Stuff Circuit is a video-led investigative journalism team producing long-form video projects. The award-winning team - Paula Penfold, Toby Longbottom, Phil Johnson, and Eugene Bingham - has delved into stories of public interest, including a miscarriage of justice, institutional racism, and a child’s death in a secluded Christian community.
Now, with the support of NZ on Air, and in collaboration with MediaWorks, Stuff Circuit presents this multi-media investigation into New Zealand’s war in Afghanistan. We take a closer look at two significant firefights which raise crucial questions: Why were we there? What really happened? What wasn’t the public told? And why?
A special thanks to all those who agreed to be interviewed and let us tell their stories. And to all those we can’t name who have helped us in many different ways.
To reach the Stuff Circuit team regarding The Valley, please email email@example.com.
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the valley vr
Virtual reality is a computer technology that creates a 3D experience, enabling the user to be immersed in another world and engaged within a story in a unique way.
A fully immersive virtual experience, which is part of the Stuff Circuit documentary series, to give you a sense of presence - a new level of understanding of what it’s like to be there, on the ground, with the New Zealand troops in Afghanistan. This experience is a simulated representation of events, based on official records, and interviews. It’s not a game.
There are three different ways to experience THE VALLEY VR, on your mobile, using a Cardboard Viewer or with the Samsung Gear VR along with a Samsung Phone.
Even if you don’t have a Cardboard viewer, you can use our app.
VR headsets are the best in providing you a fully immersive experience of virtual reality. There are different VR headsets available depending on your budget and your device. Most will work with both iPhone or Android devices.
For the middle of the day on a Wednesday, this place is packed. The guy we’ve come to meet wants to hide in plain sight so he’s picked somewhere busy.
At a table in the back of the bar, nervously jangling the ice in our drinks, we scan the room to figure out who he is.
A man trundling a suitcase on rollers saunters past, his eyes darting a glance towards us.
“Is that him?”
“Nah, he’s wearing a suit. This guy won’t be wearing a suit.”
Actually, we’ve no idea what he’ll be wearing. Or what he looks like. Or what his name is. We only know he says he’s got something important to tell us.
“Or he’s already here, watching us.”
Days earlier, he’d contacted us from what was clearly a fake social media account.
“Well,” he wrote, “that could have been a lot better.”
He’d watched a television programme[?] Source: "No Place to Be", 3D Investigates, TV3, June 14, 2015 we’d produced about a battle in which two New Zealand soldiers had been killed near the village of Baghak in Afghanistan in 2012. Our anonymous source believed there was a lot more that needed to be said. SEP 11, 2001 - World Trade Center attacks in New York. Tim Keating, now Chief of Defence, but then NZSAS commanding officer, gives word to the SAS ‘green’ squadron to prepare for deployment.
So now we wait.
The phone buzzes. The message: that’s him in the corner.
We hadn’t seen him, but he’d seen us. Sussing us out, making sure we were on our own.
“I’ll have a beer,” he smiles, shaking our hands.
Over the next two and a half hours, he explains a few truths and revelations about a war many New Zealanders have ignored or forgotten.
It’s clear there’s more about our war in Afghanistan that needs exploring.
It’s a lot to take in. And the risk he has taken talking to us doesn’t escape us.
We thank him, but he takes it almost like it’s an insult.
“You don’t need to thank me.” He stops, puts down his drink.
“I’m not doing it for you. The point is, the soldiers have no one to speak on their behalf.”
In fact, he wasn’t the only anonymous source who approached us after that programme. It turned out there were plenty of things that needed to be said, including about one of the most famous and defining moments of New Zealand’s time in Afghanistan, the awarding of a Victoria Cross.
One informant tells us: “I’m absolutely loyal to the military and I’m aware that what I’m saying may not sound like that. However, I think it’s in the country’s best interests for information to be made public.”
To most of the public, the message the Government pushed about our involvement in Afghanistan - that it was a hearts and minds mission - made people feel good. A 2009 survey[?] Source: Research New Zealand, July 2009, asking 500 New Zealanders about the decision to extend the Provincial Reconstruction Team's mandate.PDF asked people if they agreed with the continuation of the mission for “140 troops working on reconstruction projects”. Sixty-one per cent said yes.
We liked to think of our soldiers engaging in a peace-keeping mission. Kiwis are good at that, we thought to ourselves.
Except Afghanistan was never a peace-keeping mission.
There is no peace in Afghanistan. Stuff Circuit went there in April this year, and during our time in the country hundreds of people died in terror attacks or combat. Civilians figure prominently among the casualties. This is the war New Zealand left behind.
When Governments send soldiers to war, it’s important those decisions and what happens in our name are open to examination, that the Cabinet ministers who make the political decision to commit our country to war and the military hierarchy who make life and death decisions are held to account.
They should not flinch from that.
But they have. Despite years of requests, the New Zealand Defence Force has steadfastly refused to be interviewed by Stuff Circuit about the deployment to Afghanistan, especially about the deadly Battle of Baghak.
In 2014, we were told the Defence Force couldn’t take part in a story before the election. Another time we were told we couldn’t interview anyone (including the Chief of Defence Force) about the battle because it was too sensitive. Another time because the battle had already been covered. Lately, we were told we would have to provide a list of questions for the Defence Force to decide if we could interview anyone about any aspect of the Afghanistan deployment. Then, finally, just a straight no.
Instead, we’ve used the Official Information Act to seek hundreds of documents, many of which have large tracts blacked out. Frequently we sought the intervention of the Office of the Ombudsman - some investigations took years. At one point, the Defence Force sought Crown Law advice to successfully fight off one of the Chief Ombudsman’s investigations.
This is the story of a war which started out as one thing and morphed into quite another, a story of mission creep. The story of a war in which heroes were made. The story of a war in which the Government carefully controlled the narrative. The story of a war about which, it would seem, the Government would prefer that we were silent.
“We want to have a nice life, a nice country, a peaceful country, a peaceful life, and for our children to go to school and to be happy. To have all the good things in life. For that we have our own responsibility, to work for our country, to be loyal for our country, to love our country and to work towards the prosperity of our country. But also others are responsible, to help us to do this, in the name of fighting extremism, to do the right thing here, so we can succeed.
In the early hours of September 12, 2001, Jim Anderton’s phone interrupts him[?] Source: "Kiwis likely among victims", by Joanne Black and Ruth Berry, The Evening Post, September 12, 2001. as he finally makes his way to bed at Vogel House, his ministerial residence in Lower Hutt. It has already been a long day for the long-serving MP and now deputy Prime Minister. Hours earlier, Anderton has formally assumed responsibility as acting Prime Minister while Helen Clark travels to Europe.
In recent days the Government has been juggling what to do about Air New Zealand, which is on the brink of collapse, as well as preparing for the arrival of 150 Afghan refugees rescued from a sinking people-smuggling boat by the Norwegian freighter Tampa.
It’s just after 2 am as Anderton answers the phone.
This can’t be good news, he thinks.
It’s Mark Prebble, the chief executive of the Department of Prime Minister and Cabinet. He asks Anderton if he’s heard what’s happening in New York.
Anderton’s heartbeat rises.
Prebble tells him two airliners have crashed into the World Trade Center towers in New York. America is under attack.
Anderton almost doesn’t believe him. But there’s a tone in Prebble’s usually dour and dry voice which convinces Anderton. He turns on the TV and takes a deep breath at what he sees.
Anderton dials Clark, but she’s on a flight from Hong Kong to Rome and he has to leave a message.
As he hangs up, his phone rings. For the next few hours, it never stops as officials and senior Cabinet ministers begin to take stock of the magnitude of what is unfolding.
By 5.30 am, they’re gathered in the Beehive for the first of what will be months of critical meetings.
Twelve hours after his phone call from Prebble, Anderton wearily rises to his feet in Parliament.
“This is a grim day,” he tells the House[?] Source: Hon Jim Anderton, speech to Parliament, September 12, 2001. . “The shockwaves are rippling around the globe. Evil people have conspired to commit a cold and vicious act, not just against the American people but against humanity itself. New Zealand will stand with all other democratic countries to do whatever is necessary to prevent and remove threats to peace and the devastating scourge of terrorism.” SEP 21, 2001 - President George W Bush addresses Congress, declaring: “Every nation in every region now has a decision to make: Either you are with us or you are with the terrorists.”
It’s too soon to know now, but New Zealand is about to enter a war.
Within six days, Helen Clark has a letter[?] Source: "SAS may be asked for help in fight against terrorism", by Jonathan Milne, The Dominion, September 18, 2001 from Philip Wall, charge d’affaires at the US embassy in Wellington. In it, Wall lets New Zealand know that the US will be seeking assistance. Even if the words aren’t said, everyone knows what this means: troops, ships, planes - whatever military might you can bring to the fight.
By September 27, America has what it asked for.
Foreign Affairs Minister Phil Goff is in Washington for a meeting[?] Source: "US ponders NZ troop offer", by Joanne Black, The Evening Post, September 27, 2001 with US Deputy Secretary of State Richard Armitage and Assistant Secretary of State Jim Kelly. He’s just visited the battered Pentagon, also hit by a hijacked plane.
Afterwards, Goff tells his hosts, New Zealand is prepared to send its Special Air Service to help in the fight against terrorism.
It’s the first of many rounds of offers to help in the “War on Terror”; over the years, these offers will win New Zealand favour with its allies, and prime ministers invitations to the White House.
Back at their base in Auckland, the SAS are already preparing to say goodbye to their families.
Soon they’ll be on the frontline of Operation Enduring Freedom, the first wave of New Zealand forces into the fray in Afghanistan.
Former Green MP Keith Locke admits that he was probably never going to support New Zealand’s involvement. The son of peace activist Elsie Locke and older brother of social justice campaigner Maire Leadbeater, Keith Locke is no hawk.
But from the start of the war there was something else which concerned him - the extraordinary secrecy.
“The default position of the New Zealand Defence Force and the Government was to tell [the public] absolutely nothing, and to tell MPs like myself absolutely nothing.” oct 7, 2001 - US launches Operation Enduring Freedom, initially with the support of the United Kingdom and Canada, and later by more than 40 countries under a United Nations mandate.
In 2002, he’d asked the Government some basic questions, such as how many SAS troops were involved and what they were doing. “I got a blank on all those questions. I went to the Ombudsman and he said, ‘Oh, well, there’s an exception for national security and you can’t hear about that because of national security reasons’.”
Soon afterwards, Locke found American military reports on official US government sites revealing there were 40 SAS personnel operating in Afghanistan and setting out the patrol work they were doing. “The Americans were more open about what [the SAS] was doing in the war than the New Zealanders were.”
Right about the time Locke was discovering he could find out more by searching the internet than by asking questions as an MP, a group of senior Cabinet ministers was meeting to consider further military involvement in Afghanistan. What they were contemplating was a commitment which would end up lasting 10 years, longer than World Wars I and II combined.
Decisions were left in the hands of a select group: Prime Minister Helen Clark, Deputy PM Michael Cullen, Progressive Party leader and coalition partner Jim Anderton, Foreign Minister Phil Goff, and Defence Minister Mark Burton.
New Zealand had been under pressure to join the invasion of Iraq, phase two of America’s “War on Terror”, but Clark was firm that she would not be part of it without a United Nations resolution.
Resisting further involvement in Afghanistan was not as easy an argument to sustain.
Number one on the list of options presented to the ministers in May 2003 was a 12-month commitment to lead a Provincial Reconstruction Team (PRT) in Afghanistan.
“They will focus on enhancing the security environment and promoting the reconstruction effort, while monitoring and assessing military, civil and political reform efforts through community engagement,” a briefing[?] Source: "Afghanistan: Options for New Zealand Defence Force Contribution to Operation Enduring Freedom", May 22, 2003. Obtained under the Official Information Act.PDF to the ministers said.
Though Defence Force personnel would be armed, this was not a combat unit - another key talking point pressed at the time, and one which suited the “hearts and minds” message.
But there were significant risks, officials warned.
A decade later, the families of 10 soldiers who died on Afghan soil would be forgiven for looking back on that as an understatement. Clark too is well aware of the toll, telling the RNZ podcast series The Ninth Floor this year that “when you make decisions to deploy you are putting somebody else’s child in the way of danger”. Asked if, looking back, she could say to those who served and the families of those who died that the deployment was worth it, she could only give a qualified answer: “For those who served on my watch, yes.”
Danger, then, was on the mind, as ministers and officials contemplated greater involvement in Afghanistan. What else?
The Cabinet papers show they cared about New Zealand’s place in the world. Being prepared to send our young people into harm’s way would go down well internationally, they concluded. dec 11, 2001 - The SAS depart New Zealand for a 12 month operation, arriving in Kandahar. Three SAS Squadron rotations are deployed consecutively from December 2001 to December 2002.
“The group of countries involved in the campaign against terrorism, which includes most of our security partners, would welcome this contribution,” said one document.
The country most happy with New Zealand’s decision to commit more troops was the United States. Since spearheading the invasion of 2001 and the overthrow of the Taliban, the US had continued to lead in Afghanistan. As a next phase, it had conceived the idea of the PRTs, a concept that would continue once NATO took charge in Afghanistan.
New Zealand would be inheriting one of the PRTs the US had already established - at Bamyan province, in the mountainous centre of the country.
Former Army Reserves commander Richard Hall, who led the New Zealand rotation in 2008-2009, says the PRTs were a recognition that there were people who needed to be won-over with non-traditional military means. In any war, there are people who support the Government, those who oppose it, and a vast group in the middle. Afghanistan was no different.
“What the PRT concept was doing was realising that a lot of those people in the middle were suffering the collateral damage, and they were the ones that we should be persuading, that their life would be better supporting the Government than the Taliban,” says Hall.
“So, it was a way of trying to address that hearts and minds.”
Hearts and minds. Hearts and minds. If there was a mantra of the Afghanistan war, this was it. Politicians of all hues loved it. Convenient and catchy, it evoked feel-good emotions and diverted attention from more awkward questions about what we were doing there.
It’s a phrase which became synonymous with the PRT. But what does it actually mean?
Hearts and minds is a tactical weapon wrapped in a soft-shell coating - a century-old military theory that to gain the support of the majority, you need to win their hearts, and convince them that the governing authority’s view is the right one to support.
Try doing that in Afghanistan, home to a disparate collection of tribes and ethnicities, scarred by generations of war, invasion and occupation.
“In the history of Afghanistan we had no 40 years peace,” former Afghan MP Moeen Marastial tells us in his Kabul office during our visit in April. The thwack of blades as a helicopter heads to the nearby US embassy provides an aural endorsement of his words. “Always we had a war, invasion, and internal war in Afghanistan too.”
Richard Hall was aware of all this as he flew out of New Zealand 2008 to Afghanistan, a country he had studied keenly since reading Eric Newby’s autobiographical travel adventure book A Short Walk in the Hindu Kush as a teenager. The country had intrigued him ever since and he’d jumped at the chance to lead a PRT. mar 2002 - The second large battle of Afghanistan War, Operation Anaconda, begins, involving SAS troops, alongside 11 other countries, against up to 1000 Al Qaeda and Taliban fighters in southeast Afghanistan.
There he saw for himself the patchwork of different ethnicities and bloody rivalries[m] borne of generations of invasions.
And then there’s the mountainous geography. “Areas are very isolated from each other with poor infrastructure, so central authority in Kabul is very limited, and so a lot of power is invested in local, tribal chiefs. And it's rather like how I imagine Scotland was in the 1300s with the various clans all operating.
