Operation Burnham

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Event.png Operation Burnham (war crime,  cover-up) Rdf-entity.pngRdf-icon.png
Bamyan in Afghanistan.png
Interests • Nick Hager
• Tim Keating‎
• New Zealand Defence Force
• New Zealand Special Air Service
DescriptionRevenge massacre by New Zealand occupation forces in Afghanistan.

Operation Burnham was a joint military operation undertaken by the New Zealand Special Air Service and elements of the Afghan Crisis Response Unit and International Security Assistance Force in Afghanistan's Tirgiran Valley on 21–22 October 2010. Operation Burnham became the subject of the investigative journalists Nicky Hager and Jon Stephenson's book Hit & Run: The New Zealand SAS in Afghanistan and the meaning of honour, which showed how New Zealand forces had committed war crimes against civilians in the Naik and Khak Khudday Dad villages, and that this had been covered up by the New Zealand Defence Force.[1][2][3][4]

Though the New Zealand Defence Force initially denied that the operation had occurred in those villages, they subsequently confirmed that NZSAS forces had entered one of the villages mentioned in the book.[5][6][7] Media and public interest led to calls for an official inquiry, which was rejected by the-then Prime Minister Bill English.[8][9] In April 2018, Attorney-General David Parker of the Labour-led coalition government announced that the Government would be holding an inquiry into Operation Burnham and the allegations in Hit & Run.[2][10] In December 2018, the New Zealand Government confirmed that they would be holding an inquiry but that it would be held behind closed doors.[11][12]

In mid–June 2019, the Afghan villagers withdrew from the Operation Burnham inquiry, with their lawyer Deborah Manning citing that they had become disillusioned with the inquiry process.[13][14] In September 2019, the former Defence Force chief Sir Jerry Mateparae admitted that the Defence Force's briefings to the-then Defence Minister Jonathan Coleman had been inaccurate but denied that the military had engaged in a cover-up. The Burnham Inquiry's report was released in late July 2020. While acknowledging that five people including a child had been killed during Operation Burnham, the NZ government's report concluded that the NZ Defence Force had not covered up casualties and had abided by the rules of engagement and international law.[15][16]


New Zealand military involvement in Afghanistan

During the War in Afghanistan, elements of the New Zealand Defence Force were deployed to Afghanistan's Bamyan Province in September 2003 as part of the New Zealand Provincial Reconstruction Team and remained there until 2012. The New Zealand PRT provided regular military patrols across the province, advised and supported the provincial governor, and participated in developmental projects.[17][18] In addition, the elite New Zealand Special Air Service (NZSAS) saw action during the United States–led invasion of Afghanistan between December 2001 and November 2005.[19]

According to the investigative journalists Nicky Hager and Jon Stephenson, the New Zealand provincial reconstruction team also gathered intelligence about groups and elements who were hostile to the International Security Assistance Force including the Taliban insurgency. While Bamyan province was relatively quiet during the early 2000s, New Zealand forces encountered a string of attacks from 2008 onwards including, roadside bombs in March and November 2008, and an ambush involving guns and rocket-propelled grenades in June 2009.[20] Between September 2009 and 31 March 2012, the NZSAS was deployed as part of counterinsurgency operations in the greater Kabul region in support of the Afghan Interior Ministry's Crisis Response Unit (Task Force 24).[21][22][23][24] During their second deployment, NZSAS forces operated from Camp Warehouse, a military base on the eastern outskirts of Kabul.[25]

On 3 August 2010, Lieutenant Tim O'Donnell of the Bamyan provincial reconstruction team was killed by a roadside bomb while his unit was traveling through Karimak village.[26] While there had been similar attacks in the previous two years, this one had resulted in the first New Zealand combat death in the Afghanistan War. According to Hager and Stephenson, O'Donnell's death generated an outpouring of grief, anger, and desire for retribution among New Zealand military personnel stationed in Afghanistan. As a result, New Zealand forces decided to hunt down the perpetrators behind O'Donnell's murder.[27]

Operational planning

Two members of the NZ Provincial Reconstruction Team in Bamiyan province in July 2009

According to Hager and Stephenson, New Zealand Defence Force and New Zealand Security Intelligence Service (NZSIS) intelligence officers used a mixture of local Afghan informants and an electronic eavesdropping station at Kiwi Base in Bamyan to gather intelligence on a list of nine suspected "Mujahideen" fighters: Maulawi Naimatullah, Qari Miraj, Abdullah Kalta, Qari Musa, Maulawi Alawuddin, Maulawi Anwar, Abdul Ghafar, Islmuddin, and Qari Latif. Three of the insurgents—Maulawi Naimatullah, Abdullah Kalta, and Maulawi Anwar—came from Naik village in the Tirgiran Valley. A fourth insurgent, Abdul Ghafar, came from Khak Khuday Dad village in the Tirgiran valley. NZSAS officers lobbied the United States military authorities to add these Afghan fighters to the Joint Prioritized Effects List, a capture or kill list for coalition personnel based in Afghanistan.[28]

