Long-shelved report is summarised and analysed by David Fisher

For three years, the NZ Defence Force resisted releasing a report that was highly critical of the operation of its Provincial Reconstruction Team in Afghanistan.

When the report was eventually released, it came with a statement from 39-year army veteran Major General Tim Gall that it had been shelved because it was "insufficiently accurate" to be fit for purpose.

That purpose was intended to be finding lessons from what was done in Afghanistan that would help NZDF improve on future missions.

Instead, Gall said the conclusions "diverged quite markedly from those of other, more experienced, on-the-ground observers".

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It wasn't a case of attacking the independence of the reviewers, he said. Instead, it was "self-contradictions" in the report and a practice of listing as "issues" matters that were "actually unremarkable or mere 'business-as-usual' irritations".

In a letter to the Herald, Gall listed a number of criticisms about some findings but stated: "Similar observations apply to many, if not most, of all the other issues raised."

And yet, there is no other review or inquiry into our decade in Bamiyan province in Afghanistan.

The lack of one contrasts with the principles in the Defence Force's "doctrine" publication, which establishes a code of practice by which the military operates.

NZDF's doctrine publication stated: "These principles are extracted from the history of skirmishes, battles, campaigns, and wars, and more specifically, drawn from lessons learned in stalemates, defeats, and victories.

The principal purpose of military doctrine, therefore, is to provide the armed forces with guidance for the conduct of operations."

These 10 points are a summary of the criticisms in the report, alongside NZDF's position on the issues where possible. The titles for the lessons and the analysis are the Herald's.

One: No plan and too much meddling from HQ and the Beehive

The report: It stated there was a "lack of a cohesive campaign plan for New Zealand's operations in Afghanistan". That included "objectives, milestones and end state".

"It was felt no consolidated New Zealand campaign plan existed," it stated. The 21 deployments to Afghanistan did not appear to be linked up and operated as individual operations with a "lack of clarity" over what was to be achieved long-term.

There was also "a feeling from deployed commanders" that mission command - the freedom of commanders to command - "was not exercised".

It meant there were "decisions being taken by ministers and HQ JFNZ [Joint Forces HQ]" that should have been devolved to commanders in Bamiyan.

NZDF said: That ignored the J8's own assessment of milestones which had been achieved said Gall. It also "ignores all the information in the public domain in New Zealand" which made it clear the PRT would develop local infrastructure, develop schools and support/train local authorities and protect the electoral process.

Analysis: It appears the evaluation team could not find a campaign plan among NZDF documents. NZDF appears to say it didn't need one because there was enough information in the media and from other public sources.

In the earlier phase of the deployment, NZ troops from the Provincial Reconstruction Team patrolled the area in unarmoured four-wheel drives as in this image from 2009. Photo / Supplied
In the earlier phase of the deployment, NZ troops from the Provincial Reconstruction Team patrolled the area in unarmoured four-wheel drives as in this image from 2009. Photo / Supplied

Two: We didn't know where we fit in

The report: While New Zealand was seen as having a good relationship with coalition partners, this was "frequently at an informal, personal level". "There was a lack of appreciation of how small New Zealand's role is for the coalition or how New Zealand fits in with the bigger picture." NZDF personnel found it "challenging" working in the coalition structure with "a general lack of experience and understanding of the processes and technical requirements".

The New Zealand mission needed to rely on coalition partners for equipment and other resources needed "which places a strain on coalition relationships and creates operational risks".

NZDF said: "It would be surprised if they did not" find it challenging but NZDF's people "more than held their own", said Gall. The lack of resources referred to "such capabilities as air support and air transport". "The Defence Force is not in a position to spend very large sums on ... close air support, surveillance drones and medevac helicopters". Being able to use partners' equipment was an argument for joining coalitions.

Analysis: The coalition was a very large machine in which New Zealand could have easily been lost. We simply can't afford to bring in all the equipment needed in a modern war.

New Zealand's troops were known for building relationships with the local community. They are pictured here in a tug-of-war against a local team. Supplied / Eric Mehler
New Zealand's troops were known for building relationships with the local community. They are pictured here in a tug-of-war against a local team. Supplied / Eric Mehler

Three: She'll be right

The report: Personnel were not following established procedures, it said. "This is a wide-ranging problem in New Zealand, not limited to NZDF. There is a strong 'she'll be right' culture evident. The report said "increasing inexperience and/or a loss of institutional knowledge at all levels" could be seen in accounting, document handling, awareness of improvised explosive devices (IEDs), security and supplies.

