War Crimes for Idiots: The New Zealand SAS and the War on Terror


Part of the NZ SAS squad walking away from a firefight in Kabul, June 2011


17 years after 9/11 and the official launch of the War on Terror (WOT) NZ finds itself facing for the first time the undeniable proof that it was recruited by the US (“for us or against us”) as mercenaries in the US campaign to avenge itself against ‘Islamic Terrorism’. The occasion is not any actual current events in the WOT in Afghanistan, but the publication of the book Hit and Run by Nicky Hager and Jon Stephenson documenting Operation Burnham, the revenge raid against the killers of SAS Lieutenant O’Donnell led by the NZ SAS on two villages in the Tirgiran valley during the dead of night on March 22, 2010. The title of the book might have been ‘Hunt and Kill’ as that more accurately describes the nature of the SAS mission between 2002 and 2013. Operation Burnham failed as the Taliban militants who killed O’Donnell were not in the village, but hiding further up the mountains until the situation had ‘blown over’. But never mind, reprisals in wartime have never worried too much about hitting the targets. So, 21 civilians ended up dead or wounded. The SAS reported 9 ‘insurgents’ dead and no civilians killed. Do we blame the fog of war? No. We blame capitalism and imperialism and the WOT.

The War on Terror is the real war crime

Both Labour and National governments covered up killing of non-combatants by the SAS from February 2002 to April 2013 when the SAS returned to NZ for the last time. They could cover it up because they were mercenaries of the US in its latest imperialist war. Whenever new evidence surfaced in the years that followed it was met with denials and lies. Who was going to blow the whistle? Well, the new book, Hit and Run: The New Zealand SAS in Afghanistan and the meaning of honour, presents conclusive proof for the first time which is impossible to run from – even if the one person most responsible for Operation Burnham, John Key, has done a runner. Still, the NACT regime in power continues the cover up parroting the official NZDF line of ‘no civilian dead’. The authors’ aim is to force an independent inquiry to expose any ‘war crimes’ and demand that NZ troops follow the international ‘rules of war’ in any future engagements. While as Marxists we support an ‘independent’ inquiry because it will expose more dirty secrets of NZ’s role as a deputy dog of US imperialism, we know that this will not stop the WOT. By its nature, as part of the class war, the WOT is conducted as a ‘dirty’ war outside any legal constraints precisely because it is an imperialist war of conquest and exploitation.

The war crime is killing Afghans not civilians

What’s the difference between an Afghan citizen and a Taliban insurgent? One might say an AK47. But that is not true. In fact, it is whether or not a person is running towards or from the SAS. Judging by the bourgeois media reception of Hit and Run (e.g. the New Zealand Herald calls for an inquiry) this abortive mission which caused civilian deaths is worthy of an official inquiry as a potential ‘war crime’. This concept of ‘war crime’ has a history, being defined by the Clark Labour Government as killing non-combatants, or torturing combatants. That’s why earlier atrocities dating back to 2002 did not hit headlines as no innocent civilians were recorded as killed. When evidence that combatants handed over to the US forces by the SAS were tortured of killed, the Labour Government stopped the SAS taking prisoners. The ‘fiasco’, (according to Defence Minister Mapp who was at the time in Kabul, along with Chief of the NZDF, Lieutenant-General Mateparae a veteran of Labour’s 2002 ‘fiasco’) that took place in 2010 only hit the radar because it did involve civilian deaths and executions, and the NACT regime suppressed the truth about it until John Stephenson investigated the events and published evidence of these deaths in 2011.
NACTS in official denial

True to form the NACT regime is in denial and parroting the Defence Ministry lies that no civilians were killed. But having its nose rubbed in the reality of the dirty WOT is seems that liberal NZ has woken up from nearly two decades of moral vacancy to rescue NZ’s peace-loving reputation. Because any idiot could have worked out that NZ should never have been in Afghanistan in the first place. The dirty WOT was and remains a blatant case of a US imperialist invasion to occupy and colonise a country that sits strategically in the heartland of Eurasia and on Russia’s back doorstep. The Saudis who perpetrated 9/11 were not hiding in Afghanistan, nor was Bin Laden. If the Taliban were ‘terrorists’ threatening the security of the US and the ‘free West’ it was only because it was funded by the US to fight the Soviet occupation in 1979. Now in the fit of revenge following 9/11 George Bush the younger, re-labelled the Taliban as ‘terrorist’ and the protector of Al Qaeda. What’s more Bush made it clear that ‘terrorists’ where not ‘lawful combatants’ and that they were not protected by international law of war and human rights. The NACTs as servile, US clients, do not intend to abandon their historic role as loyal servants of US imperialism without a fight.

