29 Mar 2012

Call for debate on SAS involvement in Afghanistan

9:18 am on 29 March 2012

As the SAS prepares to pull out of Afganistan, there are calls for a public debate over why New Zealand's elite soldiers were there for so long.

The Special Air Service officially finishes its deployment on Saturday. Critics say it has been shrouded in secrecy and now is the time to investigate what it has been involved in.


In 2009, the SAS took over the task of mentoring Afghanistan's Crisis Response Unit in the capital Kabul and is responsible for dealing with attacks by insurgents.

Labour's Foreign Affairs spokesperson Phil Goff says people need to be informed as to why the soldiers were there so long.

Mr Goff told Radio New Zealand's Morning Report on Thursday he understands the need for confidentiality while SAS teams are deployed, but now they are heading home there is no reason to continue the secrecy.

"The arguments around why the troops were sent back there and why they were still there 11 years after we first sent them in, that is part of the public debate - and that's the debate that the Government should engage in."

Mr Goff says the length of time New Zealand troops were in Afghanistan is longer than the country's involvement in the First and Second World Wars combined.

Investigative journalist Nicky Hager says SAS operations have been shrouded in secrecy and says an inquiry is long overdue.

"For years we've been told that we can't debate what they've done and we can't know the detail of their deployment because it would endanger the troops on the ground.

"That changes the second that they come back and they're finally home again. What should be happening from now on is that New Zealand should have its long-delayed parliamentary investigation and serious public inquiry into what they were doing there."

Plenty of transparency, says minister


Defence Minister Jonathan Coleman says there has been plenty of transparency around the SAS operations and the unit has been universally praised for its work.

"The work of the SAS there has led to an improvement in the security situation in Kabul over a long period of time.

"Obviously, there are risks in Afghanistan, obviously it's not a stable nation from the point of view of security and ongoing incidents.

"But there's no question that things are a lot better there than when the SAS were first deployed."

Dr Coleman says he does not anticipate further discussion of those operations, as it could risk future deployments.

Two killed, one honoured

Two SAS soldiers have been killed in Afghanistan during their deployment, while another won the Victoria Cross.

Corporal Douglas Grant was killed on 19 August last year, when he was hit by a bullet fired by an insurgent during an attack in Kabul.

Lance Corporal Leon Smith died on 28 September last year while securing a compound during a joint Afghan Crisis Response Unit and SAS operation.

Corporal Willie Apiata was awarded the Victoria Cross in July 2007 for bravery under fire during the Afghanistan conflict in 2004.