New Zealand soldiers have been on the ground in Afghanistan for more than 15 years. But our involvement in the war has recently been dragged once more into the spotlight, following the publication of Hit & Run. The book alleges a raid was launched by the NZ SAS in retaliation for the death of a Kiwi soldier, killed by a roadside bomb. According to the authors, the raid resulted in the deaths in a number of Afghan civilians.
VICE spoke to a New Zealander who served in the one of the British army's elite units around just after the NZ SAS raid took place. John Anderson was a paratrooper and saw a decent amount of combat in his tour. While he didn't have any direct involvement in the raid in question, he's offered up some perspective on the environment and pressures faced by soldiers in Afghanistan. Jamie Wall sat down to talk about it over a few beers in Brisbane, where he now calls home.
What was your role in the conflict?
I was on Operation Herrick 13 with the 3rd Parachute Battalion, which was a British operation. That was from November 2010 to April 2011. I was a machine gunner in an infantry platoon.
How did you, a Kiwi, end up in the British Army?
I'd served in the NZ Army and wanted to see a bit more of the world. I ended up in the UK and joined the Paras.
You were involved in contact with insurgents?
Yeah. We were in Helmand Province, which is where all the opium is cultivated. The Taliban had a huge presence there because they wanted to get a finger in the financial pie from the drug trade. So there was a lot of insurgent activity, the Taliban had pretty good funding and their own radio system. Lots of IEDs (Improvised Explosive Devices).
Was that the biggest threat?
Yeah. We couldn't really combat them because often they'd use low metal content, which made it hard to identify them with minesweepers. So that was the main threat, but then there was also them just attacking us.
Part of the conjecture about the NZSAS raid was that it was done in retaliation for an IED attack that killed a Kiwi soldier. How did you guys feel when an IED would cause casualties?
It's the most demoralising thing you can ever experience. You're out there with your mates and all of a sudden a huge explosion goes off, you could have a guy lose a limb or half a dozen getting blown up. That's the reality. So when something like that happens, you respond with force to counter the threat. If someone attacks you, you attack back—it's just the way that it works in any military situation. It's the fundamentals of war, if you get on the back foot, they'll overwhelm you.
That was the case when 3 Para arrived in our area of operations. The previous regiment had allowed the Taliban to push their influence right in, they were afraid to patrol. The Taliban could then set up IEDs closer to them, so they'd actually made it more dangerous for themselves.
When we took over the area of operations, from day one we made sure we were going to take ground back and we weren't going to be intimidated by IED threats. When you get hit with an IED you have to retaliate, you have to take back the initiative. That's your job and that's what you're there to do.
Was it standard practice to find the specific person responsible?
We didn't have access to the intel to identify certain bombmakers. That's a very technical process that takes up a lot of resources, for us on the ground it was too difficult to determine who was making the IEDs. We just had to counter attack and make sure that we were doing our best to cover the ground.
What do you think about a government inquiry into allegations of war crimes? How should the NZ government respond when stuff like this happens?
The government can't be indifferent in the face of the allegations, despite them not being proven. To accuse the NZDF of war crimes is a huge allegation, and one that must be met with concrete evidence. However, the nature of the circumstances, being an insurgency with a combined force operation, make it difficult for me to see any prosecution as a result.
Did you have any firefights that involved close air support?
Coming towards the end of our tour we were patrolling through an area that was a prime target for an ambush. We found ourselves in one, getting engaged in numerous fire positions. We dropped down and fought them off as best we could, and during that we had an Apache come in and provided support with Hellfire missiles. It was a British one and we'd called it in, but often they'd be operating completely independently, identifying their own targets and engaging.
Are they pretty accurate with what they're targeting?
The Apaches were, definitely. Because they're there, just above the ground, they can see what they're firing at. If you give them a target, generally they'll be accurate - compared to calling in other ordnance like a bomb from a jet, or artillery and mortar rounds. On one of our operations a friend of mine and fellow Kiwi in my unit, John "Jack" Howard, was killed by a bomb dropped from an American jet.
So in a perfect support situation, you'd call in a helicopter?
Yeah. If you've got the option of that or artillery, you taking the Hellfire missiles or the whatever guns they've got, because they can see what they're shooting at.
Did you ever call in air support from the US Army or Air Force?
Yeah, we called in a couple of assets from the Yanks. One was tankbuster (A-10 Warthog), which was so inaccurate they passed over the target six times and couldn't take it out. We had to go in and finish it off ourselves, even gave first aid to one guy who had survived the airstrike.
Basically if any ISAF-aligned airframe (plane of helicopter) was flying in our AO, it was at our disposal. We were all there, all sharing our resources.
So given your own experiences, and putting aside all the conjecture about what actually happened on the NZSAS raid, can you relate to the situation that they were in? Would you put it down to just shit going wrong?
Yeah, absolutely. The unfortunate reality with Afghanistan, that a lot of people don't understand, is that it's called a war but it shouldn't be. It's an insurgency.
There is no conventional front line with like, the Germans on one side and the Allies on the other. You've got an enemy that's hiding within the population that can mask themselves as civilians. Because of that they've got a huge advantage. They can engage you as civilians – we had a patrol once were we stopped at a village and drank tea with the locals. Those same people started shooting at us as soon as we left the village. That was a pretty eye-opening experience and probably the prime example of what it's like in an insurgency.
Did you feel like everyone was an enemy?
Well you have to. It's like how you have to treat everyone on the road driving as a potential idiot. But you have to execute this 'hearts and minds' strategy, getting out and shaking their hands and gathering information. It's very hard to achieve anything, very frustrating.
All images supplied.
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