Force, who ultimately did state that there had been possible civilian casualties. Amorphous, as no one seems to have seen their final report and they were later disbanded, de-mobbed, if you will.

More recently, NZDF has shifted stance somewhat and mumbled that there may have been some civilian loss of life due to gun malfunctions and similar gobbledygook, spin-doctor speak – that the reported civilian deaths were perhaps no longer ‘unfounded.’ More, the authors, in later chapters, also call for a complete reshuffle and realignment of the NZDF, stating that it has become over and overtly dominated by SAS personnel to the detriment of all.


The present scenario, then, is a bit of a stand-off, muddied even more by Hager and Stephenson somewhat careless misaligning the location and exact names of the two villages supposedly involved in the mayhem. More, Wayne Mapp, the then NZ Minister of Defence, after initially going AWOL for a while, has also come out with a bit of a game-changer statement, given his role as an initial condoner of SAS activity in Afghanistan when he was in power. He now states, ‘as a nation we owe it to ourselves to find out, what actually did happen.’ Who specifically is blameworthy and warrants castigation or more? Does this affair warrant a treacle-pit war crimes investigation? (Nicky Hager has replied to some of the critics on Pundit: “Operation Burnhan: The Coverup Continues“.)


‘Caught up in a mood of retaliation, the SAS appeared to act with ill-considered haste and a careless belief in intelligence sources they themselves had not fully trusted. They turned protection of peacekeepers into a kill-capture retaliation campaign, strengthening the Taliban and making the region more dangerous for the locals and New Zealand troops. Relying on JPEL authorizations they had lobbied for themselves, they and their US allies attacked villages of civilians with helicopter gunships and SAS snipers, killing and injuring innocent people. Confident in their ability to keep everything secret, they needlessly burned and blew up homes. Having messed up the first raid, they neither admitted nor tried to make amends, and undertook a second raid to destroy more homes. Later, having captured one of the insurgents, they beat him while he was blindfolded and bound, and then transferred him to known torturers. They eliminated others with targeted killings. Knowing that international law requires breaches of human rights obligations to be reported and investigated, they did nothing. Instead they covered up and denied everything,’ p.110.


Now, I am not going to cast the fingers of guilt – readers of Hit & Run will soon decide for themselves. Nor am I going to state more than the obvious, that fairly obviously some non-combatants were killed during the operation and that any civilian death is just one too many, no matter if they were Afghans in some far-off rural retreat. Nor will I consider the defence of idiots who prattle that civilians die in wars, don’t they? – as witness the very recent events in Mosul, Iraq, fuelled and funneled, I might add, by US special advisors and air power. I will simply state that any war is unnecessary, most especially if it has no real relevance to New Zealand as a nation.


So what I do have to ask in this extrapolation-away-from-the book-under-review, is this. Why is New Zealand so immersed and entrenched in the power plays and machinations of the Anglo-American, especially the latter, war hegemony, including inclusion in their entire Five Eyes stance? Why is Aotearoa such a dick-licker of the American military-industrial complex, as initially so well perceived and articulated by Eisenhower in 1961, and for the interrelated American lust for oil to fuel, among other things, this monolithic military? For there can be no doubt whatsoever that New Zealand jumps to attention whenever the USA rustles its sabres, as so well articulated on page 97 of the book:

‘From the beginning the New Zealand military leadership seemed to have little thought about the strategy or ethics of being part of the war. The SAS presence was regarded primarily as an opportunity to pursue the political goal of working more closely with US forces.’

The wider — and to this reviewer — far more imperative question is, when will Aotearoa New Zealand, with its steadily burgeoning Asian and non-European population, wake up and see that siding with the USA is dangerous and not conducive to its current, let alone future, good health? One only has to read David Vine’s excellent Base Nation: How U.S. military bases abroad harm America and the world (2015) to comprehend once and for all, that the USA is hell-bent on imposing its idiosyncratic episteme on the rest of the world via the construction and maintenance of military bases in as many territories as it can – it is as simple as that.