Planning for Operation Burnham took place during the first weeks of August 2010. The NZSAS's Afghan partners, the Crisis Response Unit, were briefed about the operation but were not informed about the destinations being targeted. According to Hager and Stephenson, the Chief of the NZDF Lieutenant-General Jerry Mateparae and the Defence Minister Wayne Mapp visited the NZSAS base Camp Warehouse during that period and were privy to the final stages of the preparations for Operation Burnham. Mapp and Mateparae also briefed Prime Minister John Key about the planned operation by telephone. The authors have asserted that the Prime Minister gave approval for Operation Burnham to go ahead. Lieutenant-General Mateparae and NZSAS senior officers also watched a live video of Operation Burnham.[29] In addition, the NZSAS lobbied for a US surveillance plane to conduct a surveillance flight over the Tirgiran valley prior to Operation Burnham. They also made arrangements for US Apache helicopter gunships to provide aerial support during the raids.[30]

According to Hager and Stephenson, Operation Burnham followed the blueprint used for many special forces operations in Afghanistan. The raid would involve encircling the target location with troops, including spotters and snipers on high lookouts, and then sending assault teams to storm the buildings in order to capture or kill the targets. Anyone who tried to escape would be picked off by the surrounding snipers or by Apache helicopter gunships. Operation Burnham's targets were the three insurgents: Maulawi Naimatullah and Abdullah Kalta of Naik; and Abdul Ghafar of Khak Khuday Dad. The authors speculated that the raid was named after Burnham Camp near Christchurch, where Lieutenant O'Donnelll had been based.[31]

The raid

Nicky Hager, one of the co-authors of the book Hit and Run.

Hager and Stephenson's version

Hager and Stephenson's version of the events of Operation Burnham is covered in the third chapter of their 2017 book Hit & Run. On the evening 21 August 2010, 60–70 NZSAS and Afghan CRU troops traveled in two US Chinook helicopters from Camp Warehouse to Kiwi Base in Bamyan province. After midnight, the two helicopters flew to the Tirgiran Valley; with one heading to Naik and the other heading to Khak Khuday Dad. In addition, a third US Blackhawk helicopter, carrying NZSAS troops, arrived in the Tirgiran Valley as the advanced guard. According to interviews of former NZSAS and CRU personnel by Hager and Stephenson, most of the personnel involved in Operation Burnham were NZSAS personnel with the Afghan personnel being there for back up and to provide an "Afghan face" to the operation, so that it could be officially claimed that the raid was a joint Afghan and coalition operation.[32]

Around 12:30 am on 22 August, the Blackhawk helicopter landed several NZSAS sniper teams near Khak Khuday Dad and Naik villages, which moved to their lookout points. About 1 am, the first Chinook helicopter arrived at Khak Khuday Dan and landed its assault force. The NZSAS and CRU troops reportedly exchanged fire with individuals believed to be insurgents. Shortly later, Apache gunships bombarded the village's buildings. According to Hager and Stephenson, the NZSAS and CRU commandos did not attempt to stop the attack. They also did not search the houses or check if any of the inhabitants needed assistance. Instead, they received orders by radio to travel to the next target Naik.[33]

Shortly after 1 am, the second Chinook landed at the edge of Naik village. The NZSAS and CRU troops were divided into assault teams consisting of five to ten persons who were dispatched to different targets in the village. The assault teams assigned to Abdullah Kalta and Maulawi Naimatullah's houses found that their targets had escaped. Unable to capture or eliminate the targets, the NZSAS commandos instead destroyed the insurgents' houses and the home of Naimatullah's father, who reportedly disapproved of his son's involvement in the Taliban. The NZSAS troops found only civilians including elderly people, women, and children in the remaining houses in the village. NZSAS forces also seized some ammunition including bullets and rocket-propelled grenades and later destroyed the building they were being housed in.[34] According to Hager and Stephenson, the insurgents had already retreated to the high pastures, following a long-standing Mujaheddin practice dating back to the Soviet–Afghan War of retreating to the mountains following hit-and-run attacks on Soviet forces.[35]

Following the ground assault, US Apache helicopters strafed Naik village. Hager and Stephenson have asserted that the NZSAS troops had called the helicopters in despite knowing that there were no insurgents in the village and suggest that the commandos were motivated by a desire to avenge O'Donnell's death. One of the NZSAS commandos was reportedly wounded seriously when a wall hit by an Apache rocket collapsed on him. The wounded NZSAS commando was evacuated by his comrades aboard the Blackhawk helicopter. Two men fleeing Naik village were also shot down by an Apache helicopter. According to Hager and Stephenson, the Afghan CRU commandos encountered wounded civilians from Khak Khuday Dan and provided medical assistance. However, the NZSAS troops did not attempt to render medical assistance to the civilians. About two hours after 1 am, the NZSAS and CRU troops evacuated aboard their helicopters and returned to Camp Warehouse in Kabul.[36]

Further reading

Hager, Nicky; Stephenson, Jon (2017). Hit & Run: The New Zealand SAS in Afghanistan and the meaning of honour. Nelson, New Zealand: Potton & Burton. ISBN 9780947503390.