“On top of that, people are very problematic, they change sides. They make alliances to make sure they are on the winning side.”
How did he ever think he could help win hearts and minds in a place like this?
“The situation is more dangerous now - there is killing, hostages, robberies. I was happy to be with the police, but because of my injuries, I cannot work with them. They do not recruit me again.
Richard Hall is tall and friendly and dresses smartly. He seems more diplomat than soldier. But don’t let the disarming English accent fool you.
He spent 24 years in the British Army before moving to New Zealand in 2000 and joining the Territorials. He’s seen plenty of action. “If I look back on my history of the operations that I've taken part in, you see the best of humanity and the worst of humanity, often in the same day, often in the same hour. You see tremendous bravery, tremendous resilience, courage, comradeship. At the same time you can see what human beings are capable of doing to each other.”
He’s made decisions that have led to his own men being killed. “It's one of those things you replay in your mind. Was it the right decision at the time given the information that you knew at the time?”
When Hall stepped off the plane in Bamyan, he knew there was a possibility some of his contingent would not be on the flight home. He’d ordered each of his soldiers to write a letter to their next of kin, just in case. He’d even written one himself, leaving it with a family friend who burst into tears when she realised the implication.
But he also believed in his hearts and minds mission and the theory behind it.
“An insurgency is a political uprising based on the fact that people do not believe the normal political processes will achieve or address their grievances,” says Hall. “So, Northern Ireland would be a classic case.”
One way of addressing that is to deal with the military threat.
“But actually if that's all that you do, you're just dealing with the symptom and the cause remains there. And so somehow you have to address that social, economic, political, ethnic, religious issue that is creating the need for people to turn to violence.”
Within Afghanistan that meant the military becoming involved in reconstruction, building and supporting the political leadership, and being a friendly face to the local population.
At least, that was the idea.
But even the best of intentions sometimes have a way of going horribly off track.
On a spring day in Afghanistan, it’s abnormally warm, but not enough to explain why the air is stifling.
We’re in the upstairs private room of a restaurant in April this year and though it’s as safe a place to meet as any, the latent sense of threat feels cloistering. Always, there is the chance insurgents will storm past the blast walls and the armed guards outside. It’s not about us - this is an everyday possibility for everyone, locals especially. Insurgents can strike anyone, anywhere. jun 13, 2002 - Hamid Karzai is elected as head of state of a new interim government by the loya jirga, or grand council.
In the middle of the room, two men wearing traditional dress of richly-textured fabrics and headwear are sitting cross-legged on dusty cushions sipping cups of green tea - the ubiquitous beverage in this (mostly) alcohol-free country.
They’re from the country’s south, from the province of Uruzgan, from a village now controlled, once more, by the Taliban. Life is hard. Once there were 300 homes in their village, now there are only about 60. The rest have been destroyed or abandoned.
Any journey is treacherous, requiring slow, snaking journeys along side roads to avoid the paths most commonly planted with roadside bombs.
Since 2003, the proliferation of homemade bombs have butchered thousands of people in Afghanistan’s scarred cities and villages.
The two men in front of us have lived within deafening earshot of blasts. They’ve had guns raised at them.
And once, the people at the end of those guns were New Zealanders.
They’ve never talked about this before. Although what they want to talk about is one of the most well-known incidents of New Zealand’s time in Afghanistan.
It’s 10 years since New Zealand was introduced to Corporal Willie Apiata. Hands clasped in front of him, he emerges from behind a door in Defence Headquarters, Wellington, to face the cameras for the first time. The five-year SAS veteran seems daunted.
On this day, July 2, 2007, Prime Minister Helen Clark announces that Apiata will be the first New Zealander to receive the Victoria Cross since World War II.
The 2004 battle that eventually led to Apiata receiving the country’s highest military award was initially made public with few details. A Defence Force media release simply stated two SAS troopers were being treated in hospital after a firefight with insurgents.
The release of the Victoria Cross citation[?] Source: Special Honours List, 2 July 2007, NZ Gallantry Awards, Victoria Cross for NZ, Corporal Bill (Willie) Apiata. three years later coloured in some more of the picture.
Apiata and some of his comrades in arms are in two vehicles, laid up in a defensive position for the night. He’s on the bonnet of one vehicle when two rocket-propelled grenades strike the vehicle and throw him skywards. As heavy fire from automatic weapons pour in, a dazed Apiata realises one of the vehicles has been destroyed and two crew members from his vehicle have been injured.
One of them, Corporal D, is in a serious condition. He needs urgent medical help if he’s going to survive, but right now they are under ferocious attack from a group of about 20 insurgents.
Other vehicles and soldiers in Apiata’s patrol are about 70m away. With Corporal D suffering serious arterial bleeding, Apiata realises his only hope is to get his wounded mate to the rest of the patrol.
But that means crossing open ground in the middle of a fierce enemy attack. oct 23, 2002 - A vehicle carrying three NZSAS members runs over a landmine.
He decides to go. “I was doing my job and just looking after my mates,” he later says.
With the fire of the blazing vehicle burning bright, Apiata hoists his dying colleague off the ground and runs. Somehow, unbelievably, they make it.
With Corporal D safely delivered to a medic, Apiata grabs a weapon and rejoins the fight.
And that’s where the official story ends.
Three years later, at the 2007 press conference where he first fronts the media, Apiata is nervous and apprehensive about talking. In his job, to say a little is to say too much.
He pauses to think of answers and it emerges he’s under orders not to reveal details of the operation.
About the only time he seems confident is when he answers a journalist’s question[?] Source: "Reluctant Hero", 2008, NZ on Screen. about whether he sees himself as a hero.
“I see myself as Willie Apiata. I’m just an ordinary person and this is me.”
“As a kid growing up in Afghanistan, compared to the kids around other parts of the world, you think you're a bit tough. Since you were a kid you know what landmines are, what suicide bombers are, what gunshots and bombs and grenades. And I know it's crazy to say but you get used to it - that's your own country and you are with your family, and that's the environment where you are raised in.
Willie Apiata’s actions that night were extraordinary. To have saved Corporal D, in the face of ferocious attack, exemplifies the best of the human spirit.
In the decade since, Apiata has been lauded, and rightly so.
Not even former Green MP Keith Locke, no fan of the Defence Force, has a bad word to say. may 1, 2003 - US Secretary of Defence Donald Rumsfeld declares ‘major combat’ has ended.
“From all I've read about him, he seems a really nice bloke. He's clearly an efficient soldier and I think post his army career he's done a lot of good work with young kids, so, I wouldn't want to be critical of him,” Locke says.
Yes, there is a but....and this is where it gets tricky. Locke knows he’s on fragile ground.
“There is a myth that is created around, not only Willie Apiata, but other VCs and it's very hard to question the official account given without being seen to be, in some ways, deflating the balloon.”
So he chooses his words carefully, much like Apiata himself at that first press conference.
“I'd be more critical of the way the Defence Force has built him up as a hero, and put him on the stage as a sort of PR for the special forces,” says Locke. “Because what easier way to promote a cause like the SAS in Afghanistan - which in my opinion was a wrong cause - what better way to try and get some public support for it than to shape someone as a hero and put them up on the stage, give them a VC etc?”
But what do we know about the whole account of that battle? We don’t even know where it happened, what led to it, or what followed.
“We know what the official account is for Willie Apiata's VC. I have absolutely no way of knowing whether that's a correct account or not. I suppose I have to trust the military to get it right.”
In that Afghan restaurant, the two men on the cushions have their own account of what happened. Not so much the battle itself - more what happened before and after.
The men, whose province was one of the places where the New Zealand SAS conducted patrols in 2004, are cousins.
They both work in the local bazaar, one - who we’ll call Villager A - selling fruit that his brothers grow in the fields nearby. The other, Villager B, sells fuel.
Under the Taliban government of the late 1990s and early 2000s, a brutal regime dictated a strict way of life. Thieves had their hands chopped off.
But after the fall of the Taliban in 2001, life became peaceful.
“It was normal and secure,” says Villager B. “We were asleep in the ear of the elephant.”
One afternoon in 2004, both men were in their marketplace stalls when a patrol of military vehicles rolled into the village. With dust billowing around them, the soldiers climbed out of their vehicles. Curious villagers, who had last seen vehicles like this during the Russian occupation of the 1980s, gathered around.
And then they started insulting people and using foul language, saying: ‘You are Taliban and you are helping the Taliban’,”
An interpreter with the patrol was translating the words of the foreigners. The words used were insulting and humiliating, highly offensive to village elders and women, the villagers say. jul 7, 2003 - Defence Minister Mark Burton announces a 100-strong Provincial Reconstruction Team (PRT) will go to Bamyan province for a 12 month deployment. “PRTs are deployed as part of Operation Enduring Freedom. They are not, however, combat units,” an accompanying press release says. Estimated cost $26m.
Before the soldiers left, there was another thing they said, according to B. “They said ‘You guys are Taliban and we will come back again tomorrow...We haven’t finished with you.’.”
Late that night, A says the villagers awoke to sounds from a nearby mountainside. “We heard heavy gunfire, like a mortar. We didn’t know the exact direction and location of the gunfire that night.”
The next morning, everyone was wondering what had happened.
“When we came out of our homes in the morning it was around 8.30-9,” says B. “The sun had risen. We went to the shops. People were talking about the fighting that occurred last night at the mountain.”
His cousin, A, interrupts with what happened next: “Six tanks came with bodies under sheets.”
When he says “tanks” he’s referring to the military vehicles that had visited previously. Except this time there was a gruesome addition: tied on the front of the vehicles were the bodies of local people apparently involved in the battle during the night.
The bodies were left on the ground in the bazaar, before the soldiers fanned out through the village.
B shut himself in his shop and hid.
A wasn’t so lucky. He was one of 15 or so locals who were grabbed by the soldiers and had their hands tied.
“They held me by my arms and flexi-cuffed my hands behind my back and sat me facing the wall. One guy was guarding me, pointing his gun to me saying ‘Don’t turn your face’.
“I was thinking that they will take me to their tank and will take me away.” jun 18, 2004 - The mission for which Apiata received his VC occurs in the Uruzgan province north of Kandahar (according to “Other People’s Wars”).
While A and the others were being held, the rest of the village was being searched.
“The children were screaming and the soldiers broke the doors, windows...and messed up all the houses.”
“We didn’t understand their language, and their interpreter said ‘You guys are on the side of the Taliban’. And they searched all the houses for guns and for anything else.”
After about half an hour, the soldiers left without taking anyone, and without having found anything incriminating, the villagers say.
It’s an astonishing story: soldiers turning up to a village with the bodies of dead fighters tied to their vehicles; women and children terrified; shopkeepers bound and threatened with guns while their homes - considered sacrosanct in Afghan culture - are searched by foreigners.
“When those foreigners commit disgraceful acts, then the people fight them because they’ve been humiliated,” says B.
A agrees. “These were the thoughts of the people: That [the foreign forces] did this cruel action towards us, so get the guns and fight them. People were forced to react to the way they were treated. The first three years [after the fall of the Taliban regime] had been very stable and there weren’t any problems, but because [the foreign forces] committed brutal actions, the people of the village turned against them. They were saying that if the foreign forces stop violence against the people, we will put down our arms.”
B: “Before this incident, our people had been busy with their normal lives.”
Before he leaves, A tells us: “I came here so that our voice could be heard and the same things do not happen to us again and the cruel are punished, that Afghanistan gets peace and stability, and injustice stops.”
Yes, even in a warzone, people want justice and to be treated with dignity. For those occupying their country to consider, in a way, their hearts and minds.
The villagers we spoke to see foreign forces as just “foreign forces”. (In fact, many Afghans call soldiers from any Western nation “Americans”). oct 9, 2004 - Hamid Karzai elected president of Afghanistan.
But their accounts accounts match with those given to us by sources previously.
Before we met the villagers, sources had told us that the patrol had gone to the village before the firefight, and told them that they would be coming back. We were also told the soldiers had returned the next day and put the bodies in the village square.
And an official history of the SAS, NZSAS: The First Fifty Years, confirms that the patrol entered a village the day before the firefight. “Some of the vehicles entered a village to set up a meeting the next day with the local headmen, while the others stood off, concealed behind high ground, as back-up if necessary,” the book says.
It quotes the patrol commander, a “Captain Craig” as saying there was hostility in the village. “I sensed they were hostile towards us, in that many of them were giving us looks best described as ‘the evils’. However, by the same token I did not find that too surprising as they were Pashtuns, who were commonly rather grim-faced.”
The visit prior to the battle was a deliberate tactic, one source said, part of what is known as a “bait and hook” strategy, drawing out the enemy.
Leading the patrol during the firefight was a young officer, Craig Wilson. His role in the battle earned him the New Zealand Gallantry Decoration, one of the country’s highest military awards. While official details of the battle remain classified, he’s been reported[?] Source: "Shot NZ soldier had battlefield honour", by Patrick Gower, Newshub, August 13, 2012. as having written about it like this: “The crucial thing was to win the firefight… as I opened fire they were firing back at me, and we later found that one armour-piercing round had actually passed between my legs and penetrated the fuel tank.
"I applied the old adage that the only way to make danger go away was to shoot at it."
Eight years later, Wilson was on the 20th contingent of New Zealand’s PRT in Bamyan, leading soldiers in the dangerous north-east of the province.
During pre-deployment training, Wilson asked if he could run a particular scenario as an exercise. The scenario, he said, was called “bait and hook”.
“I don't think we will have peace in the next few years. The war will be going on in Afghanistan for another probably one or two decades in Afghanistan. But it's not our war - it is the war on Afghanistan.
In the months after the announcement about the Victoria Cross, back in Wellington there was a steady back-and-forth between Defence Headquarters and the Beehive about New Zealand’s continued involvement in Afghanistan.
The story of the Victoria Cross had swelled support for the war effort and Defence officials continued to provide advice for an ongoing involvement.
In November 2007, Cabinet noted[?] Source: "Additional item: Afghanistan, Options for Military and Police Contributions beyond 2008", Cabinet Minute, November 19, 2007. Obtained under the Official Information Act.PDF that “counter-insurgency operations this year have enjoyed considerable tactical success, but this has not translated into strategic outcomes such as a broad-based security allowing for political reconciliation and economic development”. Ministers agreed to the Defence Force keeping up to 122 personnel in the country until September 2009. dec 7, 2004 - The SAS is awarded the United States Presidential Citation by George Bush for “extraordinary heroism and outstanding performance of duty in action”.
The general election of 2008, with a change to a National Government under new Prime Minister John Key, presented another opportunity to reconsider New Zealand’s role in Afghanistan.
Just months into the new Administration, Cabinet concluded[?] Source: "Afghanistan: New Zealand's Contributions Beyond September 2009", Cabinet Minute, February 16, 2009. Obtained under the Official Information Act.PDF that involvement in Afghanistan brought New Zealand close to its allies, and that the job was not yet done. “Despite some improvements...the overall situation remains of major concern and requires an ongoing and substantial international programme of security and development assistance,” a Cabinet paper says.
The PRT deployment was extended to September 2010.
So business as usual for the war most of us were busy ignoring. Or was it? Though Afghanistan barely raised a mention in the 2008 election campaign, upon becoming the Government, National ordered a review of the war.
