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Our secret war: What the government
did not want you to know

16 February 2003

PM Helen Clark insisted New Zealand's role in the war in Afghanistan would stay secret. Now, for the first time, the story can be told. Nicky Hager investigates.

The war in Afghanistan was fought by intelligence analysts sitting at computers and special force commandos roving in mountains and lowlands. New Zealanders played important roles in both parts.

New Zealand military intelligence officers worked in the very heart of the American operational command, at the US military coalition headquarters at Bagram air base, 65km north of Kabul. They were involved in tracking enemy forces and identifying combat targets.

The Americans thought highly of their efforts. New Zealand's second highest defence intelligence officer, lieutenant colonel Mike Hickman, was nominated for the US bronze star medal for "meritorious achievement in connection with combat operations".

New Zealand's roles - revealed for the first time - show Wellington still enjoys very close intelligence links with Washington, despite the Anzus rift. Only the closest friends of the US are invited to intelligence headquarters during a shooting war.

The work of the New Zealand intelligence officers - code-named Operation Kiwi Cracker - was part of a wider military strategy. The war consisted of high-tech intelligence operations identifying targets - buildings, roads, bridges, people - and then jets being sent screaming across the skies from distant aircraft carriers and bases to destroy them with precision-guided missiles.

The main job of the special forces, including our Special Air Service (SAS), was to help direct this bombing, usually from a safe position well away from the targets.

During Operation Anaconda in eastern Afghanistan in March 2002, SAS soldiers directed air attacks by "illuminating" targets with pulsing infrared marker beams - invisible to the naked eye, but clear to the incoming aircrafts' sensors.

The objective of Anaconda was basically extermination rather than taking prisoners. Other special forces, including the Australian SAS, were deployed to cut off escape routes from the area.

Bombing began on March 2. In the next few days "wave after wave of B-52s and other aircraft unleashed bombs" in order, as a foreign report in one newspaper euphemistically described it, to "soften enemy positions in the snow-capped peaks".

At the start of the attack there were an estimated 1000 Afghan fighters. By March 13, the number still "active" had been "revised downward" to 100. US special forces and their local allies then combed the area attacking groups that had survived the bombing in positions such as rock overhangs. Intense bombing isn't about trying to take prisoners.

According to a US military report, one such group was found surrounded by five large bomb craters. It had "survived until overrun by US infantry". This is the new face of war in the 21st century, where one superpower has overwhelming military might.

Media management of New Zealand's part in Anaconda and the rest of the war was simple and effective. From the beginning, Prime Minister Helen Clark declared that everything about New Zealand's role was secret. All details of the military activities would be, and have remained, a debate-free zone.

While John Howard ostentatiously farewelled Australian troops and boasted about specific attacks they conducted, our prime minister insisted that the deployment - our military's most serious involvement in a war since Vietnam - was basically none of the public's business.

Thanks to military officers who did not agree with the secrecy, some leaked internal papers and the efforts of the ombudsman's office, the story can now be told.

The Afghanistan war wasn't really "war" as we commonly conceive it. War suggests two vaguely equal sides fighting. But very little of what happened in Afghanistan fits that picture. Instead of armies or tanks, it was a war conducted mostly by special forces operatives and intelligence staff - backed up by the overwhelming weaponry of the US air force and navy. New Zealand contributed an SAS squadron - our army's commando-style soldiers - with the code-name Operation Concord. They joined Operation Kiwi Cracker intelligence staff.

Before describing them in detail, it helps to understand better the kind of war of which they were part.

A US military study analysing the Afghanistan war in late 2002 summed up the style of fighting. It noted, in US military speak, that "precision-guided missile lethality can kill any targets found". So the central war-fighting concept was "precision-guided missiles as driver, other elements as support".

The study described how US commanders in Afghanistan combined special operations forces - used as "target acquirers for precision-guided missiles" - and an "indigenous ally" (the Northern Alliance) that "screens the US special operations forces from hostile patrols", "occupies abandoned ground" and "mops up surviving remnants".

Remember news stories about Northern Alliance forces pushing rapidly across the country? That was the "occupying abandoned ground" phase. If any "surviving remnants" fired a shot at the advancing forces, the US special forces or CIA operatives accompanying the advance simply called in the bombers again to "mop up".

It was easy for the public to have little sympathy for the people dying in Afghanistan as they were presented as being colleagues of the September 11 terrorists or at least budding terrorists training in Osama bin Laden's camps.

