Evidence relied on by the NZ Defence Force to shelve a highly critical report of our decade-long deployment to Afghanistan was destroyed, it has said.

This means there are no documents left in existence to support a senior military commander's decision to refuse to accept a report which raised serious questions about the way the Defence Force ran our longest, large-scale military mission.

The Herald revealed yesterday that an expert team of evaluators from the "J8" department in Joint Forces Headquarters carried out a "lessons learned" inquiry into the way our Bamiyan mission operated.

The report contained multiple criticisms from the lack of a campaign plan through to personnel being sent to Afghanistan with boots so inadequate they eventually bought their own.

Advertisement

Compelled to release the report to the Herald, the Defence Force said it never left draft form because it was "insufficiently accurate to be released".

Yet a Herald source with close knowledge of the report said the only concerns raised about the report were over the media obtaining a copy.

The Defence Force is under considerable pressure over how straightforward it has been with the public after evidence emerged of civilian casualties in an SAS raid, contradicting statements made by the military.

The "shelved" report is the only review ever carried after our 10-year deployment to Bamiyan province which cost eight lives from more than 3500 personnel who served there in a mission that cost about $300 million.

The Herald sought the report in early 2014 shortly after it had been submitted in a draft form but it took until last December for it to be released with a letter from Commander Joint Forces NZ, Major General Tim Gall, saying it had not been accepted because of accuracy concerns.

When the Herald sought evidence supporting the claims of inaccuracy, the Defence Force said it no longer existed.

The Defence Chief of Staff, Royal NZ Navy Commodore Ross Smith, told the Herald "there are no further documents that I can send you".

He said the only existing criticisms are the notes which appeared with some of the criticisms in the draft report. "You will note that many issues received no, or only terse, reactions."

Of the 114 issues raised in the report, Smith was able to point to five issues on which there were criticisms.

A Herald analysis of the draft report does not show widespread argument with its contents. Of the 114 issues raised, there are comments on about 30 issues, largely agreeing with the reviewers' findings.

Smith said the comments were gathered when an earlier paper copy of the draft report was circulated for feedback among the command network at Headquarters Joint Forces New Zealand.

New Zealand's mission to Bamyan in Afghanistan went beyond enforcing security to rebuilding infrastructure and help people through health clinics.
New Zealand's mission to Bamyan in Afghanistan went beyond enforcing security to rebuilding infrastructure and help people through health clinics.

Those sent the draft report made comments on the drafts which were returned to the J8 team. The comments were then inserted into a central electronic copy of the document.

"The circulated paper copies were then disposed of, to ensure that different versions of the synopsis did not exist," said Smith. He said there was no paperwork showing the date on which the comments were added or when the draft report was canned.

"The Commander Joint Forces at the time simply declined to sign the document and it was shelved."

There was no record of the date on which it was canned but a timeline also released through the Official Information Act showed the draft was completed about the time the Herald first sought the report in early 2014.

A time line prepared for the Chief of Defence Force Lieutenant General Tim Keating shows then-Minister of Defence Jonathan Coleman was briefed on the Herald's request before the Defence Force first refused to release it.

Current Minister of Defence Gerry Brownlee was briefed last October after the Office of the Ombudsman told the NZDF it had to make the report public.

Smith said the briefing to the minister was oral and even though there may have been notes taken it was not possible to check because earthquake damage had restricted access to Defence Headquarters.

After the meeting between the Defence Force and Brownlee, the military changed its position on releasing the report and refused again to make it public. The intervention of Chief Ombudsman Judge Peter Boshier saw it eventually released after he expressed his "unhappiness" to Keating in a meeting.

Private Kirifi Mila lost his life in February 2011 after an accident in a Humvee. The report, and the inquiry into his death, said soldiers couldn't train on the vehicles before deployment.
Private Kirifi Mila lost his life in February 2011 after an accident in a Humvee. The report, and the inquiry into his death, said soldiers couldn't train on the vehicles before deployment.

Brownlee and Coleman refused to answer questions relating to the report.

In a written statement, Brownlee said: "I became Minister of Defence quite some time after the last deployment left Afghanistan so I haven't handled issues relating to the Provincial Reconstruction Team. Questions about this should be directed to the NZDF."

Brownlee said he had been told the draft report was "not accepted" by Joint Forces Headquarters.

The Defence Force refused to make anyone available for interview and after answering some questions by email said: "We have nothing further to add."

The Herald has also spoken to the parents of servicemen who have lost their lives in recent years who have called on NZDF to be more upfront with questions it faces.

Venus Poa, whose son, Douglas Hughes, died in Afghanistan, said she had unanswered questions which had never been satisfactorily answered.

There were nagging doubts and the question: "do they tell you everything?"

"It makes you lose faith in them," she said.

A military inquiry found Hughes had taken his own life in an incident just a few weeks before he was due to return home. It was a dark year, with five others killed just a few months later.

Then, 12 months later, New Zealand pulled out of Bamiyan declaring "mission accomplished".

"I wish they had done that earlier," said Poa. "Why wait for so many lives to be taken and then pull people out?"

Andrew Carson, whose son, Ben, died in the 2010 Anzac Day Air Force helicopter crash, said he and wife, Pauline, had total confidence in what they were being told at the time of the accident.

However, he said that confidence was eroded in the months and years since.

Carson said the Defence Force should not have responsibility for holding its own inquiries into serious issues in which lives were lost.

"Nobody will be accountable for anything because if they say anything about someone three rungs up the ladder, that's the end of their career."