The Government inquiry into Operation Burnham found the controversial Afghanistan military skirmish was not a revenge attack, however it was likely a young girl was killed as a result and there were “significant” failings by New Zealand’s Defence Force in dealing with allegations of civilian casualties.
“We think it is likely a child was killed in Operation Burnham," states the inquiry report, which was released today.
The report also found:
- some civilians did suffer injuries
- an NZSAS trooper did punch Qari Miraj, and
- the evidence indicates Miraj was tortured while in NDS [Afghanistan's National Directorate of Security] detention
It also found “significant failings” by the NZDF in addressing allegations of civilian casualties after Operation Burnham.
“They are deeply troubling in an organisation such as the NZDF… The failings are particularly concerning because they are not confined to one or more isolated incidents but are reflected in conduct and events over a number of years,” the inquiry stated.
“They fall among a spectrum of seriousness.”
Attorney-General David Parker said the inquiry showed the actions of the NZSAS was lawful as insurgents were present during Operation Burnham.
However, there was “significant shortcomings in the way the New Zealand Defence Force subsequently dealt with allegations of civilian casualties, resulting in a series of incorrect statements in briefings to ministers and public statements between 2010 and 2017”.
“The inquiry also considers that the way a prisoner was treated and handled shows New Zealand’s detention policy was inappropriate and did not reflect New Zealand’s values,” Mr Parker said.
Hit & Run, a book co-authored by investigative journalist Nicky Hager, alleged a young girl named Fatima was killed in the operation. The inquiry was satisfied she was not killed in Operation Burnham. However, it said it was likely a young girl aged between 8-10 years old did die in the operation.
“Obviously she was a civilian,” the inquiry report stated, but added the NZSAS personnel had a “proper basis for clearing the engagement in which the girl was likely killed”.
The inquiry said based on the information available, the NZSAS would not have known that there were civilians near the men who were the target of firing.
The report said investigators agreed that at least six civilians were injured, including at least two women and two girls – and they accepted others may have also suffered injuries.
The inquiry found a senior NZSAS officer “displayed an inexcusable lack of care and rigour in misrepresenting the findings” of a preliminary investigation into possible civilian casualties that was launched after the operation.
“The communication was accepted without question by his superiors despite being contradicted by other information available to NZDF.”
There were also determined to be “serious deficiencies” in the way the NZDF dealt with allegations, misrepresenting the situation to ministers and it failed to adequately remedy its incorrect advice.
“Between 2010 and 2017 NZDF made a series of incorrect statements in both briefings to ministers and public releases” - saying allegations of civilian casualties had been investigated and found to be "baseless" or "unfounded".
The NZDF “did not conduct any effective investigation into the allegations of civilian casualties”.
The book correctly identified some of the people killed and injured, and that there were civilians among them and there was also some damage to buildings.
However, “the operations were not revenge operations; nor were they ‘ill-conceived’,” the report states.
“The New Zealand forces involved acted professionally, although several miscalculations or errors have been made.”
It said the claim there were no insurgents present in the villages at the time of the operation was incorrect.
Video footage also showed men with weapons, some capable of bringing down helicopters.
“The actions of the men were consistent with the pre-operation intelligence, to the effect that the area was under the influence of the Taliban and that there were insurgent leaders and fighters there.”
The inquiry was satisfied damage to buildings was not caused by “improper conduct”.
The book also alleged that in Operation Yamaha – an operation to arrest and detain Qari Miraj, who was also a suspect in the New Zealand Provincial Reconstruction Team patrol attack. The book alleged Miraj was beaten by NZSAS before being transported to a facility where he was tortured.
The inquiry considers he was assaulted and there was “strong evidence” Miraj was tortured at the National Directorate of Security facility.
“New Zealand did nothing in response to the allegations. We consider that action should have been taken.”
The inquiry was undertaken by former Supreme Judge Sir Terence Arnold and Sir Geoffrey Palmer.
On August 21-22, 2010, Operation Burnham was carried out by the NZSAS troops and other nations’ forces in Tirgiran Valley, Afghanistan. It aimed to capture insurgent leaders suspected to have taken part in an attack earlier that month on a New Zealand Provincial Reconstruction Team (NZPRT) patrol, where Lieutenant Tim O’Donnell was killed after being ambushed by Taliban insurgents.
The inquiry wrote that Nicky Hager and Jon Stephenson’s book, Hit & Run, released in 2017, alleged the operation was based on faulty intelligence and that no insurgents were present, six civilians were killed, including a three-year-old girl, and 15 others injured, houses were deliberately destroyed or damaged by NZSAS and aircraft in some instances in revenge and the NZDF did not investigate allegations of civilian casualties and damage to civilian property.
“Although the authors succeeded in uncovering a considerable amount of factual material, they inevitably fell into error, especially in relation to the operation at the heart of the book: Operation Burnham,” the inquiry report states.