What came back to Cabinet[?] Source: "Review of New Zealand's Commitments to Afghanistan", Minute of Decision, August 10, 2009. Obtained under the Official Information Act.PDF in August 2009, was a strategic shift in New Zealand’s engagement with Afghanistan.
Dr Wayne Mapp, National’s Defence Minister from 2008-2011, was one of those in charge of overseeing the change.
“We sort-of started to separate the role of the PRT, the military part of that, from the civil aid part...because we needed to boost the capability of the local government and security.”
Mapp says the aim was to get NZ Aid, the foreign assistance arm of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, more involved. Civilians were to be appointed as heads of the PRT to oversee the reconstruction efforts, and several projects (a solar power system and an agricultural support programme) were eyed up to ensure New Zealand could leave behind a legacy when it finally left.
Meanwhile, the PRT was to move into a transition phase. The goal was set to have security in Bamyan formally handed over to the Afghan National Police by September 2011, and for New Zealand to leave behind only a residual military presence.
So, the wind-down of Defence Force involvement was set in place - or so it seemed.
“Bamyan people want peace, development and prosperity of the country and of their province. We hopefully will see a better and a peaceful and a prosperous Afghanistan with the support of our international allies and our people’s support.
Hamid Karzai, the former president of Afghanistan and a grand master of small talk, is charming and regal.
When we visit him at his heavily-guarded residence next to the Presidential Palace in Kabul, he chats about the gardens outside - a magnificent and manicured scene of serenity and peace at the heart of this war-blemished city - proudly asking us if we knew Kabul used to be famous as the “city of gardens”.
Gardens are a refuge for this son of one of Afghanistan’s most politically active and powerful families, a man whose ascension to the presidency in 2004 seemed pre-ordained. In the mornings, Karzai enjoys walking through them, clearing his head, chatting to companions, watching his young daughters play on their scooters, even managing to forget for a moment the threats the nearby presidential guards grasping automatic weapons are protecting him from. With their help, he has escaped at least four assassination attempts. may 2005 - Details emerge of severe abuse of prisoners held at Bagram Air Base - at the hands of US forces - including the killing of detainees.
Within the 83-ha surrounding the palace are tangible reminders of history. In one corner are the broken remains of a building destroyed by the Taliban, and at the front of the entrance are cannons seized from the British during their ultimately unsuccessful push into Afghanistan during the 19th Century.
For Karzai, it’s the more recent foreign forces which trouble him. Though he stepped down in 2014, he remains firmly entrenched in the political and geopolitical maelstrom that surrounds his country.
When we talk to him, he launches into a stinging rebuke of the coalition and the way it behaved. “They got it wrong by targeting Afghan homes, Afghan villages, Afghan people and not the sanctuaries outside of Afghanistan, in Pakistan - the training grounds, the motivational factors, the money coming to them,” he tells us. “They targeted us, Afghan people, not the terrorists, not the sanctuaries, not those who perpetrated this against us and against our partners.
“We received [the Coalition] with open arms initially,” he tells us. “It was the first time in Afghan history, that a foreign force was received in a welcome manner, in a cooperative manner...and therefore for two or three years, the country flourished, until the Americans began to make these grave mistakes.”
He says he pleaded with the United States - from the President, to the generals to the diplomats - to change tack.
“They didn't listen. Now of course they regret it, but it's kind of late in the day.”
By 2008-2009, the United States and Nato realised their tactics were not working in Afghanistan and the country was deteriorating. Under Nato command, a surge of troops was sent.
Back in New Zealand, Prime Minister John Key’s government agreed to a request from the Americans to send back the SAS in August 2009, leading opponents to accuse him of bending to the will of Washington.
It’s a debate which got to the heart of the question of Afghanistan. The war had started as an attempt to stamp out Al Qaeda. It had morphed into a global mission to get Afghanistan back on its feet. But eight years on, the country remained fragile, at best.
So the question was: to what extent was the war about the objectives of the coalition rather than the Afghan people?
And in the case of New Zealand, eight years after SAS troops first left their Auckland barracks, were we only still there to curry favour with the Americans?
Defence Minister Wayne Mapp pushes back against this notion. “The reason I don't accept it is that we, as a nation, Helen Clark’s Government, actually, made a decision to be part of this mission to essentially protect New Zealand interests, to protect our own citizens from terrorism,” he tells us in an interview this year.
But consider what is in a 2013 Cabinet paper[?] Source: "Afghanistan: New Zealand's Post-Provincial Reconstruction Team Commitments", Minute of Decision, February 18, 2013. Obtained under the Official Information Act.PDF setting out two of the key objectives for New Zealand’s involvement. One, as Mapp indicates, was to help in the fight against terrorism. The other, maintaining and enhancing New Zealand’s international reputation and relationships. jul 2, 2007 - Willie Apiata is awarded the Victoria Cross for the 2004 mission. The reluctant hero is presented the medal at a ceremony on 26 July at Government House.
There’s no suggestion New Zealand went to war in Afghanistan merely at the behest of America. But it’s evident that much of the thinking was about New Zealand wanting to be at the international table, being seen to be a good global citizen.
And Karzai is under no illusion about what was at play.
As the campaign went on, Karzai - though grateful to smaller nations like New Zealand - grew ever more cynical about the motives of the main foreign forces.
“We know why the Americans were here. We know why the British were here. We know why these big, big powers of interests in Afghanistan, in the region and in the world were here... for themselves.”
For the three rotations of SAS troops initially dispatched in 2009, politics don’t matter. They have their orders and are quickly involved in dangerous action, fighting in and around Kabul. One of the most high profile over the next few years is a fierce battle against suicide bombers and insurgents who had seized the InterContinental Hotel, a fight that is still talked about by Kabul locals.
In the aftermath of another battle, a freelance photographer snaps a picture of New Zealand commandos leaving the urban battleground.
One of them has nothing covering his face, and he is staring straight at the camera. Gloved hands expertly cradle a weapon, wavy black hair and a thick beard frame a familiar face.
When the photo is published, it’s the first the country knows the hero of 2004, Willie Apiata, has returned to Afghanistan.
In hindsight, the return of Apiata and his colleagues to Afghanistan stands like a symbolic warning about what was really going on with New Zealand’s involvement in the war.
Publicly, the message was that we were moving towards withdrawal, and the bulk of our military commitment was still focused on reconstruction, winning hearts and minds.
But tensions were rising - not only in Afghanistan but back in Wellington too. And the consequences were going to be deadly.
In politics, the loftiest of offices can be the loneliest. The Beehive offices of ministers swarm with staff and high-powered advisors. But there are times when, no matter the background buzz, the men and women who have ultimate responsibility to make the decisions which govern our country can feel utterly alone, lost in their own thoughts.
There were moments in 2010 when Dr Wayne Mapp could feel the pressure that forces a mind to retreat to those places, shutting everything else out just so he could think.
Mapp’s rise to Minister of Defence after the 2008 election had seemed a natural progression for this former international law specialist, and infantry major and intelligence officer in the Army Territorials. dec 1, 2009 - Obama announces 30,000-strong troop surge, saying “the Taliban has gained momentum” and Al Qaeda has retained “their safe-havens along the border” with Pakistan.
But since then he has faced some of the toughest moments of his life, confronted by decisions that tested him, things which weighed on his mind.
He had put forward the proposal to Prime Minister John Key that the SAS return to Afghanistan in 2009. Previous deployments had dragged New Zealand close to some activities political masters had been less than comfortable with; he hoped the commitment this time around wouldn’t come back to haunt him.
One morning in August 2010, he had been woken at 3am by a knock at the door of his apartment from an officer who had come to inform him: “Minister, we’ve had a tragedy in Afghanistan.” It was the death of Lieutenant Tim O’Donnell, the first Defence Force soldier killed in action in the war.
Weeks later, he had been asked to sign off Operation Burnham, the SAS raid targeting those who had killed O’Donnell. It was highly classified, but in 2017, that operation blazed into the public sphere like a nuclear bomb with the release of the book Hit and Run.
But in 2010, what was on his mind was the north-east of Bamyan. Reports showed him it was getting more and more dangerous. The insurgency was on the rise.
Should the PRT even be there? Afghanistan always had its risks, but were our people now at too much risk?
It was something he talked about with the military chiefs who regularly met with him to brief him on the war.
He even talked about it with an American military officer who had pulled his troops out of the Korengal Valley in Afghanistan’s east after suffering years of losses. In the end, the officer had decided, the losses weren’t worth it.
“I also spent a lot of time reading about the history of Afghanistan,” he tells us during an interview this year. “I wanted to get a sense of how the Afghan people responded to intervention from the exterior. And they're a very proud people, as we know, and that's always been a challenge and it was evident to me that would remain a challenge.”
With the problems in the north-east, he even contemplated pulling back troops from the area. “It was certainly a question I did ask at one point.”
In the end, though, the decision was made to stay because to withdraw from one part risked leaving the whole province vulnerable to attacks from the north-east.
“There's always a balance in these things and you know, in hindsight we say did we get that quite right? Well, when you're making the decision you don't actually have the benefit of hindsight, that occurs later.”
What occurred later was bloody. Tim O’Donnell’s death in 2010 marked the beginning of a lethal run towards the end of New Zealand’s involvement in Afghanistan. By the time the flag was lowered at Kiwi Base in Bamyan, 10 PRT soldiers and SAS troopers had returned to New Zealand carried solemnly by their mates.
From 2008, Defence bosses had noticed deteriorating security in the north-east and throughout Afghanistan. Monthly briefings[?] Source: Defence Force briefings to Ministers, 2008-2009, obtained under the Official Information Act.PDF to Government ministers noted the increased violence. aug 4, 2010 - Lieutenant Tim O’Donnell is killed in an improvised explosive device attack on the convoy he was leading. Lance Corporal Matthew Ball, Private Allister Baker are also badly injured, as was their Afghan interpreter Ajmal Ahmadi.
Heavily-redacted copies released under the Official Information Act give a hint of what was being said. A February 2009 briefing to the Prime Minister, Minister of Defence and Minister of Foreign Affairs: “New statistics released by [redacted] underlines the challenges facing the Afghanistan Government and its international allies as the Taliban insurgency continues to consolidate its hold over large parts of [redacted]. Violence in [redacted] incidents involving improvised explosive devices in [redacted]. Escalating Taliban activity was the primary factor but the rise was also due to [redacted].”
Yes, eight years on, the Government still considers that the security and defence of New Zealand is at risk if the full briefings are released. So we can only guess the extent of the concerns Defence officials were expressing.
Or we can read publicity material the Defence Force has produced in its internal publications. It seems the Defence Force is happy to talk about incidents for publicity purposes and boosting internal morale, even if we can’t know what it was telling the Minister of Defence.
One piece under the headline[?] Source: "Army News", issue 442, May 2013. “A cool head under fire”, told the story of an officer whose three-vehicle patrol hit an IED in the Shikari Valley in Bamyan’s north-east in 2011. And it is a remarkable story of courage and leadership - no matter what was happening politically or amongst the top brass, there can be no doubting that the soldiers on the ground acted with honour and in the best traditions of New Zealand soldiers.
“I knew instantly we’d struck an IED as we lurched and there was dust, sand and rocks everywhere,” the officer says. “I was worried about my two crewmen on the side where it had gone off, and thought my driver could have been killed. When he told me he was OK I felt a massive flood of relief.”
Almost three months later, an IED went off just behind their vehicles as they were on a patrol from the operating base in the north-east, Romero, and the village of Do Abe. Rocket-propelled grenades were fired on them too. “My sergeant turned the LAV turret and unleashed some rounds. We were all OK and cordoned off the area and did everything we had to do.”
Weeks later, the patrol found a third IED which had to be delicately defused.
That officer and his colleagues certainly weren’t alone in having to deal with attacks. aug 21, 2010 - SAS and coalition forces launch “Operation Burnham”, a raid targeting those responsible for the death of Tim O’Donnell. The book “Hit and Run” later says civilians were killed in the raid.
Richard Hall, who led the PRT deployment in 2008/2009, said his patrols were seeing “a lot more IEDs”. And most of it was in that troublesome north-east. “What we were never really sure of, and I’m not totally sure of now, was what was the cause?,” says Hall. “Was this just criminal activity, warlords, or was it politically induced Taliban supported? My gut instinct was that it was nearer to the criminal warlord-type activity.”
Former soldier Alpha Kennedy, who commanded a PRT patrol based in the north-east during 2009, says there were “some hairy moments”.
During his tour, one IED attack directly targeted his patrol and they found two others.
“It was quite clearly [targeted] at the PRT, or the forces that were there. The ANP [Afghan National Police] were also targeted during our tour up there, so the whole security apparatus that was in the north-east was targeted, mainly by IEDs, but also a number of small arms attacks as well.”
Wayne Mapp says the north-east was a troublesome dilemma - how could New Zealand reach out to the people and show them they had good intentions?
“And that was a challenge because...not every single person in Afghanistan wanted the Western forces there,” says Mapp. “I mean, let's be honest, you don't go to places where everything is peace and light. Those places don't get interventions.”
That’s a good reminder. Peaceful places don’t get interventions. But then again, wasn’t our intervention (along with the other nations in Afghanistan) meant to be bringing peace? So why, years into the deployment, was it getting more dangerous, not less?
Alpha Kennedy was an infantry officer when he commanded his patrol in the north-east in 2009. The next year, he left the Army but something about Afghanistan had drawn him in. He co-founded a project management and consultancy company and returned to Afghanistan for the first of many extended trips there overseeing development projects. He spends six to eight months a year there now.
Part of why Kennedy empathises with the people of Afghanistan is he can understand where the animosity towards foreign forces comes from. In a 2013 film about Afghanistan, He Toki Huna, he talked about the country’s long history of foreign intervention. “But would we tolerate Afghan soldiers on our soil? It could be likened to the activities of Maori tribes against European colonial forces certainly at Parihaka and some of Te Rauparaha’s battles.” feb 15, 2011 - Private Kirifi Mila dies after his vehicle rolls off the road. A Court of Inquiry later finds Mila’s death could have been avoided.
In April this year, we meet up with Kennedy at Bamyan airport where he’s just arrived for another few months in the town working on another development project. An airport staff member immediately recognises him and comes over to say salam. They chat for a few minutes in Dari like a couple of locals. Kennedy is clearly comfortable here.
So he’s a good person to ask about what was going on after 2008/2009 and why there was increasing violence in the north-east.
Kennedy explains that to understand, you need to get your head around the ethnic dynamics at play.
Bamyan province is mostly populated by the Hazara people, who are overwhelmingly Shi’a Muslim. In the north-east, is a significant pocket of ethnic Tajik people, who are Sunni Muslims, and some ethnic Pashtun people (also Sunnis[af]).
The Taliban were cruel to all of Afghanistan, but it reserved a special level of cruelty for the Hazarans. The demise of the Taliban in 2001 pleased the Hazara people greatly.
But the re-assertion of the Hazarans in Bamyan’s government and the return of normality of sorts, under the watching eye of the New Zealand PRT, did not necessarily go down well in the north-east.
“I think you saw people become frustrated with the rule of law, deficiencies that had started to creep up after the Taliban was wiped away,” says Kennedy. “I think the north-east in particular found themselves more marginalised than they had been.”
People from the north-east who had moved to Kabul to set up businesses were more positive about the Government.
