By Ian Wishart
There’s an old Arabic curse which loosely translates : ‘May the fleas of a thousand camels invade the crotch of the person that ruins your day. And may their arms be too short to scratch’.
As “Hit and Run” authors Nicky Hager and Jon Stephenson furiously scratch for evidence that their NZSAS story stacks up, they must be wondering at their bad run of luck. A week ago they were media darlings, having dumped a new book on the media in a carefully staged news circus at 5pm, meaning journalists effectively flooded the evening news cycle with nothing more than the contents of a self-aggrandising press release. It was, as the book’s title honestly admitted, a hit and run – with the media and the public the unwitting victims.
Fast forward a week, and the news media are looking increasingly embarrassed at having fallen for Hager and Stephenson’s story so uncritically.
The battle front shifted decidedly this week when Lt Gen Tim Keating, head of NZDF, put his neck on the chopping block and showed how Hager and Stephenson had named two villages – Naik and Khak Khuday Dad, that NZSAS had never actually been to and which were actually two kilometres north of the village the SAS hit, across a couple of mountain ranges. Ergo, whoever was killed in those villages, including three year old Fatima, it cannot have been the fault of NZSAS.
Hager spat the dummy, telling the NZ Herald he was “100% certain” that the info he had published in his book was correct, and that NZDF were wrong.
“It is actually impossible that the story is wrong.”
Big words. Brave words. Wrong words. Luckily, there are still some journalists in the media capable of reading a map without the assistance of the nice woman from Google Navigate. Heather du Plessis Allan is one of those, and she dug out a previous documentary by Jon Stephenson where he never mentioned the two villages named in his book, and instead named the Tirgiran village that NZDF insist the raid took place in.
“Hang on,” said du Plessis Allan and her husband Barry Soper, “what gives? Why are the names different?”
“I spoke to Jon Stephenson a couple of minutes ago,” Soper told Newstalk ZB, “and he admitted that he might have been ‘confused’ about the villages.”
Du Plessis Allan was even more blunt: “It is very, very sloppy journalism by Nicky Hager and Jon Stephenson,” she told ZB. “Very sloppy journalism”.
And with that, Hager’s “100% certain” boast started to fall apart and his crotch began to itch.
Not to be left out, Richard McLeod, one of the kiwi lawyers acting for the Taliban villagers released a letter from the villagers in an “Aha!” moment, accusing NZDF of getting the names of the two villages north of the target zone wrong:
“The NZDF has stated that Operation Burnham took place in ‘Tirgiran Village’, which it claims is located 2+ kilometres south of the villages of Naik and Khak Khuday Dad … We have provided the NZDF map to our clients, together with the NZDF media release of 26 March 2017. Our clients are locals and residents of this area, and of course they know the names of the villages in which they live.
“Tirgiran is not a village, and therefore ‘Tirgiran Village’ does not exist … Tirgiran is a valley area. Naik and Khak Khuday Dad villages are in fact located within the red retangular box in the NZDF map. The identified Objectives 1 and 2 are located in Naik village. The most northern village (incorrectly named Khak Khuday Dad in the NZDF map) is in fact a village named Khakandy. The north-western village (incorrectly named Naik Village in the NZDF map) is in fact a village named Beidak.”
But hang on: NZDF’s map was based on the map published in Hit and Run, which clearly names those two northern villages as Naik and Khak Khuday Dad. It was not NZDF who got the names wrong, it was Nicky Hager and Jon Stephenson, investigative journalists.
So not only was the location of the attack in their book wrong, but the two villages they pinpointed “100% certain” as Naik and Khak Khuday Dad in their book instead turn out to be Beidak and Khakandy villages and apparently the authors now admit those villages had nothing to do with the raid.
Feeling confused? You should be.
These two media stars have single-handedly destroyed their credibility in my view by not only getting the location of the alleged crime wrong but the names of the alleged targets on their maps wrong as well.
Where does that leave us? With Hager and Stephenson wanting a million dollar taxpayer-funded independent inquiry into a shoddily-researched and shoddily written book of theirs as their last attempt to salvage their credibility.
That’s a million dollars that could be spent on healthcare for children or international aid for starving kids in Africa. Instead, the political and media establishment want to give that money to needy lawyers in this country.
At best, we will be relying on the testimony of Afghan villagers living under Taliban control who – for all we know – may well be the insurgents by night and goat-herders by day that Afghanistan is famous for.
Former Defence Minister Wayne Mapp revealed himself as a numpty today on this issue, when he admitted his famous ‘fiasco’ quote used in the book actually came about after he had viewed Jon Stephenson’s now-admitted “confused” documentary a couple of years ago. In other words, Stephenson’s version of events scared him, causing him to remark, then Hager and Stephenson quote his reaction and the hand-wringing Left have used the “fiasco” quote all week as “proof” of the former Defence Minister’s inside knowledge, when in fact it was just the Blind leading the Blind.
To be fair to Mapp, he puts it less aggressively:
“I knew that the operation had not achieved its stated aims of arresting or otherwise dealing with the people who had been identified as leading and organising Taliban operations against the PRT (Provincial Reconstruction Team). I knew this because I was formally briefed on that fact at the time. I also knew that other people had been killed. As I have said in interviews, these people were acting as insurgents, in effect acting as enemy combatants.
“As in all guerrilla war, it is often a case of villagers by day and insurgents by night. It was a reasonable and appropriate decision to engage them as they looked to be attacking the New Zealand soldiers on the ground. In such a case we have an absolute right to defend ourselves.
“But it became clear later that it was also possible there were other casualties. In particular, the death of a three year-old girl.
“This emerged in a television documentary in 2014. Stephenson also told me enough about what had happened for it to be believable that this could have occurred, even if it was not fully proven.
“The law of armed conflict accepts that civilian casualties might occur in military operations, and in many cases there is no legal liability for them, particularly if they were accidental.”
So again, Mapp didn’t know for sure that Fatima had been killed in the operation, but he trusted Stephenson and believed him. Shame he didn’t know in my view how geographically challenged Stephenson and Hager turned out to be. Mapp should have listened to his instincts…the insurgents were hiding among the villagers, who brought the risk of death upon themselves. The Middle East has a long history of insurgents deliberately hiding behind civilians.
The Taliban also have a long history of murdering villagers themselves.
Meanwhile, NZDF has hit back again, releasing further map comparisons between the actual target zone and the one portrayed in the now proven error-ridden book.
Download NZDF file here 343473829-OPERATION-BURNHAM
Somewhere, a camel is missing most of its fleas.