But according to news reports in The Washington Post and New York Times in late 2001, about 75% of the estimated 2000-3000 al Qaeda soldiers in Afghanistan were not pledged members. Instead, they were volunteers who had come to Afghanistan to help fight the civil war between the Taliban and Northern Alliance warlords. These people had no connection to the mostly Saudi-born, Germany-trained cells involved in September 11. Some were using the civil war as training to return to fight wars of liberation in their own countries, like those fighting the Russian troops violently occupying Chechnya.

Many thousands of Taliban and al Qaeda fighters (precise figures have not been disclosed) were killed. More died in prison. Thousands of civilians died as well. The US and its allies had hardly one casualty.

On one side was the most technologically advanced military on Earth, dropping bombs with impunity and on the other were mostly poor, low-tech soldiers who died, surrendered or fled.

New Zealand's role in such a bloody operation may help explain why Clark preferred the public simply not to know.

By early March 2002, a large group of surviving Muslim fighters had retreated to an area of caves and mountains called Shah-I-Kot in eastern Afghanistan. Many hundreds of the escaped fighters and their families gathered there, joined by Pakistani sympathisers.

US intelligence, including intercepted radio communications, had revealed their location and a massive military attack was arranged.

Our SAS soldiers and other special forces were flown into the region on large US Chinook helicopters a few days before the offensive. Travelling by foot at night, they set up observation positions in the mountains, using the climbing and survival skills they practice regularly with British SAS troops around Mt Cook.

Their key role was "special reconnaissance", defined as "the collection and reporting of critical information about the movement of enemy forces" and "target acquisition".

They used sophisticated night-sight equipment and other optical sensors, and transmitted pictures and information over special links to the US commanders.

The SAS specifically practises for these targeting operations, training and exercising in what is called "close air support" and studying for the Nato-accredited qualification of "forward air controller".

This person's job is to control the incoming strike aircraft, instructing it how to avoid friendly forces and identify the target. When the aircraft is in position, the controller says the words "cleared hot" over the radio to the pilot, who then releases the missiles and bombs.

SAS major John McNutt, killed by a stray bomb during a night exercise in northern Kuwait on March 12, 2001, was serving as training officer for US and Kuwaiti forces and practising precisely these techniques when the accident happened.

The Pentagon reported after Operation Anaconda that "despite few enemy bodies being recovered", it believed very few "fugitives" had escaped. US army generals privately praised the SAS troops for their part in the operation.

The structures of the New Zealand SAS are kept secret. The SAS is made up of two identical "sabre" fighting squadrons, A and B, the SAS combat school, a support squadron and the headquarters staff.

The A and B squadrons have alternating functions each year. One will be assigned to overseas "special operations", divided into specialists in parachuting, mountain climbing and amphibious skills. The other team will be training and available for counter-terrorist activities in New Zealand (divided into four-person assault and sniper teams). The first contingent of SAS troops flew from New Zealand early on Wednesday, December 12, 2001. They had been waiting on standby for the US military to establish a secure base inside Afghanistan, which was achieved after US marines occupied Kandahar airport on November 26.

They flew first to the British-US military base on Diego Garcia in the Indian Ocean. They flew into Afghanistan on December 17, immediately transferring under the control of the US commanders who were running the war.

Kandahar airport lies outside the city of Kandahar on the main road to the nearby Pakistan border, on a desert-like plain surrounded by stark mountains.

The airport was base for the SAS troops for the next 12 months. They arrived into a quickly growing "city" of tents, air-lifted barracks and offices, military vehicles and aircraft.

The Australian SAS arrived at the same time, becoming their neighbours, amid a sea of US Navy SEAL special force troops. The entire New Zealand SAS mission to Afghanistan was called Operation Concord. The first contingent of SAS troops was from A squadron. In early May 2002, B squadron replaced it and it was in turn replaced by a third group that arrived in September 2002.

Operation Concord ended two months ago, in December, when that third group returned to New Zealand. The Australian SAS and many other special force troops left Afghanistan at the same time.

Each Operation Concord "squadron" consisted of about 40 SAS soldiers - mostly Maori - plus support staff such as communications, stores and cooks.

Nearly all SAS members were given turns in the war, including SAS commanding officer Jon Knight who posted himself to Afghanistan.

The overall head of Operation Concord was SAS major Jim Blackwell, later major Peter Kelly. Unlike the rest of the SAS, they were based at the US military headquarters at Bagram with a second officer, called the New Zealand special forces liaison officer.

A foreign aid worker says he was soon aware of the SAS presence around Kandahar city. "It was evident that they were the New Zealanders," he says.

"I could tell because they were the guys who looked human - as opposed to US zombie-types - and often Polynesian. They looked like they were having a good time ... only ever in quasi military gear. A bunch of genuine good-time Rambos from what I could see."