“But people who lived there [in the north-east of Bamyan], I guess they didn’t see that things had changed so much. For example, if they lost land, or they had to come to the centre of Bamyan to get some kind of legal dispute solved, often they weren't able to get treated fairly, and so that's the buildup of frustration.”
All across Afghanistan throughout this period in fact, frustration was growing. The insurgency began to take hold, inflicting carnage on international forces right around the country.
In Bamyan, it also didn’t help that, just across the border in Baghlan province, a Taliban group was establishing itself and becoming more bold with its attacks. It was this group which was responsible for the Tim O’Donnell attack, for instance. The Baghlan province had a Hungarian PRT which only conducted limited patrols down towards the border with Bamyan. In comments[?] Source: MFAT Transcript of Post Cabinet Press Conference, August 6, 2012. Obtained under the Official Information Act. which drew the ire of the Hungarians, John Key once crudely summed up the situation by saying, “as far as I’m aware, the Hungarians don’t go out at night. Not in Afghanistan, anyway. They might in Budapest”. apr 4, 2011 - Corporal Douglas Hughes is found dead at forward operating base Romero in Bamyan province.
The closure of coal mines in the north of Bamyan, leading to 6000[?] Source: MFAT, email from Kabul Embassy to Wellington, August 7, 2012. Obtained under the Official Information Act. people losing their jobs, also brought unrest. Unemployment and dissatisfaction with Government decisions are not optimal conditions in the middle of an insurgency.
The tinderbox surrounding the PRT was getting drier. Everyone knew it - except, perhaps, most of the New Zealand public.
To be fair to the public, it was no wonder most were still thinking this was a benign, hearts and minds mission - there were so many mixed messages.
Even the mother of one of the soldiers killed in action was confused about why her son had gone to Afghanistan. “Peacekeeping, whatever that means,” Helen Thomasen, mother of the late Lance Corporal Rory Malone, tells us.
“Even though he was a soldier and he went to Afghanistan, it was not my understanding that he was going to be on the frontline. So, they were deceiving us. I felt deceived.
“If my boy was going to war then I would have accepted that as his mother. But my boy wasn't going into war, he was going into a dangerous situation but he was meant to be looked after.”
In a speech[?] Source: Snap debate in Parliament, August 18, 2009. to Parliament during a debate about Afghanistan in 2009, Defence Minister Wayne Mapp had tried to warn of the dangers facing the PRT.
“There has already been an increase in activity in Bamyan over the past eight months,” Mapp told MPs. “We do face a challenge of changing the security picture.”
But in evidence[?] Source: Evidence to the Foreign Affairs, Defence and Trade Select Committee, Financial Review of Defence Force 2008/2009. to a Parliamentary committee in 2009, then-Chief of Defence Force Lt Gen Jerry Mateparae was telling MPs there were positive signs about Afghanistan. “I think there is a window of opportunity to provide a much better result than maybe the outlook was earlier in the year.”
And: “We’re transferring from a mainly security frame to a development frame within the PRT. It’s not search and destroy, we’re not engaged in those sorts of operations.”
Yet in 2017, an officer tells us that search and destroy was exactly what he was in the north-east for in 2012.
But at the time that wasn’t a message the Defence Force wanted out there. Better to stick to hearts and minds.
“I understand that it is a few years that you have been doing this investigation relating to two of your soldiers who were killed. It is very good for you and it is very bad for us that every day more than 100 people are killed and 100 mothers are sitting in sadness and nobody cares about that.
Knowing there is trouble in a region is one thing. Figuring out how to deal with it quite another.
And there was much debate going on in the Defence Force and the Government about what to do about the problem that was the north-east.
Richard Hall says he adopted an approach of maintaining a strong presence on the ground, the idea that sheer presence would be a deterrent. may 2, 2011 - The US announces it has killed Osama bin Laden in a commando raid in Pakistan.
“In terms of security we weren't really conducting military operations and assertive operations,” says Hall. “It was one of those areas we did discuss things through with my team, but ultimately it was my decision, my judgment. I thought it was the right thing to be doing.”
Which is not to say he was taking a backwards step.
The experienced military man has a very street-level analogy to explain his approach.
“If you've got a bully in the playground, do you hide in the corner so that you don't get bullied, get out of the way? Or do you actually stand up to the bully and say, ‘I refuse to be intimidated, I'll continue to play in the playground’?”
But he was careful not to poke the bully in the eye, instead preferring to use more subtle approaches, such as reminding the insurgents that he had powerful allies with big muscles.
“I wanted to demonstrate that we were continuing to operate in Do Abe doing the positive role that we were doing, so that was my first instinct. But it was also quite useful to get some big friends along, so every now and again I'd try to persuade the Americans to fly some of their fighter jets along the Ghandak valley, particularly if we were doing something on the ground, to remind [the insurgents] that whilst the PRT was a force, we had a few big friends.”
Internally, there were others contemplating a more assertive approach.
That thinking and discussion is most starkly set out in a leaked document obtained by Stuff Circuit.
In 2011, Major Josh Wineera wrote to the officer commanding the Army’s training centre, Major Shaun O’Connor, in a report entitled, What’s the plan or are we just muddling through?
The report was based on Wineera’s observations of PRT debriefs, as part of research he was conducting for Massey University’s Centre for Defence and Security Studies.
The PRTs had been going to Afghanistan in six-monthly rotations in what was known within the Defence Force as Operation CRIB. Each rotation was known by the number CRIB it was. By the time Wineera was writing his report, CRIB 17 was home - the 17th six-month rotation.
The point of his report was to ask whether the assumptions about our on-going deployment should be re-checked.
“In short I am raising matters that given due attention could enhance our operational focus and ability to win.”
He questioned to what extent Defence Force leaders were focused on achieving the “mission, intent, objectives and endstate” in Bamyan. “Have they changed since 2003? If we are short, then what is yet to be achieved?” aug 19, 2011 - Corporal Doug Grant dies in Kabul when gunmen storm the British Council office, killing at least 12 people.
Wineera recounted the debrief carried out with CRIB 17, especially the description of the military operations they had focused on. “Not surprisingly, with the PRT effort now on development and governance, led by the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Trade, military operations have shifted to security.”
And then there was this observation: “I sensed [the commander’s] desire to recheck our long held assumption that it is all about ‘winning hearts and minds’. This approach may apply in some places, however in many places it is more about direct and often forceful coercion.”
The commander wanted to “focus and mass combat power to the troublesome area”, the north-east of the province.
Wineera’s report was not a statement of official Defence Force doctrine, and he emphasised that he had written it merely in the spirit of providing reflection and to provoke discussion. “We are in the business of winning and in my opinion we should not leave winning to chance.”
It was a bold statement of ambition. And understandable, surely: armies only go to war to win, right? Except, publicly, the only thing the Defence Force talked about winning was hearts and minds.
Although it doesn’t hold status as formal Defence Force policy, the Wineera report informs us about some of the thinking and what was going on within the military.
According to his report, there was a desire to set aside the “hearts and minds” aspect within some parts of the province and switch instead to more forceful means.
Rhys Jones, the former Chief of Defence Force, retired in 2014 and so is not bound by the Defence Force’s ban on letting any of its staff talk to us for this project. A veteran of 36 years in the forces, in his spare time he likes war gaming and reading military history.
He signed up for a life in uniform straight out of school, drawn in part by the desire to see the world. “And for a young kid being in the armoured corps, being able to operate on vehicles, it was like playing all the time. You'd drive round in vehicles and you didn't have to make the noise with your lips, you were doing things.”
He held the top defence job from 2011 to 2014, ever mindful his advice sometimes put lives at risk.
And in Jones’ time, those decisions were more deadly than they have been for any other Chief of Defence since the Vietnam War.
“I had nine people who were killed during my time, killed in operations.”
Nine of the 10 New Zealanders who perished in Afghanistan, died on his watch.
“It was the most difficult thing I ever had to deal with, and the reality of going and seeing the families, spending time with them, that was always the hardest thing and those nine people will stay with me right throughout my life.”
During our interview, Jones was open about the change that had taken place after the 2009 review, confirming that there was more of a switch to security. “It meant that we shifted the weight of our troops from Bamyan township itself up into the north, into the north-east,” he says. “And so, whereas only perhaps one fifth, or one quarter of our operational strength was up there beforehand, we now shifted about two thirds of our force up there.” sep 28, 2011 - Lance Corporal Leon Smith killed in operation while securing a compound during a joint Afghan Crisis Response Unit/SAS operation. He was the first medic to treat Doug Grant.
So why wasn’t the public told that there had been the change in focus?
“Well, I think we were,” Jones says.
But is that right? Certainly when the review was released, then Prime Minister John Key did not exactly set it out in words of one syllable.
“The re-alignment of the PRT’s work will include helping build the capacity of the Afghan National Police, to facilitate an accelerated transfer of the lead security role in Bamyan to the police and a phased reduction in NZDF personnel over time,” says a Key press statement[?] Source: "Afghanistan review decisions announced", press release, Office of the Prime Minister, August 10, 2009. .
“The realignment will include a greater emphasis on development assistance and promoting good governance.”
And even after a May 2010 visit to the troops on the ground, Key only had press statement[?] Source: "PM concludes visit to Afghanistan", press release, Office of the Prime Minister, May 4, 2010. to say: "New Zealand forces are in Afghanistan to help provide reconstruction assistance and ensure stability. The situation in Afghanistan requires an ongoing international programme of security and development assistance, and that is what our commitments are helping provide."
Regardless of what the public thought, a concerted effort in the north-east was underway. And by the time CRIB 20 arrived in August 2012 there was a strategy to be more prepared for combat.
“CRIB 20 started their pre deployment training knowing that the situation had crept up and that the threats on IEDs and attacks were far more prevalent than they'd been in the early deployments we'd had,” Jones tells us. “So a lot of the preparation was a lot more focused about protected movement, about drills for counter IED attacks or live firing attacks on them, so they were far more prepared for higher end operations, but they were still focused on ‘how do we deliver aid?’”
By the time CRIB 20 came home in October 2012, the delivery of aid was the last thing anyone was thinking of.
“There are some challenges in terms of girls because university dormitories for girls are poor, they don’t have enough space for all the girls to attend. Unfortunately the government discriminates against Bamyan people, they don’t fund Bamyan a lot. So we are poor and have to look to donor countries to participate, to build some dormitories for girls to make their lives better.
With two-thirds of the 140-strong group from CRIB 20 dispatched to the north-east of the province, there was a big job to keep up morale.
Back at Kiwi Base[?] Source: "The Bugle", Defence Force publication, issue 173, August 2012. in Bamyan town, the main HQ for the PRT, there was a swimming pool, a basketball court, BBQs, outdoor movie events and regular sports competitions including volleyball, dodge ball and touch rugby.
But in the north-east, where soldiers split their time between patrol base Romero and Forward Operating Base Do Abe, life was more sparse. Romero, at least, had a gym and a chef; at Do Abe, the quality of the cooking depended on the culinary abilities of whoever was there at the time.
At Romero there was a live fire training range, the site of a tragic incident in 2011. The Defence Force said[?] Source: "NZ soldiers assist in explosives incident in Afghanistan", Defence Force press release, February 11, 2011. at the time said a child was killed and another seriously injured by an unexploded ordnance on the range. Stuff Circuit has been told the family of the dead child was paid compensation but the Defence Force says it can’t find any records of this.
A compound behind earth walls topped by razor wire, Romero was hardly pretty. Nonetheless, at least it was surrounded by beauty, a picturesque valley of orchards and fields. Do Abe, however, was not picture postcard.
The officer commanding the soldiers in the north-east, Major Craig Wilson, had a colourful description. “Do Abe has been accurately described as a depressed 19th Century mining town in the north of England crossed with the bar in Star Wars where Luke Skywalker meets Han Solo for the first time,” he wrote[?] Source: "The Bugle", Defence Force publication, issue 170, June 2012. in a Defence Force internal publication. “It is dirty, alien and no place for women or old men. Do Abe is kind of like the wild west must have been.”
Wilson, the former SAS officer who was present during the the battle when Willie Apiata won his Victoria Cross, had spent the last few years leading soldiers at 2nd/1st Battalion at Burnham military camp.
Concerns had been raised about him during CRIB 20s pre-deployment training, with one of the instructors telling us he had issues about some of the tactics Wilson wanted to employ.
Former Army staff sergeant Aaron Wood, who was in charge of teaching the PRT about threats, says Wilson asked to run a scenario where some of his soldiers would be dropped off by Light Armoured Vehicles to head up into the hills on foot at nighttime in what is called a dismounted patrol. mar 31, 2012 - The SAS mission to Afghanistan officially ends.
“Then he would pull back all the LAVs...where they would basically wait until the dismounted patrol was attacked,” says Wood. “They would come storming back up the road with their LAVs and kill whatever enemy.”
Wood, who spent 24 years in the Army including five overseas deployments (one to Afghanistan), doesn’t hold back in describing what he thought of the idea.
“I thought it was absolutely f...ing ridiculous. It basically breaks every tenet of good sense when it comes to tactics and doctrine. For instance you’re leaving eight guys who are infantrymen and well armed, out there isolated by themselves. There are no indirect elements so they couldn't call in artillery or mortar or anything to protect them. All they had were the weapons at their disposal. And keep in mind they are climbing to the high ground so they’re climbing steep terrain and carrying what they’ve got on their back.”
His criticisms go on: what about the risk of IEDs to the LAVs rushing forward to support the dismounted patrol?
And the name for this scenario? “This was the bait and hook scenario as he called it,” says Wood.
If the name of that tactic sounds familiar, that’s because it is. Bait and hook was the name of the tactic used which led to the firefight in which Willie Apiata earned his VC. And remember, the leader of that patrol was Craig Wilson.
Major Craig Wilson was banned from being interviewed by us for this project. We’ve asked the Defence Force for years, but they refused to let him. The same applied to the other CRIB 20 soldiers we wanted to speak to - including one who told us he wanted to speak.
The hierarchy is obviously very keen to stop Wilson from talking because it’s not just us they’ve attempted to block. Wilson himself has written a book about CRIB 20’s tour, but the Chief of Defence Force has ordered[?] Source: Letter to Major Wilson from Lt Gen Tim Keating, 24 June 2014, obtained under the Official Information Act. him to stop its publication.
But with all that went on with CRIB 20, and how central Wilson is to it, we thought it only fair to at least give him the opportunity to speak. So we approached him in the carpark outside his work one day. apr 2012 - Crib 20, the 20th rotation of the PRT, arrives in Bamyan province.
Wilson is tall and athletic, a natural fit in his camouflage uniform, though his right arm still shows signs of the injury which saw him carried from the battlefield five years ago, the last time he would ever be able to stand in the thick of action. Work now is a desk job, never something an Army officer has ambitions for, especially one who has served with the SAS.
Wilson is friendly and flattered that we recognise him and is apparently comfortable to engage with us, putting his bag in the boot and then leaning against the car as he listens to what we’ve got to say.
He tells us he’s under orders not to speak, but he’s obviously keen to get some messages out. Even when a Defence Force-contracted security guard comes to escort us off the property, Wilson intervenes to say he wants to finish talking first.
His charismatic nature - and, no doubt, his rank - causes the security guard to stop in his tracks. You can see how Wilson’s a man many of his soldiers look up to. In a film made by one of the CRIB 20 soldiers after their return, The Soldiers’ Story, one says: “I don’t have anything bad to say about that man, best commander I’ve ever met.” Another: “Without his guidance over the years before we deployed, I’m not sure we would have got through what we got through.”