It also noted senior staff and leaders needed guidance on operational security before doing media interviews - an issue highlighted in connection with the mission to take New Zealand's Light Armoured Vehicles from Bamiyan to Bagram airbase before the PRT pulled out in April 2013.

NZDF said: "Neither my predecessors or I agree in the slightest with this [she'll be right] assertion," said Gall. A lack of formality on operations was not a sign of complacency, he said. On IEDs, he said personnel were "increasingly aware" along with the need to rehearse procedures to "maintain personal and unit security". It's hard to maintain maximum alertness levels but the lesson was "the difficult absolutely must be overcome".

Analysis: The Auditor-General found in 2013 the "civilianisation" project over the previous few years had affected NZDF's capability and morale. Other inquiry reports have also criticised deviation from procedures. On IEDs, after the August 2010 death of Lieutenant Tim O'Donnell, it is hard to imagine anyone not taking the deadly devices seriously.

Four: Information is power


The report: There was "little awareness of events outside the immediate area of operations" which was further complicated by delays in getting security clearances, said the report. There was poor management of information gathered over the decade-long life of the mission, making it difficult to search for and find information.

NZDF said: The claim of a lack of awareness was "simply in error", said Gall. The report attributes to commanders of the Bamiyan deployment the comment that "no information management system was available for the initial deployment". He said future missions needed a proper system for the storage of information.

Analysis: It would have complicated matters having 21 deployments over 10 years and no easy way for successive commanders to access files and information from their predecessors.

Five: Under pressure

The report: Personnel were being sent to Afghanistan "without meeting minimum individual readiness requirements". The "large number of previous rotations to Afghanistan" meant "an overall shortage of personnel" who could go and "very few personnel" to fill jobs that needed filling.

Personnel were put into roles that were either too challenging, or jobs for which they were overqualified, affecting morale, the report stated.

NZDF said: The office of the Chief of Staff said issues around finding the right people for the job had been consistently raised.

Analysis: NZDF found itself under increasing pressure as the mission in Bamiyan stretched out to a decade. During this time, the "civilianisation" project saw experienced staff leave in great numbers. It would have added unwelcome difficulty to an already difficult situation.

The aim of the New Zealand Defence Force's deployment to Bamyan was to rebuild infrastructure and promote peace and security.
The aim of the New Zealand Defence Force's deployment to Bamyan was to rebuild infrastructure and promote peace and security.

Six: Looking after your people

The report: A number of issues were raised which could have affected staff sent to Afghanistan. Some were as simple as providing quality boots - personnel had to buy their own after those supplied failed to cope with rough conditions. Other issues included personnel sent abroad being charged interest on student loans because they left the country. It also found welfare for deployed personnel was good but "procedures with families and comms technology could be improved".

NZDF said: Soldiers interviewed by the Herald noted that boots had been an issue for soldiers for as long as there had been armies. They also said worn springs could be managed by loading fewer bullets so as to put less pressure on springs.

Analysis: Boots were an issue throughout the deployment with several different types tried. Given the broad impact, a determined project to find a solution would have resolved an issue that affected all.

As the security situation degraded, New Zealand bolstered its security with Light Armoured Vehicles.
As the security situation degraded, New Zealand bolstered its security with Light Armoured Vehicles.

Seven: Strangers in a strange land

The report: It said those using interpreters needed different training. It wasn't simply a matter of getting them to interact with the local population but to navigate "cultural complexities and internal hierarchies". "Training options need to be reviewed."

There was also a lack of a language policy to identify the levels of competence needed depending on the roles assigned to personnel. It also stated there was a "perceived inequality between local staff" with some able to move to New Zealand while others working with NZDF personnel were not.

NZDF said: The report stated the change to training was "currently under action". There appears to be no challenge to this. On interpreters, NZDF appeared to concede that "planning for missions should include an exit strategy and part of that strategy must include what to do with our loyal support".

Analysis: A perceived strength of NZDF personnel was the ability to build connections and relationships with the local community. It makes sense to support this.

This was
This was "PT Hill" - the well-worn track above Kiwi Base that was NZDF personnel's "physical training" route.

Eight: Home away from home

The report: There is strong criticism of the facilities available for the 100-plus NZDF personnel who spent their six-month deployments in Bamiyan. "The infrastructure and facilities available for deployed mission personnel were of a poor standard given the length of time available for improvements to be made."