The SAS soldiers soon learned the war was very much a US show. All orders came from US commanders and throughout Afghanistan (except in Kabul) the US special forces personnel regarded themselves as top dogs.

One day an SAS cook, out collecting supplies at the Kandahar base, did not show suitable deference to a US officer who stopped him. When the officer found he didn't have the correct papers on him - they were sitting on a table in the base area - he had the cook put in jail for 24 hours.

Besides Anaconda, the SAS troops took part in dozens of smaller operations, usually observing and/or raiding suspected al Qaeda and Taliban sites.

They travelled in Chinook helicopters or 10 "desert mobility vehicles" (DMVs) on loan from the US forces. These vehicles are similar to four-wheel-drives but are designed to carry four special forces soldiers.

The DMV convoys were like a war-on-wheels: in addition to the troops' personal weapons, they had a machine gun on the bonnet and a turret with a 40mm automatic grenade launcher on the roof, plus man-portable missiles. Insiders report that the SAS troops used large quantities of ammunition for these weapons during operations. In one publicised case, in October 2002, an SAS vehicle hit a landmine. On another occasion - not reported before - one rolled down a steep bank into a river, seriously injuring New Zealanders.

Prior to the government approving Operation Concord, defence chiefs had estimated the likelihood of SAS casualties as "medium to high". Fortunately, no SAS soldiers died during the 12-month deployment.

However, there is no doubt that many people were killed through the actions of the SAS soldiers and intelligence officers, blown apart and injured by the bombs and missiles they targeted. The Australian SAS commander, brigadier Duncan Lewis, openly boasted after Anaconda that his troops had been "responsible for a large number of deaths by calling in US air strikes".

Following media speculation about whether New Zealand was involved in Anaconda, Helen Clark was asked on March 11, 2002, whether the SAS had killed anyone in Afghanistan. She said she would "not get into a hypothetical debate" and that such facts would not normally come to her attention.

Presumably her government had been persuaded it was genuinely helping fight terrorism, but other political benefits of sending New Zealand's SAS to Afghanistan became clear soon after.

On March 26, 2002, two weeks after Anaconda, Helen Clark arrived in the US for her historic visit to meet President George W Bush. On the day of her arrival, Radio New Zealand reported her government had approved deliberate leaking in Washington of information about the SAS in Afghanistan just before the visit to help ensure she got a warm reception.

If this is correct, it worked. This was the visit where Colin Powell declared the US and New Zealand were "very, very, very good friends". A senior Labour MP confided that the SAS deployment was simply sensible politics, being the price of trade access to the US. When asked if he meant "bombs for butter", he said "No, it's bombs for meat".

The military also had its own agenda in going to Afghanistan. Although it is 18 years since the official end of the Anzus alliance, most intelligence and military activities have remained closely integrated with the US. Yet many senior officers regularly push for even closer ties. Inside sources say that defence officials have privately used their activities in Afghanistan to lobby our government and US military authorities for new training opportunities in the US, joint US-NZ exercises and new US military equipment.

The argument is that these will make them more capable of integrating into a US military coalition next time. The SAS has also sought to leverage greater US links from helping in Afghanistan.

Meanwhile, a secret special operations capability review was submitted to the government late last year by defence officials that recommends expanding the SAS, enhancing its equipment and reorienting other parts of the military to support special missions.

The goal: that New Zealand has greater special forces capabilities for overseas deployments and that the SAS is trained and equipped to fight within the forces of the country they assume would be leading those operations, the US.

This planning, like the war, is supposed to be secret. It deserves serious public debate. Planning to join George W Bush in more Afghanistan-type wars, the so-called "war on terror", is likely to be a strategy for more instability and terrorism.

US special forces soldiers returning home from Afghanistan had their photos and stories in newspapers. Australian SAS also returned home in a blaze of publicity, two appearing on front pages wearing medals awarded for bravery.

But when our boys came home in December, Clark and her government stuck to its policy of absolute secrecy - purely for the sake of the troops and their families, of course.

Since every detail of the Afghan-istan deployment could have been explained without identifying individual soldiers and their families, this excuse is pretty thin. New Zealanders pay for those soldiers.

Everything they do and everyone they kill is done in New Zealand's name. The public clearly has a right to be part of those decisions.

A more convincing explanation for the secrecy is politics. If it had been as well publicised as, for instance, the Vietnam War, many New Zealanders, including lots of Labour voters, might have been repelled by the carnage and doubted the wisdom of taking part. They might not agree with moving into even closer military alliance with Bush. They might not expect these things from a Labour government. How much simpler if they just don't know.

Mike White assisted with research inside Afghanistan.

Published in the Sunday Star Times © Independent Newspapers Limited 2003.

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