The May 2011 edition of Metro magazine, and Auckland-based publication, includes an article by Jon Stephenson entitled “Eyes Wide Shut: The Government’s Guilty Secrets in Afghanistan.” Unfortunately, the article is not published online, so even as I have read it, I don’t want to infringe on the publisher’s ability to make money…so I won’t scan and post online. I will, however, include some links to as to bring any readers up to speed on the issue if you haven’t read the piece.

(photo above: Lt. General Mateparae and PM John Key)

23 APR 11: Scoop News, “Torture & the SAS: The Gov’ts Guilty Secrets in Afghanistan”

22 APR 11: NZ Herald, “NZ SAS prisoners tortured”

26 APR 11: Op Ed, Dominion Post, “More than a day of remembrance”

The central challenge in this post is that, although I’ve posted some local coverage of the article in question, I’ll principally be responding to “Eyes Wide Shut.” I’ve made five main observations, which I will briefly walk through below. These are next day reactions, meaning, I’ve read the piece and had about 16 hours to reflect. So what follows are first reactions.

1. The nature of military operations and the concept of military necessity is wholly ignored.

The article describes a military operation in Band E Timur in which 55 villagers were detained, “all of them men.” Sadly, two people were killed when gunfire was exchanged, and a frightened little girl died when she ran away and fell into a well. These are tragic events, to be sure.

However, after spending four full pages on the negative impacts of the raid, the author spends one paragraph (four sentences) on page 42 discussing why the raid occurred. It is easy to paint a picture a certain way…when one overwhelmingly focuses analysis on the costs of a given operation and not it’s merits or benefits.

All military operations are developed and undertaken with a balance in mind: is this action going to help achieve the mission? Is it on a legitimate military objective? Is the harm proportional and not direct to the military advantage gained? Is it at all possible that the high value target (HVT) sought in Band E Timur [Taliban treasurer and probable heir to Mullah Omar] was worth the risk? Was actionable intelligence gained from the raid? These are important, unasked questions.

2. Military intelligence is not a CSI-level standard of proof.

The article relates a sense of disappointment with the terse statement, “US intelligence suggested he [the HVT from above]would be there. He wasn’t. The intelligence was wrong.” Military intelligence is gained in non-permissive environments, in the best of situations, and is never able to truly build an “airtight case” against anyone or anything. Military intelligence is an inexact science in which the best one can hope for is to augment and guide military operations (and not detract and mislead).

3. Strong anti-American bias undermines the article’s credibility.

This can’t really be denied. The quotations from the NZ SAS are pretty conclusive: “we sort of knew what would happen to the prisoners, Americans being Americans,” and “I lost a lot of respect for Americans during my time in Afghanistan. They’re just so brainwashed.”

The author doesn’t hide his feelings either, when discussing the raid at Band E Timur: “Not that evidence was much interest to the Americans. No one had taken the detainees’ names…” As a military person, this is, well, a ridiculous assertion.

At point of capture in a large scale detention (and 55 males suggests this) one does not have time to identify each person when looking for a HVT, only the particular objective. Of course, it is important to discriminate, which is why only men of a certain age range were taken. Some would counter that a 12 and 70 year old were taken…part of that has to do with security (keeping them from getting weapons as the raid continues) and part to do with the challenge of identification in a very different society.

When the raid was complete, of course the detained individuals were identified, as they were all questioned (which the article states). Moreover, the article describes the American soldiers taking clothing and shaving hair off, implying that this was torture. One could easily see that another way – taking Afghans into their custody and care, in order to prevent sickness and spread of disease – the Americans thoroughly cleaned the detained (including prevention of lice). This sounds harsh, I’m sure, but the reality of Afghanistan is that health is a serious concern.

There was a glimmer of an actual torture allegation at the bottom of page 41 and top of 42, but it relies upon second hand sources about someone that had left the area (“Ishaqzai told me that after Mohammad Sadiq was released, he was taken to Pakistan for medical treatment and is now in a wheelchair”). The author should have run that story down – it would have been a real, constructive story that merited the public’s attention. If a soldier really did mistreat this individual, they should stand for Courts Martial. Unfortunately, because he chose not to follow up with a truly substantial lead, we’re left with questions.

[Addendum for counter evidence to uncaring, systemically violent US soldiers: visit US 60 Minutes story on the Global Medical Relief Fund. The group’s director discusses her monthly requests from US service-members in Iraq and Afghanistan for medical help for affected children].

4. The article is based on the assumption that the NZDF is complicit in torture because it passes detainees on to torturing Americans and Afghan authorities. Yet it doesn’t provide any complete evidence of a single instance of torture by either US or Afghan authorities.

Which leads to the greatest point about the entire story: it actually doesn’t bring any real evidence of torture to bear. It describes the reality of military operations, how brutal and challenging they can be. No one disputes that. But, as described above, the one moment the story heads towards a legitimate charge…it falls short of Journalism 101 (follow up!).

There are real questions about the Afghan National Directorate of Security (NDS) which have been raised by the British. In turn, the British have taken reasonable action (they don’t give detainees to the NDS).

However, the article does not prove that either the US or Afghanistan systematically tortures it’s detainees. In fact, it doesn’t even document a (one) case of torture. It describes military operations, not torture. The article’s underlying assumption…fails.

5. The NZ SAS soldiers (or soldier) that provided anonymous quotations for the article lack the moral courage their profession dictates.

As I write this, I will do my best to maintain balance as a professional military officer.

There are several quotations from NZ SAS members, all anonymous, featured in the article. One presumes that they number two or three, but, as presented, “they” could just be one person, which degrades the article’s credibility.

More importantly, the objections raised by the NZ SAS soldiers may be serious allegations. One states, “We’re not happy with the way the prisoners were treated.” Another, mentioned above, “we sort of knew what would happen to the prisoners, Americans being Americans.” These are both serious statements, and may describe serious misdeeds. If so, speak out! Don’t wait eight years and talk to a Metro reporter! Wrong place, wrong time, wrong method for real change.

And, lastly, most importantly, I openly, and within the profession of arms, question any member of the NZ SAS that would anonymously make statements like those featured in the story critiqued above. The best that can be said is that they fail to live up to the proud traditions of the organization; at worst they are cowardly words which are the rough equivalent of a punch below the belt.

As Coach Herm Edwards famously said: “Put your name on it.”

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