What happened to women, democracy, human rights? 
All of the blatant excuses put up by the US to justify the invasion of Afghanistan in the name of democracy, women, and human rights were patently false to anyone other than idiots. Women did not benefit from the invasion. They suffered massively as families and communities were destroyed. Democracy failed from day one as the US simple installed its client regime under its military ally, Pashtun tribal leader Hamid Kharzai, in 2004. Bin Laden was never found and only hunted down and killed years later in Pakistan. The reality was that the WOT was a unilateral war of vengeance for 9/11 directed at all ‘militant’ Islamic movements under the generic label of Al Qaeda. It was to become a never-ending war against Islam as the existential threat to the “West” – that is, a threat to the hegemonic rule of US imperialism and its allies and client states such as NZ, against the spread of armed resistance of national liberation wars against US imperialist rule.

Avenging 9/11 to rebuild US global hegemony

What did New Zealanders think the SAS was doing in Afghanistan? It was obvious that from the start that NZ reacted to 9/11 by siding with Bush (“you are either for us or against us”) by joining the WOT in 2001. There was strong opposition to Clark’s Labour Government legislating draconian measures to combat the WOT at home, and sending combatant troops into Afghanistan. Recognising this opposition the Government refused to send troops into combat but agreed to allow non-combatants on a civil reconstruction mission, and defended by the SAS. This was condemned on the left as a pacifist cover for participating in the dirty WOT. We didn’t have to wait long for proof. The SAS quickly fell into their real role as mercenaries in the US WOT and to ‘dishonour’ themselves by reneging on their obligations under the rules of war. In February, 2002 the NZ SAS led a military attack on the village of Band e Timor. According to Jon Stephenson who did the outstanding investigative reporting to blow the cover on this raid, it’s purpose was to arrest the prominent Taliban leader Mullah Akhtar Osmani.

Band e Timor raid led by SAS

But what was the SAS, alongside the Civil Reconstruction Team in Bameyan province on a mission to win ‘hearts and minds’, doing leading a military action on a village where a 70-year-old man was shot dead and 6-year-old girl killed when she panicked and fell down a well? Were they not also complicit in the death of the village head, Berget Khan, whom they handed over to the US only to have his skull smashed in within hours. There was no sign of the wanted Taliban leader. The deaths of civilians, the arrests, mistreatment and torture, led to a massive uproar in the tribal people, especially among women, undermining the ostensible mission of the SAS in acting as a ‘peacekeeping’ cover for the dirty WOT. Why then, was this raid not condemned as a ‘war crime’ and the SAS reprimanded by the Labour Government? The Clark government didn’t have the guts to stand up to the US so soon after 9/11 and accepted the legitimacy of the WOT even if it pretended not to be engaged in actual firefights. Meanwhile, back in NZ, RAKON, a NZ-based high tech firm was manufacturing and selling guidance systems for missiles to the US. So maybe building guidance systems is not a ‘war crime’ because it could prevent civilians being mistaken for targets by missiles and drones? Idiotic!

The legitimacy of the ‘war on terror’

It’s clear that once you accept the legitimacy of the ‘War on Terror’ it is a matter of a few short steps from ‘peacekeeping’ or ‘civil reconstruction’ with the right to armed defence, to leading a firefight. Who knew or cared? The Labour Government tried to limit the role of the SAS to avoid future deaths of civilians and torture of suspect Talibs. But the nature of the WOT meant that this was impossible. Sooner or later the logic which drove the SAS to combat roles would see it drawn into more firefights. It is not possible to win the ‘hearts and minds’ of an occupied people subjected to the WOT when you are on the wrong side. Who knew? A history lesson for idiots shows that all foreign invaders of Afghanistan have been defeated and expelled. Why should the US coalition be any different? Communists who know their history condemned NZ’s role in Afghanistan from the start demanding that all foreign troops get out or face defeat.

While we have no wish to see NZ soldiers killed, this is what happens to troops that invade and occupy a poor country to suppress a national resistance movement. In Afghanistan, it happened to the British in the 1840s and again in the 1870s and to the Russians in the 1980s. So, it was inevitable that both the SAS and the civil reconstruction team in Bameyon province would sooner or later face deaths in action and under the rules of the WOT a hunt to kill the perpetrators, abut that sooner or later the armed invaders would face ultimate defeat. When Lieutenant Tim O’Donnell was killed by a IED on 3 August 2010 it took less than three weeks to mount a series of reprisal ‘hunt and kill’ raids that began on the night of 22 August 2010 and continued until April 2013 when the SAS left Afghanistan in defeat. The culture of vengeance that drove the ‘hunt and kill’ raids was signed off by Defence Minister Mapp, Chief of NZDF Mateparae, and PM Key. It remains to be seen whether or not the National Party will be driven out of power in defeat.

