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Herald on Sunday editorial: Soldiers deserve an inquiry

NZ Army patrol through Afghanistan's Baghak Valley.
NZ Army patrol through Afghanistan's Baghak Valley.

War in all its terror is becoming ever more visible. Helmet cameras and the like enable commanders to watch the fighting from the other side of the world and inevitably, the footage finds its way into the public eye.

Aware of the inevitability perhaps, the New Zealand Defence Force last month took the unprecedented step of releasing an edited film of the battle in Afghanistan in which two of our soldiers died. But if the Defence Force imagined it could thus control the flow of information it ought to know better now.

The unedited footage of the battle of Baghak appeared on YouTube last week. It showed the troops' predicament much more vividly than the version released with the findings of the Court of Inquiry into the deaths of Lance Corporals Rory Malone and Pralli Durrer.

Today, we report another embarrassing release, this time filmed inside the NZDF's forward operating base just after the battle. It shows a New Zealand soldier dealing with a captured insurgent and forcing him on to a waiting United States helicopter.

During the transfer, a female soldier can be heard abusing the prisoner who is reluctant to transferred to the gunship.

Defence Force regulations state that if prisoners of war or detainees are to be handed into the custody of another state, the NZDF senior national officer must be satisfied the detention is humane and in accordance with the Law of Armed Conflict.

The Defence Force is investigating the leak of this footage. It could also investigate the substance of it, to ensure its own rules were followed and there was no breach of a Geneva Convention against degrading treatment of prisoners.

On recent performance, our top brass will bury their heads in the sand about this. For 10 years their forces have been able to operate in Afghanistan largely without media nearby. In the relative quiet of Bamiyan province, they were said to have been highly effective. It is only since the withdrawal that different stories are emerging.

A soldier injured by "friendly fire" at Baghak has called for a public inquiry into the battle. Peter Page told the Herald on Sunday a succession of mistakes put our forces in extreme danger that day. Poor communications between units led to him taking fire twice, he believes, from his own side.

He believes New Zealand forces opened fire on friendly Afghan soldiers. He referred to "gung ho" attitudes in the force under the command of Major Craig Wilson and a culture of complacency. Troops deployed for four months without action were not well prepared for the situation.

The NZDF has dismissed his concern as the account of a "disillusioned" soldier struggling to come to terms with what happened.

Later that month, three more soldiers in Bamiyan were killed when their vehicle struck a roadside bomb. It was the worst month in a deployment where losses until then had been remarkably light.

It also emerged last month that a soldier on the previous rotation, Corporal Douglas Hughes, had committed suicide. An inquiry has found the training for that rotation was shorter than usual, that stress management was rushed and its commander was not confident the unit was adequately prepared.

This is a disturbing catalogue. A second investigation of events at Baghak has been undertaken by military police and somebody should be held to account. But a higher level public inquiry is surely warranted.

- Herald on Sunday

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