During the deployment, Wilson gave speeches to his troops regularly, trying to inspire them and keep them on the mission. In the film, he’s seen delivering one as soldiers sit in the mess, reminding them about the insurgents in nearby districts. “What I want to say just before we close off today is, they’re just over in Tala Wa Barfak or maybe down in Parwan fighting on behalf of some other warlord. But they are not far away, and it only takes a couple of decisions over that hill, and we’re in business, we have to fight.”
Within a week, nine Afghan police had been killed in insurgent attacks, and soon the soldiers in that room would be under direct attack themselves.
Wilson tells us he’s frustrated he’s not allowed to “have a crack” at doing an interview with us.
For starters, “it’s to my eternal disappointment that the exploits of my soldiers haven’t been fully acknowledged to the extent that I would like. But that said, I’m not the one whose job is to make that decision.”
With the security guard still waiting to march us of the property, Wilson won’t stop talking, keen to emphasise how brave his soldiers were.
“And I think when you consider the fact that they were a bunch of boys, 18-20 years old, they come from the most peaceful country on earth, and then they go to a place that has got multiple layers of violence and most New Zealanders don’t have any comprehension….and then you have to operate with compassion and intelligence and with initiative. It’s what they did throughout that tour and you can see examples of that with things that happened throughout that tour.”
As the conversation carries on, it’s clear Wilson is not afraid of questions. He even brings up some of the allegations he’s heard about himself, including that some of the things which went on were “gung-ho”. aug 4, 2012 - Battle of Baghak. Rory Malone and Pralli Durrer killed, six others injured in the Shikari Valley in northeast Bamyan, in what became known as the Battle of Baghak. Four Afghan soldiers are also killed during the operation.
“I know exactly what I did over there, I knew exactly the decisions I made and I’m 100 per cent sure that under expert military analysis - ie somebody who worked at my level or above and...or most of the general public will get it as well - we weren’t being gung-ho.”
But make no mistake that Wilson believes he had a job to do, and it doesn’t sound like it was about winning “hearts and minds”.
“Yeah, well I am an ex-SAS officer and I’ve had a lot of combat experience and good at finding enemy and tracking them down and taking offensive action. And if you look at the build-up to the operation which is all in my book...they knew who they were sending and they even...they knew what they were sending over there.”
Yes, the Defence Force top brass sure did know who they were sending. After the pre-deployment training, instructors voiced concerns about the leadership of CRIB 20, particularly the aggression. But those concerns were dismissed, and the deployment went ahead as planned.
Except plans have a way of rapidly unravelling in Afghanistan. Even the locals aren’t immune to that.
“I am hopeful of the day that, with the shoulder of the power of the youth, and with the support of the international friends of Afghanistan, we will witness a day that no enemy will dare interfere in Afghanistan or come to Afghanistan. I am sure we will witness a prosperous and hopeful and green Afghanistan.
In the early hours of August 4, 2012, soldiers from Afghanistan’s intelligence service, the National Directorate of Security (NDS) had gone to arrest an alleged bomb-maker, Hajji Abdullah, near the village of Baghak in the Shikari Valley.
But it seems the target knew they were coming. “Two to three minutes after we arrived to set up the cordon, we were ambushed,” one of the NDS soldiers, Hajji Hussain, tells us during a visit to Bamyan in April. “My friend Sultan was injured. I decided to rescue him, then I was shot. I was hit by two bullets, one in my carotid artery, and the second one penetrated from one side to another.”
In that initial onslaught, two NDS soldiers were killed. The Afghans called for back-up from the New Zealanders. Major Craig Wilson’s company of soldiers in the north-east were immediately switched from the roles they had planned for the day.
The PRT initially sent two patrols which arrived at the scene and helped the NDS recover their fallen. Fourteen armed New Zealanders were sent into the hills as dismounted patrols to see if they could find Abdullah or any other insurgents.
The operation was switching from one of providing support to the NDS to one of conducting what is known as a clearance operation. A third New Zealand patrol arrived and waited just to the south.
The three New Zealand patrols were ready and waiting for the arrival of Craig Wilson to lead the operation. This meant the patrols had to wait for more than two hours in a known ambush zone.
A subsequent Court of Inquiry[?] Source: Report of "Court of Inquiry assembled by Major General A.D. Gawn, MBE, Commander Joint Forces New Zealand into the circumstances in which elements of TU 653.1.1 (OP CRIB) came into contact with insurgents in the vicinity of DO ABE, Bamyan province, Afghanistan, while providing in extremis support to the NDS on 4 August 2012."PDF recognised that “it could be argued that once the known NDS casualties were evacuated, the NZPRT elements could have withdrawn from the area”. But the court ultimately backed the decision to conduct a clearance operation, saying it was in keeping with Wilson’s strategy to “disrupt insurgent operations”. Many of the subsequent problems in the battle were blamed on “fog of war”. The Rules of Engagement, the court found, had been followed.
Wilson himself, in that carpark conversation with us, was bullish about the clearance operation being the right thing to do. “Oh, s... yeah. If we’d just walked out of there that day...it would have had such a negative impact on the fundamental thing we were trying to do over there which was leave Afghan security forces in a place where they could tick over and keep security in the province themselves, look after the people they need to look after.”
When you consider what happened next, this is extraordinary. You could forgive Wilson for utterly renouncing the decision, or at least backing away from it, for perhaps pointing the finger of blame elsewhere. But he doesn’t. Not a jot.
Even though what happened next nearly cost him his life, and it did end the lives of two young New Zealand soldiers.
Within minutes of Wilson arriving to lead the operation, the deafening clatter of gunfire[ax] and the boom of heavy weapons filled the valley. Lance Corporal Rory Malone and Lance Corporal Pralli Durrer were fatally wounded and six other New Zealanders were injured. aug 19, 2012 - Corporal Luke Tamatea, Lance Corporal Jacinda Baker and Private Richard Harris are killed when their vehicle is hit by an IED, in a remote part of Bamyan province, northwest of Do Abe.
Two of those injuries were from friendly fire as the patrol that had been waiting to the south advanced into the battleground and fired up towards those dismounted patrols.
There is much about the Battle of Baghak that does not make sense. It’s why we first produced a programme[?] Source: "No Place to Be", 3D Investigates, TV3, June 14, 2015. about it two years ago and why that source summoned us to that bar soon afterwards.
It’s part of the reason we went to Afghanistan, to go to the battle site and speak to the NDS soldiers who fought that day.
What we discovered underscores that the source in the bar, and the others who spoke to us, were absolutely right to voice their concerns and urge us to keep asking questions - about Baghak and other aspects of New Zealand’s deployment.
Crucially, there are discrepancies around how the battle started and who the New Zealanders started firing at when they opened fire.
Actually, there are discrepancies around who fired first too. The Court of Inquiry concluded insurgents shot first, settling upon the evidence of the second in command on the ground that day. But Wilson himself told the court he shot first and then called ceasefire, although he now believes that could be a false memory.
Regardless of whether he shot first or responded to fire, there is reason to question who he was shooting at. Wilson has said that the battle began when an American jet flew low over the valley as a show of force and insurgents who were standing just across the river from him stood up, presumably in fright. Wilson couldn’t believe they were that close.
But the court and Defence Force storyboard maps and diagrams of the battle don’t place anyone in that low ground across the river. No one at all. Not even insurgents. Instead, the maps dot 11 insurgents around the hills.
Three of those insurgent positions are to the west of the Kiwi patrols, in the hills right by them on the road.
But when we talked to the NDS soldiers who were there, they were insistent: there were no insurgents in that location.
Furthermore, some of them say they know who was in that low ground across the river: NDS soldiers. That’s right - friendly forces.
Did the New Zealanders accidently shoot at their allies?
When you consider what the people we spoke to in Afghanistan told us, it seems at least a strong possibility. But remember, the New Zealand investigators never spoke to any Afghan forces.
And here’s another thing: it’s not just people in Afghanistan saying this. There are New Zealand soldiers whose evidence is that NDS soldiers were in that low ground. One said he saw an NDS soldier he recognised in that location. Another, who was in the high ground in one of the dismounted patrols, says he saw NDS soldiers walking into that area right before the battle started and that, when it did, he saw the splash of gunfire going towards them from the direction of the New Zealanders.
That soldier, from the high ground, had his account dismissed by the investigators and Army bosses. But we now know that there are New Zealanders and Afghans who back up his version.
Actually, whose version is right is not the most important point of us asking questions. War is war, things happen, and none of us who weren’t there should even pretend to bother to understand what it was like or how complex it was. People who were there have told us it was terrifying and horrific. And people died. In that context, debating who was where when and who did what when seems utterly trivial. apr 5, 2013 - The New Zealand flag is lowered for the final time by the 21st and last rotation of a PRT. In a media statement, the Defence Force says “Bamyan Mission Accomplished”. More than 3,500 Defence Force personnel have deployed to Afghanistan since late 2001.
But former Army staff sergeant Aaron Wood, who in five overseas deployments found out what it was like to come under fire himself, is prepared to take a stand and speak out.
“Obviously I wasn’t there for [CRIB 20] or Baghak and I can’t and won’t comment on that,” he tells us. “But I will point out that the men and women of CRIB 20 especially at the lowest levels performed in an exemplary manner on that day in Baghak.” It means a lot to Wood to say this. He has to stop and compose himself.
He’s mindful of the families of those who were killed that day, and of those who were wounded, both physically and mentally. As a matter of fact, he’s been helping some of them cope with the aftermath. So this is personal.
Eventually, he goes on. “There should be no reason why the Defence Force does not front to explain Baghak. It owes society details and an explanation, an honest explanation. It owes its soldiers who were there an honest explanation.”
Because if they don’t, he says, how can mothers and fathers send their sons and daughters to war ever again? How can they know that the lessons that need learning, have been learned?
All of which is why the battle of Baghak serves as a case study for the war in Afghanistan. It raises fundamental questions that apply to the war itself. Why were we there? What were we trying to achieve? How did it go wrong? Why did the Defence Force present as fact a version of what happened that has so many flaws?
And why isn’t the Defence Force prepared to answer questions about it?
Ultimately, it’s not up to the soldiers who were on the ground that day to face those questions. It’s up to the people who sent them.
“Afghan people are very strong. They are very faithful people and I'm sure that they are fighting all the darkness, and if we can get enough support from international community, we will have a bright future.
Two weeks after the Battle of Baghak, another tragedy struck CRIB 20 when an IED exploded under a patrol vehicle, killing three more soldiers - Luke Tamatea, Richard Harris and Jacinda Baker.
Baker was a medic who performed courageous work treating injured New Zealand and Afghan soldiers in the aftermath of the Battle of Baghak. She is revered in Bamyan, where the NDS soldiers involved that day speak of her as an angel. One of the NDS commanders credits her with carrying an injured NDS soldier on her shoulders so he could be evacuated by helicopter. They mourn her loss in the IED attack.
Tragically, the increased threat of IEDs had been foreshadowed by Cabinet in the immediate aftermath of the Baghak battle, with Cabinet agreeing[?] Source: "Force Protection Enhancements for the New Zealand Provincial Reconstruction Team", Minute of Cabinet Decision, August 6, 2012. Obtained under the Official Information Act.PDF to the deployment of a team to specifically detect and neutralise IEDs in the north-east on August 6, 2012.
It was too little, too late.
In 15 days, New Zealand lost five soldiers in the two attacks and the political courage to remain in Afghanistan rapidly diminished.
Even before the attacks on CRIB 20, Cabinet had pencilled in a final withdrawal of the PRT in 2013, one year earlier than planned. On September 3, 2012, less than a month after Baghak, the decision[?] Source: "Withdrawal strategy and mandate renewal", Minute of Cabinet Decision, September 3, 2012. Obtained under the Official Information Act.PDF was made - CRIB 21 would be the last rotation, tasked with closing Kiwi Base at Bamyan town in April 2013.
Furthermore, operations were to be drastically pulled back. Do Abe and Romero bases were to be closed down within six weeks and there were explicit instructions[?] Source: "Scope of PRT Operations and Focus until April 2013", Minister of Cabinet committee decision, December 6, 2012. Obtained under the Official Information Act.PDF that the PRT was not to lead any operations - they were only allowed to support the Afghans. Personnel from the SAS were dispatched to help protect the PRT.
And, any operations that were likely to lead to contact with insurgents would only be carried out once the Minister of Defence had been informed in writing.
The PRT, which had progressively moved towards a combat role - in the north-east at least - had effectively been neutered.
It’s now four years since New Zealand’s PRT withdrew, bleeding and battered, but with leaders nonetheless proud of what had been achieved.
Rhys Jones, the boy who liked playing in vehicles who rose to be Chief of Defence Force, says despite the deterioration of Afghanistan, New Zealand played its part to make a difference. jun 13, 2013 - The results of a military Court of Inquiry into the Battle of Baghak and the deaths of Tamatea, Baker and Harris are released to the New Zealand public.
“So even if Afghanistan collapses down a bit, reverts back to anarchy or insurgents gain a little more of an upper hand, we've planted that seed of a longer-term change, and for me it's the investment into the longer term cultural and ethical change in Afghanistan.”
Richard Hall, the PRT commander who dreamed of going to Afghanistan from the moment he read of it as a teenager, thinks there are three things to take into consideration.
“Did we improve the lives of Afghans? And I would say conclusively yes, just judging by [improved] average life expectancy.
“Did we produce a stable Government? Mixed. But there is a Government, it's got some flaws. It's not what we would want.
“Is the security situation what anybody would like? No. But the other thing we need to think about is, what is the counterfactual? If we hadn't gone in in 2001 and we left the Taliban in charge, and we didn't disrupt the Al Qaeda network, what might be going on in the world now? And I can't answer that question.”
Neither can Wayne Mapp, the former Defence Minister. “Is Al Qaeda a current threat in terrorism? No, it's not. That particular goal, which is the reason we actually went - I mean, no one would have gone to Afghanistan if 9/11 had not occurred - and that has essentially been defeated.”
But was it worth it?
He pauses, and answers the question before posing another.
“It was worth it because we defeated Al Qaeda. Was there a heavy price to pay? Yes there has been.”
The soldiers who paid the biggest price were those from CRIB 20. They’ve been home for five years now, coping with the fallout.
One thing that is beyond question is the bravery of those who were at Baghak that day. Several have been honoured with awards for their actions. jul 2017 - The number of civilians killed in the war in Afghanistan reaches a new high during the first six months of 2017, according to the UN . A total of 1,662 civilians die between January 1 and June 30, including an estimated 174 women and 436 children.
Among them was Sergeant Johnny Duncan who received the NZ Gallantry Decoration[?] Source: Special Honours for Soldiers, press release by Defence Force, December 3, 2015. for leaping from the safety of his vehicle to rescue a soldier who had been injured and left exposed on the road during the battle. It meant sprinting across about 20m of open ground, risking enemy fire - and indeed, after getting his injured colleague to safety, Duncan was shot as he got back to his vehicle.
Lance Corporal John Luamanu, who was awarded the NZ Gallantry Medal, was in turn the saviour of the saviour. He ran over open ground twice to carry Duncan to help.
Also awarded the NZ Gallantry Medal was Rory Malone, whose actions saved the life of Craig Wilson. Together with another soldier, he’d helped drag Wilson to safety and then provided cover, firing to protect his colleagues, even as he was struck in the leg by a gunshot himself.