SAS troops questioned breaking rules of war

From the start of the WOT not all SAS members approved of their role. In his 2011 Metro article, Eyes Wide Shut, Stephenson reports that after the 2002 raid, some SAS members were unhappy with the treatment of prisoners by the US forces. They expected them to be treated according to the rules of engagement, but in fact found out quickly enough that the US treated prisoners like they were in Guantanamo. The SAS commander Lieutenant Colonel Jim Blackwell raised their objections to the treatment of prisoners with the commanders of the Canadian, Danish, German and Norwegian special forces. No action was taken. Was this information passed back to the Labour Government, to Prime Minister Clark, Minister of Foreign Affairs Goff, Minister of Foreign Affairs or Minister of Defence Burton? Of course. But failing any satisfactory response from the NZ Government, our position was, and remains, that troops have the right to refuse orders from their officers and to mutiny if ordered to kill or torture outside the rules of engagement. Of course, this is far from a mutiny rejecting the legitimacy of the WOT in Afghanistan, but it is a ‘natural justice’ response on the part of ordinary soldiers to the hypocrisy of idiots similar to that which motivated the whistleblower Chelsea Manning to expose the dirty WOT in Iraq.

What did the Labour Government do?

Stephenson’s 2011 Metro article Eyes Wide Shut documents Labour’s policy stance from 2001. Hypocrisy sums it up. Clark as PM was really in charge of NZ’s role in the WOT. The Band e Timur raid was Labour’s ‘fiasco’. It was also Clark’s ‘fiasco’ as she signed off the SAS ‘Rules of Engagement’. Goff in 2007 recollected that in 2002 (when he was Minister of Foreign Affairs) concern over the treatment of prisoners in this raid caused the Government to seek assurances that prisoners were treated humanely. An attempt was made to involve the Red Cross to monitor this process, but Stephenson found that the Red Cross were unaware of this. After the revelations about Abu Ghraib in April 2004 and the Human Rights Watch Report Enduring Freedom of March 2004 which detailed abuses in the treatment of detainees, the SAS was instructed to hand over detainees to the Afghan, and not the US, authorities. Who were they fooling? For example, a token attempt to track 3 detainees from Band e Timur who had been sent to Guantanamo was futile because NZ did not supply their names!

Despite mounting evidence of more raids, torture and killings in which the NZ SAS were complicit, it kept the SAS in Afghanistan until 2005. It did not send them back when re-elected for a third term because it viewed the Afghan Kharzai government as corrupt and US policy in fighting the WOT as indefensible after Abu Ghraib revelations. The public abhorrence of these graphic images of inhumane torture made it impossible to maintain the pretence that NZ could keep its hands clean and not be judged as complicit in the US and Afghan conduct of the dirty WOT. It is clear that the Labour Government commitment to the WOT ‘trumped’ it’s professed concern for the human rights of combatants and non-combatants until the systematic abuse of prisoners in the WOT and “almost total impunity” of the US from any charge of ‘war crimes’ created widespread popular repugnance. Labour’s ‘fiasco’ in 2002 and its failure to seriously correct the abuse of prisoners for which it had responsibility, removed any doubt that it was, like the National Government, a ‘deputy dog’ of US imperialism, and that its SAS troops were actually mercenaries dressed up as humanitarians until this disguise was stripped off. We cannot put any trust in a future Labour Government, any more than a National Government, to refuse to participate in the ongoing US dirty WOT!

NACTs roll over for Obomber 

The NACTS in government deployed the SAS back to Afghanistan on 10 August, 2009, but this time the disguise was the SAS role as ‘mentors’ of the Afghan Crisis Response Unit (CRU) formed to replace departing US troops. PM Key said that if the SAS detained suspects they would “most likely” be handed over to the Afghan rather than US authorities. He had received assurance from the Afghans that they observed the Geneva Convention. In January, 2010, the SAS was involved in a training exercise with the CRU in Kabul to detain suspects that led to a firefight that was reported in the NZ media with photos of SAS personnel moving in full battle dress along a street. And we now know that on March 22, 2010, NZSAS were involved in Operation Burnham fiasco in the Tirgiran Valley, Baghlan province when 21 non-combatants were killed or wounded.

This Operation was kept secret by the NACT regime until Hager’s book Other People’s Wars was published in 2011 and Stephenson’s Maori TV documentary Collateral Damage was broadcast in 2014, raising questions that were met with the standard denials and evasions. But the cover up is now threadbare because of the new facts documented in Hager and Stephenson’s new book Hit and Run. The fallout from the publication of their book has created a national debate, and the call for an ‘independent’ inquiry to force a full disclosure, and the possibility of ‘war crime’ charges under international law being laid against the NZDF or the NZ Government.

Will an ‘inquiry’ stop the War on Terror?

