In 2010, New Zealand Defence Force soldiers participated in an attack on an Afghanistan town called Tirgiran. During the exchange there were civilian casualties.
For months, those casualties were denied strenuously by the Chief of the Defence Force Major General Tim Keating, who said there were huge inaccuracies in Nicky Hager’s book Hit and Run, which alleges war crimes were committed by the N.Z.D.F. Now, in a u-turn yesterday, Major General Keating admitted that civilian deaths might have happened. Yet he continued to insist that the book is wrong.
I have in the past given the New Zealand Defence Force the benefit of the doubt, and considered the onus to be on Mr Hager to demonstrate otherwise. Whilst I still wonder if Mr Hager has a vendetta against the Defence Force, his claims have now received a major credibility boost.
It is time for Major General Keating to come clean as the person in charge on a day-to-day basis on what really happened in that raid in Afghanistan. To fail to do so is to undermine the credibility of his office, as well as every man and woman who serves in the Defence Force.
When New Zealand fights overseas, we might be under the command of a foreign power. In the case of Afghanistan the American command had jurisdiction over our forces. In East Timor, it was the Australians. It matters not who has control of the overall operation, but that New Zealand Defence Force ultimately answers to the New Zealand Government, who in turn must answer to the New Zealand people.
The New Zealand Defence Force needs to be aware that it should under NO circumstances EVER conduct practices of a tortuous nature, or operations of a nature that may break the international conventions this country is a signatory to. In the event that our personnel find themselves being asked to participate in such operations, the command making the request should be informed forthwith that New Zealand will only participate if it is fully compliant with the Geneva Conventions.
For a country that prides itself on respecting international law, this is hugely embarrassing. It potentially damages our reputation as being clean and responsible overseas. But this potential damage goes further than that. This potential damage potentially threatens New Zealand forces who go there in the future. It sends damaging and confusing signals to Afghanistan and Afghanis about what New Zealand wants to achieve there.
Major General Tim Keating did not achieve his current rank by bluffing his way through the ranks. It is not possible. One will be found out long before you get that far. Someone that far up the military hierarchy should be expected to know that New Zealand and New Zealanders have standards. He should be expected to know there are good historical reasons why we abhor torture and why we prefer a clean fair fight to one with dirty underhand tactics. In getting to this position, Major General Keating indicates that he is aware of these expectations and intends to uphold them.
So why did New Zealand not do this? Why are one of the finest small defence forces in the world starring down a major credibility crisis because of an operation in Afghanistan of a questionable nature in 2010. The Defence Force and in particular Major General Keating need to come totally clean about this now, or resign.