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  1. https://web.archive.org/web/20200724084601/https://thespinoff.co.nz/politics/21-03-2017/new-hager-book-is-hit-run-the-new-zealand-sas-in-afghanistan-and-the-meaning-of-honour/
  2. a b https://web.archive.org/web/20180819045607/http://www.scoop.co.nz/stories/PA1804/S00124/approval-for-inquiry-into-operation-burnham.htm
  3. https://web.archive.org/web/20200716110305/http://www.nzdf.mil.nz/downloads/pdf/public-docs/2018/op_b_information_pack_v2b.pdf
  4. Hager and Stephenson 2017, p. backcover,14-136.
  5. https://web.archive.org/web/20200131163200/https://www.nzherald.co.nz/nz/news/article.cfm?c_id=1&objectid=11827661
  6. https://web.archive.org/web/20200630003418/https://www.stuff.co.nz/national/102239531/defence-force-admits-books-location-right-but-denies-civilian-casualties%7C
  7. https://web.archive.org/web/20180808050541/https://www.nzherald.co.nz/nz/news/article.cfm?c_id=1&objectid=12011853
  8. https://web.archive.org/web/20180808050541/https://www.nzherald.co.nz/nz/news/article.cfm?c_id=1&objectid=12011853
  9. https://web.archive.org/web/20191114011135/https://www.stuff.co.nz/national/politics/90868532/bill-english-says-sas-inquiry-unlikely-after-defence-force-attacks-hit-and-run-inaccuracies
  10. https://web.archive.org/web/20200630014024/https://www.tvnz.co.nz/one-news/new-zealand/government-hold-inquiry-operation-burnham-after-allegations-in-book-hit-run
  11. https://web.archive.org/web/20190212050338/https://www.radionz.co.nz/news/national/378821/govt-inquiry-into-operation-burnham-will-be-mostly-secret
  12. https://web.archive.org/web/20190206004950/https://www.nzherald.co.nz/nz/news/article.cfm?c_id=1&objectid=12181088
  13. https://www.nzherald.co.nz/nz/news/article.cfm?c_id=1&objectid=12241409
  14. https://web.archive.org/web/20190925150948/https://www.rnz.co.nz/news/political/392231/operation-burnham-inquiry-gcsb-failed-to-hand-over-more-than-100-000-emails
  15. https://web.archive.org/web/20200731053316/https://www.rnz.co.nz/news/national/422439/operation-burnham-report-nzdf-deeply-sorry-for-misleading-ministers-and-public
  16. https://web.archive.org/web/20200731053316/https://www.rnz.co.nz/news/national/422439/operation-burnham-report-nzdf-deeply-sorry-for-misleading-ministers-and-public
  17. https://web.archive.org/web/20200206000521/https://teara.govt.nz/en/armed-forces/page-4
  18. Hager and Stephenson 2017, pp. 9–11.
  19. Crosby 2009, pp. 351–390.
  20. Hager and Stephenson 2017, pp. 11–12.
  21. https://web.archive.org/web/20200116233553/http://army.mil.nz/downloads/pdf/army-news/armynews430.pdf
  22. https://web.archive.org/web/20180413203238/http://www.stuff.co.nz/national/3257154/Key-broke-pledge-on-Kiwis-in-battle
  23. https://web.archive.org/web/20180413124901/http://www.nzdf.mil.nz/news/media-releases/2012/20120403-jwdnzsas.htm
  24. https://web.archive.org/web/20181106133403/http://www.sof.news/afghanistan/crisis-response-unit
  25. Hager and Stephenson 2017, p. 24.
  26. https://web.archive.org/web/20200527134551/http://www.stuff.co.nz/vl-push/world/3989301/Soldier-Tim-O-Donnell-killed-in-Afghanistan
  27. Hager and Stephenson 2017, pp. 16–18.
  28. Hager and Stephenson 2017, pp. 18–26.
  29. Hager and Stephenson 2017, pp. 27–31.
  30. Hager and Stephenson 2017, p. 26.
  31. Hager and Stephenson 2017, pp. 32–33, 36.
  32. Hager and Stephenson 2017, pp. 32–35, 40.
  33. Hager and Stephenson 2017, pp. 36–37.
  34. Hager and Stephenson 2017, pp. 38–40.
  35. Hager and Stephenson 2017, pp. 30–31.
  36. Hager and Stephenson 2017, pp. 41–45.

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