While the facts that have been covered up are now disclosed by Hit and Run an ‘independent’ inquiry would severely weaken the ruling class practice of secrecy that is endemic in the WOT. It may help us ‘open the books’ on the secret defence and security pacts NZ has made with the US. It would be more difficult for any future government to take us into war without a public debate or referendum. At the same time no inquiry can be truly ‘independent’ of the ruling class – the craven comprador Deputy Dogs of the USA playing a supine mercenary role in the dirty WOT. Whether or not such an inquiry is held, we need a ‘Workers’ Inquiry’ made up of NZ and Afghan delegates elected by and accountable to NZ and Afghan workers’ and poor farmers organisations.

There is no doubt that the NZSAS, the NZDF and both Labour and National Governments have gone along with George Bush and turned a blind eye to the inhumane treatment of both combatants and non-combatants in Afghanistan. There is plenty of evidence given by SAS members, by Afghans submitting testimony to their NZ lawyers and from a wealth of other sources to hold both NZDF and Labour and National governments to account for the breaking of the basic laws of war including the Geneva Convention. The SAS even broke most of its own Laws of War and Rules of Engagement in adopting the US WOT standard ‘Hunt and Kill’ missions in Afghanistan. They shot civilians, left them for dead as ‘insurgents’, even ‘suspects’. They cynically handed over suspects to US and Afghan authorities they knew would torture if not kill them. However, only idiots ignorant of history and of capitalist imperialism could draw the conclusion that it is possible to stop such ‘war crimes’ without stopping imperialist war itself. It is the US-led WOT itself which defines ‘insurgents’ as “unlawful combatants” with no rights under any law that has to be stopped.

Imperialist war is the crime against humanity

We oppose imperialist war because it is war by oppressor nations against oppressed nations, subjecting them to plunder to rescue falling profits at home. While imperialist wars are wars between nations, they are in essence class wars. We are for the defeat of the ruling class in the imperialist nations and the victory of workers and oppressed in the oppressed nations that fight imperialism. The 20th century saw two imperialist world wars for control of Eurasia, and hence world domination, and many wars against colonies and semi-colonies to defeat the resistance of the popular masses to imperialism. The US emerged as the dominant power after WW2, but not until the defeat of the Soviet Union and China as degenerated workers’ states around 1990, did the US become truly hegemonic. Yet this victory proved illusory and ultimately led to further defeats.

The first Gulf War in 1991 created the conditions for the rise of an Islamic blowback in the form of Al Qaeda and the Taliban. Nor did the return of the former bureaucratic workers’ states, in particular Russia and China, to the world capitalist economy stop the decline in global profits. By the turn of the 21st century, Russia and China were emerging as new imperialist rivals for the control of Eurasia, and therefore, the world economy. 9/11 marked an historic defeat for the US. US hegemony was challenged by a Radical Islamic blowback and the escalation of new inter-imperialist trade and military wars. The WOT was the US response to these twin threats to its global hegemony. The invasion of Afghanistan in 2001 was the first test of the WOT and it led to an historic defeat for the US coalition. The intervention of the NZ SAS cannot escape being an integral part of that defeat.

Stop war crimes by stopping imperialist wars!

We draw the conclusion from Hit and Run that the NZDF was behaving in 2010 just as it did in 2002 – as mercenaries of the US coalition. It ignored the international and national laws and operated as part of the US ‘secret war’. George Bush in 2001 rubbished the Geneva Convention defining all ‘insurgents’ or ‘terrorists’ as ‘unlawful combatants’. If there are no laws limiting the WOT, then there can be no war crimes as such. It is the war of oppressor states against oppressed states that is the crime against humanity. The crime is the act of an imperialist oppressor and its mercenaries to invade and occupy an oppressed state on the pretext of fighting against “terror” when imperialism is itself the main cause of terror. Of course, in such wars, all sorts of other crimes are committed. They only fuel the resistance of oppressed states, or Islamic radical organisations such as the Taliban, Al Qaeda, etc., to fight the imperialist invaders as subject nations have done for centuries. The invaders always divide the people in an attempt to conquer. Today the US invader sides with the Pashtun tribe against the Taliban by designating the latter as ‘terrorist’. But the WOT has strengthened the Taliban and brings its victory closer.

So, whose side are we on again? Against the WOT we must defend all national liberation struggles without giving any political support to semi-feudal Islamic movements like the Taliban. But only by throwing out the imperialists can the Afghan people settle their tribal differences and unite workers and poor farmers to overthrow corrupt bourgeois regimes that side with the invaders. Then it would be possible to work together and create the conditions for a democratic and socialist Afghanistan within a wider socialist federation of Eurasia.

SAS Troops out of Afghanistan!

Disband the SAS!

Break with all imperialist alliances!

All imperialist troops out of Afghanistan!

Down with the War on Terror!

Defeat imperialism!

For a Socialist Afghanistan in a Federation of Eurasian Socialist Republics!

Nicky Hager and Jon Stephenson, Hit & Run: The New Zealand SAS in Afghanistan and the meaning of honour. Potton & Burton, Nelson NZ. 2017