It said part of the problem was "renewing mission mandates yearly", meaning there was no anticipation of a mission developing to become a long-term deployment. The report said the problem had been seen in other deployments, citing Timor Leste. It should be assumed, it said, that there would be multiple extensions to the mission.

NZDF said: The Communication and Information Systems branch (J6) said: "An altitude/mindset change may be required."

Analysis: The initial deployment to Afghanistan was never anticipated to last the decade it did. The criticism suggests the lack of work upgrading facilities means little consideration was given to how it was extending even as it did on an annual basis.

Afghan children run to a firing range to collect the expended brass after a live-fire exercise in 2013.
Afghan children run to a firing range to collect the expended brass after a live-fire exercise in 2013.

Nine: Train for war

The report: It found non-army staff sent to landlocked Afghanistan did not have a good understanding of army systems. Also, weapon-handling by air force and navy specialist officers was "substandard and dangerous at times".

There was also concern personnel were tasked to use equipment in Afghanistan they could not train on at home, such the United States' Humvees.
Another focus for training needed to be "mortuary affairs" - those who could deal with personnel who had died while on deployment. The report says there is a lack of qualified people.

NZDF said: In terms of non-army services, it was "not be resolved until NZDF have a single-service mentality", said the officer commanding the Central Training Centre. However, it says there should be scrutiny of weapon skills at the point of being nominated for deployment.

Analysis: After a decade in a landlocked country, there should have been some way of improving the skills of non-army personnel. Humvee training has been previously recommended in a report into the death of a soldier killed while on board one.

On mortuary affairs, personnel killed in combat have been returned to New Zealand with live grenades on their person. Can you send people to war if you don't have the capability to manage their remains if the worst happens?

Eight New Zealanders lost their lives during our 10-year deployment to Bamyan. This was the moment Private Kirifi Mila began his journey home in early 2011. Photo / Supplied.
Eight New Zealanders lost their lives during our 10-year deployment to Bamyan. This was the moment Private Kirifi Mila began his journey home in early 2011. Photo / Supplied.

Ten: You need weapons in a war

The report: There was poor management and distribution of infrared sights used for night-fighting and advanced combat sights for rifles, meaning not enough were available. There were also issues with weapons, with the issued rifles suffering weakened springs, causing bullets not to load and the rifle to jam.

NZDF said: The issue around equipment shortages "may be regarded as lessons to be learned", said Gall. A veteran interviewed said issues with rifle magazine springs were common and New Zealand troops experienced attitude issues in Vietnam. Loading fewer bullets into a magazine placed less pressure on the springs. Personnel also needed to enforce discipline to unload magazines on return to base to avoid placing excessive wear on the spring.

Analysis: There should be no issue with weapons for personnel sent into a war zone.

WHO WROTE THE REPORT?

The only review done after New Zealand's decade-long mission to Afghanistan didn't come out of some forgotten branch office of the military.

It was developed by the part of NZDF known as J8, one of the sections of its joint command division - otherwise known as Headquarters Joint Forces New Zealand. Other sections are known, for example, as J2 (intelligence) or J5 (plans).

The command division exists to run NZDF operations worldwide. It was created in 2001 when the military began to move from three historically separate branches of air force, army and navy to a cohesive command structure for the entire NZDF.

Across the structure sits the Commander Joint Forces New Zealand, currently Gall, who has served 39 years in the army.

Gall has four separate groups to support his work: one overseeing command, one for plans and development, one for operations and another for support.

The J8 section is focused on evaluating the way every part of NZDF operates. It also develops "doctrine", or the tried-and-tested way for NZDF to operate in almost every situation. Its "doctrine" publication is almost the Bible for our military. It tells personnel how to "think" almost as much as how to "do".

So the authors of the report worked at the nerve centre of New Zealand's military, which had just been reconfigured to provide NZDF with the best possible advice.

The mission to Afghanistan was to be its first under its new structure.

What's more, they drew on expertise from other parts of the military for the review. The two evaluation team members drew in a staff member from "training and doctrine" and one from the Defence Technology Agency.

The four reviewers set out to review the Provincial Reconstruction Team to "capture lessons to influence future operations, training doctrine and capability development".

They did so, according to the report, through extensive interviews with "additional material from documents and direct observations ... also used to corroborate the information wherever possible".

So far, so thorough - but they also checked their work. It was "validated and developed collaboratively with Subject Matter Experts".

Yet, in the end, it was deemed "insufficiently accurate to be signed, accepted and circulated".