When the vehicle went to move out of the battleground to get Wilson to medics, Malone ran towards the passenger door but was shot in the chest and killed.
What the men and women of CRIB 20 involved in the battle did that day was extraordinary. Duncan, on the day he received his award, rebuked armchair critics who think they know what happened but don’t. Fair enough.
It’s another of the reasons we wanted to interview soldiers, to at least give them the opportunity to give their own voice to what happened.
It’s a pity, to say the least, that the Defence Force would not let them.
Instead, it ordered them to remain silent.
In quiet moments, when the camera is turned off and notebooks are put away, the people of Bamyan will make a confession.
Back in 2003, when New Zealand was announced as the country that was to take charge of the Provincial Reconstruction Team in their part of Afghanistan, yes, they’ll admit, they were a little bit disappointed.
It’s nothing personal, they’ll quickly add. It’s just that, well, they were hoping that a richer country would be coming to help.
Rhys Jones, the former New Zealand Chief of Defence, is not unfamiliar with this sentiment.
“Initially we had comments that, ‘You know, New Zealand is a poor country, what aid can they bring? They're not going to bring us much money’,” Jones recalls.
Let’s be clear: this was not greed. This was desperation.
Bamyan was on its knees. Prior to the coalition intervention of 2001, the Taliban government of Afghanistan had persecuted Bamyan’s people, mostly ethnic Hazaras. Many were slaughtered, while thousands of people escaped death by fleeing into the mountains. Homes, villages and even its heritage sites - most famously the famous giant Buddha statues overlooking the town - were bombed, torn down or burned.
By 2003, when New Zealand soldiers arrived, things were still perilous.
But by 2013, when New Zealand left, Jones and other senior New Zealand officials were convinced the sentiments that had been there at the start had vanished.
“Once our people operated there and really got inside the minds and got under the skin of the local population, because we were helping them, not only as provincial governments but also as individuals, they really started to love us,” says Jones.
Four years on from New Zealand’s withdrawal, it’s time to ask if New Zealand’s time in Afghanistan contributed more than just warm fuzzies.
The genesis of New Zealand’s decade-long commitment to Bamyan can be traced back to May 2003, when the United States sought further New Zealand involvement in Operation Enduring Freedom, the military campaign that had begun in response to the September 11 terrorist attacks.
A group of five ministers, headed by Prime Minister Helen Clark, was presented with a series of options. Number one on the list was a 12-month commitment to lead a Provincial Reconstruction Team in Afghanistan.
The location chosen after a reconnaissance mission was Bamyan. But 12 months, of course, became 10 years.
Richard Hall, who led one of the six-month PRT rotations, says the PRT concept was a new one. It was part of the counter-insurgency effort, trying to convince people to side with the new government rather than the remnants of the Taliban.
Right from the start, then, the PRT was more than just about reconstruction - this was not just a humanitarian mission. Even so, there was money to spend.
Since it began offering aid to Afghanistan, New Zealand has spent $95.81 million on development, most of it in Bamyan. The Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Trade says it expects to spend another $7 million over the next two years.
For about the first six years, the reconstruction effort was managed by the military commander on the ground at Kiwi Base, the New Zealand compound on the outskirts of Bamyan town.
Richard Hall says that as commander in 2008-2009 it was his responsibility to use the budget from New Zealand and other funders, most notably US military funds for reconstruction. Local authorities would have input into the plan and Hall says part of his role was to ensure money was being spent in the right areas - education, health, and roads, for example - but also that all the districts in the province were being catered for.
“It was quite a complex matrix of where do you spend your money? Most of the work we subcontracted through to local Afghan construction companies, and so much of it, once we made a decision, the engineers that I had on my team would be overseeing the procurement process and then doing the quality assurance on the actual project itself.
“The scale of the task was huge. There were other NGOs, other international development agencies there, and we tried to ensure that what we were doing was complementing, or at least not duplicating what they were doing.”
In late 2008 when National swept Labour from office, Dr Wayne Mapp took over as Defence Minister from Phil Goff. Goff declined to be interviewed for this project.
But Mapp was happy to front, conducting a long interview about his time as political master of the the Defence Force. He is robustly defensive about some aspects, poignant and sad about the loss of lives. And of the reconstruction efforts, he is heartily proud.
“Firstly boosting the good governance of the province, training, security, establishing a presence, and ensuring the law and order extended across the province, that was an important part. You really can't do the other part - which is health, education, welfare, agriculture - unless you've got stable governance.
“And both have been achieved. I mean, I've been there and the improvements are just extraordinary actually.”
But it wasn’t a straight-forward path from 2003 to the withdrawal a decade later. In 2009, the government ordered a significant review which led to a strategic change in direction.
Mapp admits that one of the lessons was getting the right people doing the right job. “One of transitions we had to make was getting NZ Aid much more heavily involved in long-term reconstruction.”
So, leave the security and defence to the soldiers, and the civil aid to NZ Aid (the Government’s foreign aid division).
Civilian directors - former Air Force officer Dick Newlands and then career diplomat Richard Prendergast - were appointed to the PRT, although a Defence Force commander remained in charge of the military operations.
The change, however, did not signal a shift to a purely humanitarian approach to reconstruction. The PRT was still seen as part of the counter-insurgency effort - to persuade local populations to side with the Coalition-supported government, and not the insurgents.
In a thesis written as part of studies at Cambridge University in 2010, Prendergast set out how development was part of counter-insurgency.
“Consistent with effective [counter-insurgency] strategy, New Zealand’s model has had a coherent purpose - of providing stability and development to Bamyan…” Prendergast wrote in his paper, “New Zealand’s Role in the Afghanistan Campaign”.
A Foreign Affairs official interviewed for his thesis identified key successes as improvements at Bamyan Hospital, especially in women’s health, and increased numbers of girls and women being educated, particularly at Bamyan University.
Hospitals and schools sound like worthy recipients of aid money - were they the big winners?
Actually, according to an MFAT review in 2013, education had only received 15 per cent of development money. Health was even less - five per cent.
So where did the rest of the money go? Thirty-seven per cent went to sustainable economic development, 22 per cent to humanitarian assistance and reconstruction, and 21 per cent to governance and justice.
They’re all areas the locals appreciate.
Bamyan provincial governor Mohammad Tahir Zahir says locals are grateful for the work of the PRT.
“Though it is four years since they have left Afghanistan, still people have good memories of your soldiers and also we would be very happy if according to NATO policy they were able to continue the mission here in Bamyan,” he says.
A former district governor in the neighbouring Baglan province, Hajji Sangin Mohammad, says he was astounded when he found out what the New Zealand PRT was contributing compared to the Hungarian PRT in his area.
“I saw schools and I ask, ‘Who built this school?’ They said NZ PRT. There was a coordination centre. I said, ‘Who built this compound?’ They said NZ PRT. ‘A school for girls?’ NZ PRT. ‘This building?’ They said to me NZ PRT. I was feeling I am dreaming.
“Where NZ PRT built schools, Hungary PRT didn’t even build us a tent. All Hungary PRT did for us was only give 90 shoes for children and 90 jackets for children.”
Former Bamyan governor Dr Habiba Sarabi, who served for eight years during New Zealand’s time in Afghanistan, is grateful for the relationship she developed with the PRT commanders and the work they did.
She cites as the most successful project the effort to install solar power in and around Bamyan town.
It was one of two major projects New Zealand concentrated on before it left, accounting for more than $20 million of expenditure. Many locals are enjoying power for the first time - shop owners can finally run fridges and lights - although the price remains prohibitive for many households and businesses.
“It is understandable that the price for the solar energy is expensive,” says Sarabi. “But, it is the duty of the local government and the [central] government to offer funds on how to manage that.”
The other project which New Zealand targeted before its departure was an agricultural assistance programme, at a cost of almost $10 million.
Alpha Kennedy commanded a patrol in the troubled north-east of Bamyan in 2009 and has since gone back to Afghanistan as a civilian to oversee development projects. He notes that the “legacy” projects started a long time after the PRT had commenced.
“You saw a lot of progress towards the end, but in the middle things were quite slow.
“I think as the PRT was finding its ground, New Zealand Aid was finding its ground in terms of what it should do.”
As well as being slow, things didn’t always go to plan.
Stuff Circuit has seen documents showing the failure of a string of low-cost projects for culverts, bridges and flood protection schemes. Materials were either diverted to other uses or the project was never carried out at all. Sure, the projects themselves were not huge sums of money - but it was money down the (non-existing or broken) drain.
And locals were left wanting.
The same concern - but on a larger, and on-going scale - centres around a vital road.
In 2010, the Defence Force issued a press release trumpeting the construction of a road that would link Bamyan to the capital, Kabul. The existing roads were notoriously bumpy and broken and journeys took a bone-jarring day.
But locals say the project was doomed before it began. The contractor, an Afghan company, failed to ensure the base of the road was sound, says a former councillor for the area, Razia Iqbalzada.
“When they planned to put the asphalt on the road, I asked them not to because the base is not so good,” she says. “I tried to be a sacrifice for this. I went in front of the loader to not put down the asphalt.”
But her protests and those of others weren’t listened to and construction went ahead. While overall the journey to Kabul is vastly improved, with a journey time of three hours (depending on security), this particular stretch is pot-holed and broken and the bane of local truck drivers as they cart Bamyan produce to Kabul.
Overall, though, did New Zealand make a difference to Bamyan?
Richard Hall, who was a PRT commander in 2008/2009, says on reflection there was a lot of juggling of competing priorities.
“In terms of the development aid, I think in hindsight, if we look back, we probably spent too much focus on building infrastructure rather than building capacity and capability,” he says.
Rather than building schools, would they have been better providing training for teachers?
“If you build a school but if you've actually got teachers that are not very good or not taught or not trained, you have a school that's actually hardly functioning. Whereas if you train a teacher and you put them into a shed and they're a brilliant teacher, you may get a different result.”
Overall, though, he remains positive, pointing out that the life expectancy of Afghans has risen from 40 to 60 since 2001.
“That’s partly because there's less violence, partly due to infant mortality rates going down, partly due to more access to health facilities, a better standard of living, more food.
“That is a ginormous change in a very short period of time.”
But for New Zealand was it worth it? Could all those things have been achieved without military intervention?
Alpha Kennedy, the soldier turned development project leader, wonders about that too.
“The military is a versatile tool because it can operate everywhere,” he says. “But it may not necessarily be the best to do development or to do rule of law.”
Having the Defence Force in Afghanistan for those 10 years cost $300 million - $300 million to achieve $95 million of reconstruction.
But the maths is not as simple as it looks. What cost the 10 lives lost in the process?
Rory Malone was a bit of a Rambo as a kid.
A crack shot and fit as anything, Rory seemed destined to become a soldier from the time he knew what war was.
The military gave him a sense of discipline and belonging he didn’t always have growing up, mum Helen Thomasen says.
“In a way, it saved his life.”
Rory’s journey into the New Zealand Defence Force was shaped by a legendary war hero, his great-great-grandfather William Malone.
Nicknamed the ‘Man of Iron’, William Malone would become New Zealand’s most famous soldier in World War I for leading the assault on Chunuk Bair in August 1915. Countless books, museum exhibitions, and a play that would later become the 1992 movie Chunuk Bair - with a cameo from a young Karl Urban - mythologised Lieutenant Colonel Malone’s deeds in battle.
As a young army recruit, Rory watched the film over and over again.
“We were blown away,” says Rory’s close friend Ethan Smith, who sat through a few viewings.
“We’d give him a bit of stick and say ‘what are you going to do in the army bro? Big boots to fill’.
“He felt that he was carrying on that Malone name in the army. ‘This is my tupuna, this is my ancestor, look what he achieved’.”
The family connection was inescapable in the winter of 2012 as politicians and senior commanders at the Defence Force lined up to eulogise the parallels between the Malone men’s exploits.
“Rory died a hero and he now takes his place alongside another New Zealand hero who died in battle almost 97 years to the day before Rory, and who was legendary for his determination, courage and refusal to be dissuaded from his convictions.
Rory’s parents Denis Malone and Helen Thomasen were married on November 7, 1982. Denis’s grandfather Terence, William Malone’s second son, also fought at Gallipoli.
Rory Patrick Malone arrived on September 14, 1985, and Rory grew up with his mum and brothers in Riverhead northwest of Auckland.
Thomasen remembers Rory as a “mummy’s boy” whom she breast fed until he was 14 months old. A shy and sensitive child who loved playing rugby with his brothers, Rory could “disappear in a puff of smoke”, she says.
New picture: Rorychild.jpg Caption: Rory Malone as a young child. Source: Malone family.
Helen says money was scarce in those years. The family moved around, and Rory attended high school in Waihi and Katikati, before going to Auckland’s Mount Albert Grammar School.
In November 2002, with the NZSAS already in Afghanistan, and plans underway to send regular forces, Rory signed up for the army reserves, aged 17.
He immediately showed an aptitude for the rigours of military life.
As part of his initial training, Rory would run the three kilometres from the army recruitment base on Auckland’s Great North Rd to Mt Eden and dart up the steep volcanic cone with a 30kg pack burning lines into his shoulders.
Rory came out as the top recruit of his year, and would go on to top his infantry corps training course.
“If you forget all else, remember to get the bastard before he gets you.
He transferred to the regular force in September 2005 and soon excelled there as well, winning a ‘Top Soldier Competition’ of his Burnham-based battalion, the 2nd/1st.
Rory had shown an entrepreneurial streak from an early age. Hearing soldiers’ complaints about the difficulty of removing camouflage face paint after training, Rory came up with the idea of field cleaning wipes for soldiers. He left detailed plans of how the product should look, and after his death, friends turned the idea into a reality.
'The Infantry Man' camouflage paint removal wipes proved very popular when they went on sale, with a share of profits going to The Fallen Heroes Trust, supporting families of dead and injured troops.
Rory was also a huge practical joker with a mischievous sense of humour. The prankster in chief would send a chill up the spine of fellow soldiers by setting up fake meetings with the Sergeant Major.
Another time, again impersonating a commanding officer, he demanded an immediate check of the serial numbers of every vacuum cleaner in the barracks.
He’d tell riddles and had hours of card tricks up his sleeve.
Just back from one of his two tours to East Timor, Rory turned up unannounced at the Auckland home of his mate Ethan Smith, as he often did. Sometimes he’d show up with a box of bourbon and colas, or a new Xbox that he’d leave behind for Ethan and his kids. On this occasion, Rory announced he was heading to New York City on his own to spend New Year’s Eve in Times Square.
“He went on his own buzz,” recalls Ethan.
Rory stayed in a backpackers just off Times Square.
“He was pretty cruisy, but once he got focused on something he was adamant that was what he wanted to do.”
Rory was fully aware of the dangers faced by soldiers, says Ethan.
“I remember saying to him, ‘bro why do you want to go in the army, you’ll get shot’. And I remember his response was ‘if it happens, it happens, What else am I going to do?’”
Rory bulked up and boxed competitively, something Ethan thinks may have been so he wouldn’t get told what to do by his big brother any more.
Rory was shy around women, says Ethan. As far as he was aware, he’d never had a girlfriend until he met Kate Johnston, a fellow soldier also based at Burnham.
“I leave a lucrative practice, a happy home, a brave wife and children without any hesitation. I feel I am just beginning to live.
Rory turned down his first trip to Afghanistan. Friends say he didn’t want to leave Johnston behind.