And for those of you who will be bristling and raging about North Korea and ISIS et al. – given that these are unnecessary evils in anyone’s bible – I will quote what Mr. John Key said during 2010, in one of his more cogent moments, ‘I think the strategy of going out to try and kill the Taliban will not work, because for every one you kill another dozen will emerge as a result of that’ (p. 90.) Yet of course the USA has massive, but massively unpopular bases throughout South Korea and continues to mount armed sorties against the Taliban and Al-Qaeda from similar such depots, in the never-ending Afghan quagmire. N.Z. is complicit in this neo-imperialistic project. Enough said, eh.

Personal note:

I can fully vouchsafe what David Vine claims in Base Nation. The USA, via its politico-military-industrialist nexus, is doggedly determined to be militaristically and thus ideologically and economically embedded into as many countries as it can.

I first went to Guam in 1980 and was escorted off the grounds of what was then Camp Covington submarine base after having inadvertently driven our rental car into its gate area – not difficult, then and since, given the steady augmentation of American armed forces on the island. I have been back to Guam and Saipan in 2004 and to Guam again in 2011 to sight the obvious and increasing deployment of troops there and to listen to the worried grievances of the indigenous Chamorro residents there.

In Palau, on the under-populated big island, I witnessed in 2011, the massive new and monolithic American embassy, hidden in sight in the verdant countryside. I doubt if many Palauans even know of its existence in their tropical haven.

In Mauritius I met some expatriated citizens ex-Diego Garcia, which had been their indigenous island home — until they were summarily and illegally evacuated by the complicit Anglo-American power bloc, so that the latter could erect their huge and hugely expensive base and render there without sanction whomsoever they categorised as a terrorist. David Vine has also written about this crime — in Island of Shame: The Secret History of the U.S. Military Base on Diego Garcia (2009), while I also have reviewed another book about it for Scoop, Next Year in Diego Garcia Needless to say the legitimate citizens of Diego Garcia, the Chagossians, are not able to return to their homes. My visit was during 2012, and five years later little has altered.

I went to Okinawa in 2013, and the sheer heavy presence of the rather detested-by-the-locals American military is obvious everywhere. Regardless of their own self-imposed curfews and curbs because of nefarious troop behaviour, there remain a panoply of bases all over this small island.

More locally, I used to live way up the Awatere Valley, south of Blenheim and yes, very near there is stationed the Waihopai ‘satellite’ qua spy station, administered by Americans under invite from our own nation’s government. I well recall the brief planning newspaper reports about this site, given their paucity of details during 1984, when I was resident in an adobe cottage there. The espionage centre was finally built in 1988, after years of secretive scheming.

All of which leads me to ask yet again why New Zealand is so involved with another country’s expansionist agenda, including having elected so happily to have our SAS commandos conveyed to Afghanistan? How can our nation ever benefit from this vassal-like status?

For I also visited and stayed on Tinian in the Northern Marianas over ten years ago, where I witnessed the overgrown, ignored, unremembered and broken-up airstrip from whence the Enola Gay lifted off from during World War II, en route to decimate Japanese cities, to annihilate vast swathes of their populace and yes, to end the bloody war once and for all. Yet, Tinian remains a socio-economic desert, its indigenous population long since ignored by Washington. Only a mighty hotel-cum-casino represents any sign of wealth on this tiny island. Meanwhile the tyranny that is the American military panopticon is proposing to relocate thousands of its troops to Tinian and to open up live firing exercises there all year long…

And please don’t get me started on the nuclear-bomb-tested and subsequently devastated Marshall Islands and the state of Majuro in particular (I lived on Nauru last century for a couple of years too, so Majuro was close by.) Or concerning my continued experiences in and around Clark airbase, Pampanga, Philippines, near to where we have a home and travel to frequently. Suffice to say, Americano troops are like ants on the ground there during the many joint exercises. When I stayed at the then-named Holiday Inn in 2016, there were more soldiers than guests swarming the floors and bars.

My last point is precisely this: just as in all of the above-mentioned locales, the USA won’t care less if New Zealanders are maimed and killed in the service of American interests. Norman Mailer once well-wrote a slim volume entitled Why are we in Vietnam? (1967.) Perhaps a more auspicious subtitle for Hager and Stephenson’s own significant volume would be, Why are we in Afghanistan?

{Dr} Vaughan Rapatahana