David Fisher

David Fisher is a senior reporter for the NZ Herald.

Training for army fighters blasted

Report says troops left ill-prepared for Afghan mission where five were killed

Exercises such as this one (with an acting tribal chief) were supposed to train the troops and their commanders for situations they would face in Afghanistan. Photo / Supplied
Exercises such as this one (with an acting tribal chief) were supposed to train the troops and their commanders for situations they would face in Afghanistan. Photo / Supplied

A leaked report has strongly criticised the training given to an army contingent sent to Afghanistan which lost five of its members in combat.

The Defence Force has admitted the group left New Zealand with gaps in their training.

The report was written by a sergeant in military intelligence who reviewed the group's preparation in Hawkes Bay, where the troops performed exercises simulating situations they were likely to encounter in Bamiyan province.

His report to senior officers identified problems in command, logistics and planning, and also criticised the attitude of commanders and lower ranks.

It highlighted the aggressive stance of one senior officer with a tactical role, who neglected relationship-building skills with Afghan locals, which are always highly prized as a critical part of New Zealand's ability to maintain calm in Bamiyan.

The report quoted a soldier saying the officer "wants to turn Bamiyan into a more war-fighting role".

The contingent lost five soldiers last August - the worst loss of life the New Zealand military has suffered since the Vietnam War.

Lance Corporals Rory Malone and Pralli Durrer died in a firefight. Two weeks later, an explosive device killed Corporal Luke Tamatea, Lance Corporal Jacinda Baker and Private Richard Harris.

The military intelligence sergeant, a specialist in countering the threat of such devices, said some training during the Hawkes Bay exercise - codenamed Afghan Step - should have been done even before the group began the pre-deployment phase.

His report also raised concerns about the soldiers' training in tactical techniques designed to draw opponents into an ambush.

It said Kiwi Company's "blatant failure to respect and adhere to rules of engagement [during training] showed ... a lack of respect for command, lack of situational awareness and professional callowness".

The Defence Force confirmed yesterday that the report is part of the court of inquiry investigation into August's deaths.

It said in a statement that the sergeant who wrote the report was among a mentor group of 23 overseeing the exercise.

The NZDF also admitted that the contingent of more than 100 defence staff left New Zealand with gaps in their preparation and needed more training in Afghanistan.

It said additional training had been needed for the group, known as "Crib 20", in light of feedback gathered during the Hawkes Bay training.

"While there is always a requirement for some level of in-theatre/country-specific training for any mission, this in-theatre training also addressed the areas identified for further training," it said.

The contingent got the additional training in Afghanistan and was "independently assessed as capable" before taking over Kiwi Base.

"Crib 20 personnel were focused, positive and ready to get on with the job," the Defence Force's statement said.

The NZDF also cautioned against reading the sergeant's report in isolation. The "bulk of the comments "did not appear in the overall report into training, completed the day after the exercise finished, it said.

"It should also be noted that it was the first time that the author of those comments had observed a PDT [pre-deployment] exercise."

The Defence Force said its training systems were reviewed and benchmarked against other countries' forces.

It said Exercise Afghan Step had changed significantly in the years it had been running to meet the environment and changing threat level.

"All current and past Crib contingent commanders and key staff have all commented both formally and informally on the value and conduct of this key training activity," the NZDF's statement said.

Yesterday, Labour Party defence spokesman Iain Lees-Galloway called on Defence Minister Jonathan Coleman to give an assurance that budget constraints had not impacted on training and placed lives at risk.

Mr Lees-Galloway said huge changes at the Defence Force over the past three years appeared to have had a harmful impact on it.

"The government has put NZDF under extreme and unreasonable pressure to cut costs, and safety appears to have been compromised, which is a tragedy but sadly predictable.

"There has to be some honesty about all the factors that led to the shortcomings in the report. That includes funding issues."

Dr Coleman's office refused comment, although a spokesman said the minister had been briefed by the Defence Force on the report.

The director of the Centre for Strategic Studies at Victoria University, Professor Robert Ayson, said training could not prepare soldiers for everything. "In war, things go wrong."

He said armed forces around the world were often better at learning lessons than implementing them.

"For a small force, this has been several years of pretty high tempo," Professor Ayson said.

"That has, at times, seen significant strain on the organisation. We're dealing with an organisation that has been pretty lean, even before the changes."

- NZ Herald

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