The couple would wind up departing together for Afghanistan’s Bamyan province in April 2012 on the 20th deployment of New Zealand forces since 2003.
They arrived in a country that bore little resemblance to the image of peaceful reconstruction that had been painted to the New Zealand public. After nine years, Bamyan province had become less welcoming of the Kiwi soldiers.
Hints at what life was like for Rory in Afghanistan can be gleaned from emails home.
Rory sensed the Afghan people had developed a hostility towards the Kiwis, and he made it clear to Thomasen he was not enjoying his time in Bamyan.
He would be confronted by angry children in the street who would make throat-slitting gestures, which he found particularly distressing.
Thomasen says Rory had been talking about leaving the army and studying to become a lawyer.
“Maybe if he hadn't died he might have done it.”
On August 4 2012, Rory’s unit was called to provide emergency support to Afghan National Directorate of Security (NDS) forces that had sustained casualties while trying to arrest a bombmaker in the Shikari Valley, near Baghak.
Within a few minutes of his commanding officer Major Craig Wilson arriving, a huge gun battle broke out.
Rory was in the thick of the fighting, and was shot in the leg. Oblivious to the pain, and danger, Rory went to the aid of a badly wounded Wilson, dragging him to the safety of their light armoured vehicle.
Nearly 97 years to the day after his great-great-grandfather was killed 3000km away on the Gallipoli peninsula, Rory was shot in the chest as he re-entered the Humvee, and died almost instantly. He was 26 years old.
Wilson suffered serious injury, but survived largely thanks to Rory.
Rory would be posthumously awarded a Gallantry Medal in December 2015, one of at least five medals to be awarded to New Zealand soldiers that day.
Tensions between the Defence Force and Rory’s mother and brothers became strained almost immediately after his body was repatriated to New Zealand.
Thomasen says she struggled to find out what had happened to Rory. Her many questions went unanswered, her suspicions have festered and grown over the intervening years.
What was the real nature of the provincial reconstruction team’s mission in Afghanistan? Why did the Crib stay in a known ambush site for three hours. Why did Rory have to die?
“I felt deceived,” Thomasen says about the Defence Force’s explanations for why her son was killed.
“And when you have people sitting there in uniform, displaying all their medals. I want to know why you got those medals, and I ask questions like that. ‘Have you been in armed combat’?”
She describes the Court of Inquiry findings into the Battle of Baghak as a whitewash.
Ethan Smith sums up his feelings about the findings of the official military inquiry.
“There was a stuff up, tell us what happened. Why the hell were they there? Who’s responsible for that stuff up? They’re not going to tell anyone outside the military because that will make them look bad.”
“One legendary New Zealand name from Chunuk Bair is Lieutenant William Malone, a man who always put the interests of his men first, and refused to let them be slaughtered in a senseless daytime attack on this ridge, insisting that they wait until cover of darkness. Colonel Malone lost his life here at Chunuk Bair. Tragically the Malone name was to reverberate across the years when his great great grandson Lance Corporal Rory Malone of the 2nd / 1st battalion Royal New Zealand Infantry Regiment was killed in action at the Battle of Baghuk in Bamyan, Afghanistan last August.
Ethan, Rory’s eldest brother Todd McBriar, and a few close friends get together to mark the anniversary of Rory’s death every August.
The ‘Rory Malone Mess Committee’ begins at his grave site at Manukau Memorial Gardens, before the group takes off for a mid-winter road trip.
One year, his close mates took a bright yellow stretch Humvee out to Devonport for a midwinter dip at Takapuna Beach. The gathered all wore sweatshirts bearing Rory’s army number, K1013159.
Ethan says numbers have dwindled slightly in recent years. “Some people’s partners, I dunno what they heard,” he drifts off.
“But yes, that was our way of remembering our mate Rory.”
“My desire for life, so that I may see and be with you again, could not be greater, but I have done what every man was bound to do in our country’s need. It has been a great consolation to me that you approved my action. The sacrifice was really yours. May you be consoled and rewarded by our dear Lord.
In his 56 years, William Malone wed twice, had eight children, and achieved distinguished careers in law and farming. He has been immortalised by his deeds in a battle that some say helped to forge New Zealand’s national identity.
Five years on from Rory’s death, his family are still wondering what might have been.
“Some days life is difficult, the grief overwhelms us,” says Thomasen. “There’s a missing part to think in this life right here we won't ever see him again.”
Her surviving sons and his close mates still feel the loss intensely, Rory’s death having had a profound effect on all of their lives.
“A lot of times I thought he could be having his own kids now. How old would he be?” Ethan says.
Pralli Durrer was celebrated as a war hero after he was killed in action in a remote Afghanistan valley in August 2012.
Flags flew at half mast at his Christchurch primary school, fellow soldiers paid tribute to the lionhearted lance corporal, there was talk of posthumous medals - possibly even a Victoria Cross.
For his family, shock gave way to grief, the profound sense of loss softened by cherished memories of a much-loved nephew and grandson.
Now, five years on from the death of the nephew she helped raise, Durrer’s aunt Ani Lhamo is ready to let go.
Lhamo wants Durrer to be at peace. It’s what his grandfather Jack, who passed away in 2015, wanted as well.
But she believes Durrer’s death is being taken advantage of by some to promote a pro-war agenda.
“I do think people are attempting to exploit what happened to Pralli on that day,” she says.
Born in Invercargill on April 3, 1986, Durrer is remembered as a smiley, sensitive kid. He was raised by his mum Helen in Christchurch, and never knew his father.
He started school at Phillipstown Primary School, a decile one school perhaps now best known for winning its battle with the Education Ministry to remain open after the Christchurch quakes, only to ultimately lose the war and close after being merged.
Durrer was adored by teachers who remembered him as a ‘shining star’.
When he was 12 years old, Durrer woke up to find his mother had passed away during the night of a suspected epileptic fit. Durrer discovered her body after taking the telephone in to his mother to make a phone call.
Mother and son are buried beside each other at Manutai Marae near Nuhaka, Hawke’s Bay.
Durrer went on to Shirley Intermediate, before attending Linwood College in 2000 and 2001. He also attended Hagley Community College.
Lhamo didn’t like the idea of Durrer joining the army, but there was no holding him back.
He was just 17 when he first tried to join, failing the induction day fitness test at his first attempt.
The next year he made it through and was posted to the 1st Battalion at Burnham Military Camp near Christchurch as a rifleman.
After deployments to East Timor in 2006 and 2007, Durrer got the call to go to Afghanistan in April 2012.
Try as she might, Lhamo knew she couldn’t convince him to stay at home.
“I talked to him about how dangerous it is over there and I asked him to be extra vigilant in everything even if he felt things were OK.
“I don't know personally whether he did know that it was a very dangerous place to be in. I really don’t know.”
In photos posted to social media after his arrival in Bamyan province, Durrer appeared relaxed, every inch the professional soldier.
One showed him smiling as he stood next to a Humvee that had driven off the road
Durrer didn’t give much away about the deteriorating security situation in phone calls home to his grandfather Jack.
“I think he just put my father’s mind at rest that things were OK over there,” says Lhamo.
On August 4, 2012, Durrer’s light armoured vehicle unit responded to an emergency call from friendly Afghan troops who had come under attack in the remote Shikari Valley, in northeastern Bamyan province.
After waiting for hours in the exposed valley, Durrer’s vehicle came under heavy attack.
Footage filmed by the soldiers showed the chaos on the ground as officer commanding Major Craig Wilson and five others were wounded, and communications between units cut off.
In the ensuing carnage, Durrer’s ammo tincaught fire. While trying to extinguish the flames, he was shot in the head.
The soldier beside him in the LAV applied a bandage to the wound and Durrer was taken to a casualty collection point where a medic attempted unsuccessfully to insert an intravenous drip.
Durrer’s injuries were unsurvivable. He died en route to hospital in a United States army helicopter, aged 26.
Later that day, nearly 14,000km away, a procession of military men and politicians came to visit the Durrer family to pay their condolences.
Jack Durrer lived in a small home in the east Christchurch suburb of Linwood, and as the famous faces began arriving, the family was nervous; where would Prime Minister John Key sit?
Key, who grew up in a state home 10km away, stayed for more than an hour, perched on a wooden chair as he chatted easily with Jack and Lhamo. Lhamo was impressed by the care paid to Durrer’s grandfather Jack, which gave great comfort to the family.
“We really didn’t expect anything like that,” she says.
Durrer was given full military honours at a joint memorial service a few days later with Lance Corporal Rory Malone, who was also killed in the gun battle.
His Defence Force comrades spoke proudly of his lion-hearted bravery in battle, his selflessness and humility.
A military inquiry would later find Durrer died from a single gunshot wound to the head, and the shot came from an insurgent.
As with the other families affected, Lhamo was briefed on the findings of the official military inquiry into Durrer’s death. She also had the chance to meet with soldiers who were with him when he died.
“We needed to know that everything that could have been done to save his life was done.”
For Lhamo, a Buddhist nun who lives in Otago, there are still lingering questions about New Zealand’s involvement in the Afghanistan war.
She agreed to give a first interview since 2012 because some of the broad questions remain unanswered about why New Zealand went to war, what was done in our name, and what was achieved by our presence there.
But what troubles her most is the way she says Durrer’s image has been carelessly used by some to justify New Zealand being in Afghanistan.
“Warfare is an outdated selfish way of doing things and it doesn’t work. It’s so destructive for everybody,” she says.
The family was informed soon after Durrer’s death that his Officer Commanding, Major Craig Wilson, was planning to write a book which drew heavily on their deployment.
In marketing material, publishers claimed the book would describe in “fascinating detail what it is like to serve and sacrifice for your country”.
Wilson told his superiors he intended to donate a portion of any profits from the book to the Fallen Heroes Trust.
In early drafts of the book, Wilson, a former SAS officer, went into great detail in his descriptions of the events of August 4.
He said he wanted to show civilians “the physical and mental discipline needed to go from peaceful New Zealand to a war-torn country where you are never sure who is your friend and who your enemy”.
Lhamo was shown a draft of the chapter that referred to Durrer’s death, and found it disquieting.
“It just seemed wrong,” she says.
“I don’t know if the writer was thinking about the family of Durrer and how the family would feel.
“It was just sort of like a fictional description and sort of fantastical in some ways and I just thought it was written in the way it was to make the book seem good.”
The Defence Force blocked Wilson from publishing the book, and banned serving soldiers from releasing memoirs.
The family was also concerned with the use of Durrer’s image in a documentary based on the CRIB 20 deployment.
Then there’s the way his images are promoted and shared on social media, often by people who have never met Durrer.
"We're asking people to respect our wishes to let Pralli rest in peace.”
Ani Lhamo gave permission for images of Pralli Durrer to be used in Stuff Circuit’s The Valley.
Life, for Captain Daniel Stephen Thompson, was going - all things considered - extremely well.
He was three weeks away from getting married. He had a close, loving family who supported him in his military career and were proud of the young man and leader he had become.
He’d returned, safe, though burdened, from a challenging deployment to Afghanistan; a deployment that cost the lives of five of his fellow soldiers.
And then, aged only 29, Daniel died while out running with his fiancee in Christchurch’s Port Hills one Saturday morning. His heart had failed him.
His mum, Angela, speaks quietly as she explains, “They don’t really know why. One of the electrical impulses just stopped. One moment he was running…”
She can’t complete her sentence.
Dan’s sister, Rosie Thompson, is Amy Winehouse-esque, winged eyeliner, tattoos and big black hair; so polar opposite to her strictly-uniformed brother. But they were tight, and her loss is palpable; written, even, in ink on a tattoo in memory of her brother.
“Something like this happens and you find the lack of depth that words hold. When someone dies you say you miss them but that doesn’t cover it”, she tells us, tearfully, over coffee in their lounge in Muriwai, on the west coast of Auckland - the home where she and Daniel grew up, the home their father built.
“Somehow you learn to navigate and carry on, but you’re constantly aware, when you’re doing the grocery shopping or something, you can be in a place that’s got nothing to do with either of you…”
Dan was an officer on the ill-fated CRIB 20, which suffered terrible losses in Afghanistan. And his is a story of a young man who embodied the best of the New Zealand Defence Force, even if it meant standing up to his superiors.
These are Dan’s own words; how he described himself in an address to his church on his return to New Zealand from Afghanistan.
“My name is Daniel and I am an officer commissioned by the Queen, charged with the leadership and command of men and women within our Defence Force. I am an infantry combat officer and commander from Her Majesty’s Royal New Zealand Infantry Regiment - specifically the 2nd 1st Light Infantry Battalion.”
Dan Thompson, still Daniel to his parents, loved everything about being a soldier. He came from a family whose wars stretched back to Gallipoli, and included World War II in the Pacific, Normandy and Vietnam. Among his military heroes were Captain Charles Upham, VC & Bar and Major General Sir Howard Kippenberger.
“He was acutely aware of our military heritage”, says his father, Graeme Thompson. “He had always wanted to join the army.
“I think it was much, more more than the idea that a lot of kids have, going to war and all that sort of stuff. It was about service, and he had the idea of ‘I want to do something worthwhile, that’s got to be meaningful, both to my life and [for] other people’.
“Daniel believed very, very strongly in the idea of democracy.”
Dan had already served in Timor, and when the opportunity came up to deploy to Afghanistan in 2012, his father says he was matter-of-fact about it. “It’s my job.”
A job which, by that stage of the war, had become far more dangerous than when our Provincial Reconstruction Teams had first deployed to Afghanistan in 2003.
Dan knew that. He would later write, comparing Afghanistan to Timor, “This was now the big time. Any mistakes or no mistakes at all here meant death. This was my war. My Vietnam, my Europe, my defining military performance.”
Thompson’s role was as S3/Operations Officer of CRIB 20, New Zealand’s 20th deployment of troops to Afghanistan. He felt that level of seniority and responsibility keenly.
“What you must do is get as many home as you can in the face of an enemy that hates you with an intensity unparalleled and wants - and is trying his utmost - to kill you and your boys”.
And in that summer of 2012 - the Afghan fighting season - CRIB 20 would suffer extraordinary loss. Five of the 10 New Zealand deaths in Afghanistan happened in under three weeks.
Two, Lance Corporals Rory Malone and Pralli Durrer, were killed in the Battle of Baghak, on August 4, where six others were wounded. And then on August 19, Lance Corporal Jacinda Baker, Corporal Luke Tamatea and Private Richard Harris died when their Humvee was hit by a roadside bomb.
Their deaths were hard to bear. In that address to his church, Dan Thompson said his heart was crushed each time a life was taken on his rotation, but that he “finds solace in the knowledge that they served and died for good reason, in dignity and with honour, for purpose.”
The core army values are known as 3CI: Courage. Commitment. Comradeship. Integrity.
A former senior soldier describes how Captain Dan Thompson epitomised those values. He was “an excellent leader and commander. He was very well respected by his subordinates and peers, with a very sure moral compass.”
A leader who was pedantic about his record-keeping, Thompson kept a journal while he was in Afghanistan, making an entry each day without exception: 188 of them. He later said he wanted to keep an accurate record of his thoughts, his memories, his actions and decisions, and what was going on.
You can see too, in his own writing, his sense of duty and what it meant for him. “You should know that being an officer is lonely, because, despite the fact that you are surrounded by men, by virtue of position you stand alone, isolated by the weight of command.”
Which gives some insight into why it might have been that Captain Dan Thompson did what he did, at one point in his military career.
This soldier, loyal to Queen and country and his comrades, blew the whistle on a superior officer.
He was, says his father, torn. But that strong moral compass left him with only one option.
“He was totally loyal to the chain of command and being responsible to The Queen’s Commission and therefore observing the rules of engagement, which he signed up for. In this case, the latter dictated what he would do.”
What he did was complain about an order given by a superior officer, an order he believed was against those rules of engagement.
He raised the matter with his father, warning him he was about to report the actions of the officer.
“He just said to me ‘I'm going to tell you this because it's going to come out sooner or later, so I'll give you the heads up now, so that you're prepared for this’. And he just said, ‘Look, we’re not trained to do that. We've not trained to do that. I don't want to endanger my personnel’.”
The officer ended up facing disciplinary proceedings, but suppression orders prevent us from reporting details.
What matters though to his family, and to other soldiers spoken to by Stuff Circuit is that Dan so strongly personified one of those essential army values: integrity.
“We’re proud of him for that. We’re proud of him for doing that to this day.”
There’s more of which Dan Thompson’s family can be very proud.
Graeme Thompson was working in the garden one day when his mobile phone rang. The caller was a fellow officer on CRIB 20, Major Craig Wilson, who’d been on study sabbatical at Fort Leavenworth in the United States when Daniel died. Wilson had arrived back in New Zealand - he was at the airport when he made the call. Having just stepped off the plane, he wanted to come to see Daniel’s family.
It’s evident in Wilson’s words at Daniel’s interment why there was such haste, why it was so important to meet Dan’s family as soon as possible. And how personal the connection was for Wilson, who suffered serious injuries in the Battle of Baghak.
On the day of the battle, Daniel took control of coordinating the American rescue pilots who were based at Bagram Airfield, more than 180km away.
“When I got shot, I didn’t have much else to do, so I did some maths,” Wilson recalled at the interment. “I worked out that it was going to take three hours to get a helicopter there, at best, and that’s just trying to make sure I could hang in there. I was also worried about the other guys who were going downhill fast; some of them did not have three hours to live.
“Dan got the helicopters there in one hour and 40 minutes. That’s physically... Well, that was officially impossible. He bribed them. Well, he convinced them on the fly to do something incredibly brave and he did all the calculations himself, worked out helicopter fuel times - which is not something we’re trained for, Blackhawks in New Zealand - and he pleaded with those helicopter pilots to come direct and pick us up.
“That may well have saved two lives. One of them being mine. And that’s why we love him so much.”
It’s quite a legacy for Captain Daniel Stephen Thompson; a telling example of his capability, his commitment, his humanity.
Dan Thompson was a soldier’s soldier. But he saw awful things in Afghanistan, things which made him a realist about the impact of war.
Again, these are his own words.
“I have been witness to scenes that I can only explain as extraordinary, scenes outside the normal range of human experience.
“Warfare in Afghanistan”, he wrote, “provided me several very dark soul-damaging moments, where I feared my heart would become bitter and hateful…
“I have lost soldiers and friends to war, and probably pieces of me. I feel as though I am aged beyond my years, I do feel weary - in my body and in the aching depths of my soul.
“But then, I look at my soldiers around me, smiling and grinning despite it all, those mighty men, and they remind me why I love what I do and I smile silently and continue on harder than before.”
With fresh questions hanging over New Zealand’s role in Afghanistan, soldiers such as Captain Dan Thompson - with his principles, his strong moral compass - are a reminder of the many, many good people who served, who made sacrifices, and who deserve our respect.
The traffic in Kabul is angry and unpredictable and waits for no one.
Yet braving it at a frenzied roundabout in this city of six million is a woman in a full, dirty burqa, begging; with a baby in her arms, and holding onto a toddler.
There are no lanes, just confidence and hope, and she’s in the middle of the road, saying nothing, but her face is pained; you can tell by the way her eyes are pleading through their mesh grill.
The traffic has swept us past her, there's no chance to give her money. All we can do is wonder what horror leaves her so desperate she must endanger not only herself but her tiny children.
During our time in Kabul she’s the only woman we see who’s on her own.
For those new to this city, this country, there’s an odd sense of something significant missing, an imbalance. Until you realise it’s because the women are - for the most part - invisible.
We’d gone to Afghanistan in April as part of an investigation into one of New Zealand’s longest military deployments. Like many western nations, New Zealand went to Afghanistan soon after the World Trade Center attacks of September 11, 2001. Over a 10 year period, more than 3000 New Zealanders served there as part of what we were told was a hearts and minds mission, helping reconstruct the country. It was lauded by politicians and military leaders as a success. Four years after the Defence Force mission ended, we wanted to talk to Afghan locals for their perspective, and to learn more about a couple of operations the public hasn’t had the truth about.
It also gave us an opportunity for a glimpse into a society so vastly different it sometimes felt like we’d crossed into another time, not just another place. A few weeks does not make us experts - far from it. But we were fortunate to be with journalist Jon Stephenson, a regular traveler to Afghanistan over the past 15 years, and with his expert guidance, we saw some of what it’s like for people who live in this never-ending warzone.
The most common question asked of us is so straightforward yet so hard to answer: “What’s it like there now?”
It would be easy to romanticise the country. It is, after all, so strikingly beautiful; the geography, the people, their generous hospitality. But to be sentimental about its allure would be to disrespect the reality of living day-to-day in Afghanistan.
To new, Western visitors, the imbalance in the visible population is odd and confronting. It wasn’t always this way, though. On the walls of a city restaurant its owner displays photographs of women at Kabul University in the 60s and 70s. In their miniskirts and with their hair uncovered, smiles on their faces, they seem the epitome of liberation. And in a country where women’s literacy is among the lowest in the world (recent estimates put it at 24%), the very fact of the photographs on display seems an act of irreverence in itself.
The Taliban may no longer be in control (though many we spoke to in Afghanistan spoke despairingly of its resurgence) but its legacy, especially for women, remains. It is not now law for women to wear burqas, but it is still taboo to be in public without one, or at least a hijab - head scarf - to cover their heads.
And from what we see, the place of most women remains if not subservient, then at least deferential to men. It’s evidenced in not so subtle ways: the woman walking through the early morning mist in Bamyan, carrying the bags, while ten paces ahead her husband carries nothing; the wife quickly disappearing, head down, into an adjacent room and closing the door behind her as we arrive to interview an ex-soldier; the woman washing clothes in the stream and her young daughters carrying them back to their mudbrick house, in baskets on their heads.
As a visiting Western woman, it can be tricky to navigate; for both parties. An embarrassed maitre’d ushers us to the women’s half of a restaurant when we unwittingly head towards the male side - men can sit in the area designated for women, but not the other way around. On another occasion, a lunchtime conversation falls silent and the men awkwardly occupy themselves on their phones, when my male colleague steps out and I’m the only woman at the table. I realise that in the absence of my chaperone, apparently the men and I are not supposed to be talking. So I too busy myself on my phone, in an attempt to ease the oppressiveness of the silence.
In his upstairs office of a Kabul high-rise, former Parliamentarian Moeen Marastial greets us in his native Pashto language and guides us to a seat. A young man pours green tea into delicate cups and drops sweets on each of the saucers. Such is the ritual of welcomes in Afghanistan.
Our translator begins the back-and-forth patter of introduction and explanation of who we are and what we’re doing before we realise Marastial speaks fluent English. Originally from Kunduz Province, he sought asylum in Australia and spent six years there before returning to Afghanistan in 2002 after the downfall of the Taliban. In that regard, he’s not alone. The Afghan government has been encouraging its diaspora - especially the educated - to come home, to help run the country. To an extent, it has worked and the upper echelons of many ministries are staffed by men who’ve returned, usually from Europe or the United States. We meet a few, who describe the patriotic duty they feel - but almost exclusively, they have kept their families offshore. The threat of war and terrorism is too much.
Marastial has family overseas too. He yearns for a time when Afghanistan can be free and peaceful, although he’s a realist. Still, it doesn’t take much for him to think of what life could be like - after all, it’s not that long ago the world was entirely different.
Aesthetically, for instance, Kabul is so changed, he tells us. Right up until the Soviet occupation of the 1980s, Kabul was a low-rise city. When the first government office blocks started going up, people would come in from the villages to gawk. Many of the high-rise buildings nowadays are buttressed by thick concrete “blast walls” to shield against car bombs; others are abandoned, battle-bruised and bullet-pocked concrete shells.
But for Marastial, it’s the street-level changes he notices more. In the 60s and 70s, for instance, men and women mingled at the city’s universities - that’s how he met his wife. But these days, he tells us, he can’t even talk on the street to a woman who isn’t a family member. To do so, would invite scandal and retribution for them both, the woman in particular.
He seems mournful that this has become the social norm. During conversations after our interview, however, he only looks at the men while he’s talking. It’s as if he’s indoctrinated, despite himself.
If the place of women is the (relatively) new norm, in Afghanistan, war is the same old constant it has been for generations. And it doesn’t discriminate.
“Everyone who is ever living in the north, south, east or west of Afghanistan - every person, including male, female, children and aged - everyone has suffered,” says Marastial.
He’s interrupted by the noise from a military helicopter which drowns out the interview, a common blight in Kabul. Helicopters criss-cross the sky every daylight hour: hulking beasts carrying troops to and from the latest battle site, Black Hawks firing decoy flares to divert any in-coming surface-to-air missiles. All this over a supposedly-functioning capital city where six million people are just trying to go about their daily lives.
But in every way, the security situation seems to do its darndest to stop them, or at least make it harder. Bombs explode and gunfights break out randomly, even inside Kabul’s so-called “Ring of Steel”, a series of checkpoints encircling the city to supposedly keep out insurgents and their weapons.
We never feel under direct threat, but always there is a latent sense of dread. It’s the same for most people - the risk is of being caught in the cross-fire or blast, rather than being targeted. One afternoon in April, an Isis terrorist on foot detonated a suicide vest outside the Ministry of Defence in Kabul, killing five people - just one of many attacks which saw at least 600 people killed or wounded during the time we were in the country. Bad luck if you happened to be passing at the time. Such is the randomness of life and death.
Not that people aren’t trying to skew the odds. Where there aren’t soldiers, there are heavily-armed private security guards whose job it is to keep the streets safe by jumping on anything or anyone suspicious and keeping everything moving.
Armed traffic police, for instance, wave away vehicles attempting to park in front of main shopping areas (although, if you pay the guy who has bribed the local traffic police for the day, you can park where you want - even in a warzone you can’t thwart private enterprise).
In a market area down by the river, produce carts heave beneath neatly-stacked piles of eggplants, cucumbers, spring onions and radishes. But the locals are complaining about the price of the tomatoes - 100 Afghanis a kilogram - far more expensive than normal for springtime because they’ve come from the east of the country where fighting rages.
It’s such a mundane thing - the price of tomatoes - but in a way it illustrates in such a simple way just how much war filters through every layer of this society.
On the plane north to Bamyan, the province where New Zealand forces spent most of their time, it’s easy to forget Afghanistan’s troubles. The view is breath-taking as we circle up out of Kabul and then cross the snow-covered peaks to reach the central highlands.
The town of Bamyan appears suddenly - it’s only a 30 minute flight but the security situation means we’re advised to fly, not drive. Bandits on the road out of the capital are known to kidnap foreigners and sell them over to Taliban or Haqqani insurgents.
As we approach the freshly-minted airstrip at the tiny Shahid Mazari Airport, the town’s most famous site is visible out of the window. The site of the giant Buddha statues carved into the sandstone cliffs seem within reaching distance. Since the 6th century, when Bamyan was a thriving Buddhist holy site, the Buddhas - one 55m tall - stood like benevolent overlords on the town’s outskirts, a short walking distance from the main bazaar. Then in 2001, the Taliban blew them up, condemning the Buddhas as idolatrous. All that remains is the outlines in the cliff face, nonetheless impressive.
Mostly, they are a reminder of what the people of Bamyan have been through. When the Taliban took the town after months of fighting, thousands fled or were slaughtered. It is said there were no civilians left - only Taliban or prisoners.
Meanwhile, families had abandoned their homes for the refuge of the mountains, living in freezing campsites, trying to keep one step ahead of their tormentors. Our translator’s mother tells a story of carrying a baby in the mountains one day, when the splash of dust from bullets hitting the ground around her alerted her to the horrifying fact she and her children were under attack from a Taliban marksman. Who shoots a mother and children?
She dashed for cover and, somehow, they all survived. But when they eventually returned home, once the Taliban had been over-powered, their village had been razed.
Over time they rebuilt, yet rural life remains tough, and so her sons have constructed a series of adjoining houses on the edge of the town, closer to schools and work. It’s like an urban village, with communal living for the extended family.
For those who remain in the countryside, how they survive the winters is unimaginable. Temperatures plunge well below zero for months on end. In one village we visit, the only light is from a single light bulb wired up to a car battery. The shared toilet is an outside long-drop, and water comes from the nearby stream.
And there is much grief. On a hill overlooking the village, flags mark out the graves of shahid or martyrs, those who have died at the hand of enemy. What’s striking is just how many flags are in such a small cemetery. Two belong to sons of the village, members of the Afghan security forces killed by insurgents in a battle which also claimed Kiwi lives. One of their mothers was already a widow - her husband beheaded by the Taliban.
So many flags.
Back in Bamyan town, our translator introduces us to his wife. She too has suffered greatly. Her father was killed by the Soviets in a bomb blast and her mother died of cancer in a refugee camp in Pakistan. Her older brother supported the 10 children in Kabul. She and her sisters would hand-make rugs to supplement the family income; they couldn’t go to school.
Her marriage to our translator early this year was a grand celebration - weddings are one of the great joys of life here. Proudly she shows us her wedding photos, in which she is unrecognisable; the bride is permitted to bare her hair, and her makeup transforms her.
And now she is embracing the new freedoms which are slowly coming to Afghanistan. She’s studying English Literature at university, and after graduating she hopes to work in an office as a manager.
In Bamyan, though - while religion still reigns and the call to prayer coming from the mosques continues to break the silence of the dawn - society is more tolerant and less conservative. This is, after all, the province which had a woman, Dr Habiba Sarabi, as governor for eight years.
And there’s optimism in youth. A 16-year-old we meet defied the elders who told her that, as a girl, she must not ride a bike. So she rode. Every day. And encouraged other girls to do the same. Now, she rides competitively and has even raced in Kabul. She hopes, one day, to represent Afghanistan in cycling at the Olympics.
In Kabul, the tune to “Happy Birthday” rings out seemingly wherever you go. It’s shrill and digital and it emanates from ice cream carts, usually pushed by children, earning a pittance for their work. The song has a way of dominating the soundscape of helicopters, animated conversations in Dari and Pashto, constant beeping of horns.
A journalist we meet, Bilal Sarwary, writes almost daily of killings and deaths and sadness, and he has resignation in his voice as he tells us, “Living in Kabul takes the normal away from you. And then the strange becomes normal.”
Perhaps as a way to cope, an antidote to writing about the misery, in his downtime he posts on social media with the hashtag #afghanistanyouneversee. The photographs are normal, everyday life and scenery; and they are captivatingly beautiful. He posts because, as his profile bio puts it so simply, “Thinking about all Afghans who get up each morning and don’t have the option of just walking away from it all.”
As we did.
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