They sit high in the mountains of Afghanistan on snow-blanketed rock for almost two weeks.
It’s bitterly cold and deeply uncomfortable.
The bleak landscape is dotted with scrubby conifer, giving just enough cover to hide the watchers from those below.
The watchers take careful note of small figures scuttling up and down the rough tracks linking the Shahi Kot Valley with Pakistan. They see four men, heads covered, two clearly carrying weapons and two others possibly. Time noted, direction of travel.
It’s February 2002, just days before one of the largest battles against Al Qaeda and the Taliban.
One of the small team of NZ Special Air Service operators sits on a thermal mat - a thin cushion against the cold. The temperature is below freezing. He wears all-white snow camouflage with a military vest and is almost invisible on the mountainside. Nearby, his 80kg pack has everything needed for the 10-day stay here in some of the most inhospitable terrain in the world.
He watches the men below.
Were they Afghan? Were they Caucasian, and so, possibly Al Qaeda? What were the weapons? Were there caves? Did the men go into caves? Did so many go in as to suggest the caves led to tunnels?
This was how Operation Anaconda unfolded for three patrols of NZSAS troopers. The battle plan was dictated by the intelligence which they and other special forces units had gathered.
They watched. They called in coordinates. And then the aircraft came.
When the bombs dropped, the earth shook and the opposing force became fewer in number.
This is the job. This is what they train for.
There is only one path into the New Zealand Special Air Service.
It’s a soul-challenging, body-breaking grinder simply known as “selection”.
Each year, dozens apply. Few are chosen.
In four years from 2013, there were 243 candidates. Just 31 succeeded.
Over 10 days, candidates are pushed to their limits creating, says former NZ Army Captain and NZSAS psychologist Alia Bojilova, a “physical, mental, and social experience of stress”.
The experience strips candidates bare and they “have to use their own self motivation, their own drive, to push through”.
The path to the NZSAS begins with a run and a time limit. It’s the first of many gates candidates must pass through to succeed, each ratcheting up the pressure.
Then the next stage. Press ups, pulls ups - constant physical exertion is designed to strip out candidates’ reserves so those watching can see what’s left. They are the psychologists, veteran NZSAS members and instructors who watch, stoney-faced.
Bojilova: “Once the selection process commences, they get no positive or negative reinforcement to push them forward. So they get a bunch of neutral faces staring at them so that they can find that motivation within themselves.”
Obstacle courses, swimming in uniform. And then more - body drags of other candidates, body lifts, marching in full battlekit - seven kilometres an hour under a minimum 35kg of weight - then more speed and endurance tests. These are standard NZ Army fitness tests but at a higher intensity, with greater demands and less time.
As the days unfold, candidates leave. Food intake is restricted, sleep is curtailed and the mind is set to wrestle against basic military navigation tasks while the body struggles under heavy packs and the ever-present rifle. It stretches on for days, as feet blister and ankles turn.
Former sergeant major and 18-year NZSAS veteran John ‘Horse’ McLeod “breezed through”.
But it’s not that way for all. He’s watched over plenty of selections and has seen “heartbreak in a lot of guys”.
“Guys breaking down in tears… in simple terms, they’ve haven’t got the right stuff. But that’s not their fault. Some people have it, some people don’t.”
While basic military skills are important, as is endurance and fitness, McLeod says there is one key to finishing.
“I think it’s mental hardness and total focus.”
By halfway, any likely to go have already left.
The final days of selection include Exercise von Tempsky, named for the 19th century soldier Gustavus Ferdinand von Tempsky's unit, which was the colonial government’s answer to Maori bush warfare.
Candidates march for more than 20 hours, wading through swamps, fighting their way up sand dunes, in full pack and carrying 20kg jerry cans. There’s one for each candidate and one extra, meaning candidates take turns carrying two cans.
Bojilova says selection tests candidates on the question asked before they begin - why do they want to be there?
“Most of these individuals have always reported feeling restless, or not entirely challenged, or not entirely absorbed, by the environments in which they are in.”
Bojilova says those who succeed understand how joining the NZSAS aligns with their own values and motivation.
“So, for example, one of the most commonly reported motivations to join the unit is something along the lines of being useful.”
McLeod recalls the final stages, including a 60km march, navigated through three checkpoints.
“And pretty much, it’s head down, bum up and keep moving. You haven’t had a lot of sleep, you haven’t had a lot of food to keep your body going. And you’ve really been working your body hard for about the last seven days or so.
“I’ve seen guys staggering and falling over and basically pretty much crawling over that last … five, ten metres…
“But other guys just breeze in.”
Ten years after World War Two ended, the call went out for men to form a special military unit.
The intent was to bolster United Kingdom efforts in Malaya.
Ron Crosby, in his NZSAS: The First Fifty Years, says this “was probably the first of many occasions when New Zealand’s political leaders suddenly realised that a small Special Forces contribution had a strategic value to the country’s allies that was out of all proportion to its cost”.
The unit was raised at the instruction of Prime Minister Sidney Holland under the command of Major Frank Rennie, commander of the School of Infantry in Waiouru. Training focused on navigation, jungle patrols, unarmed combat with a developing thread of specialist skills.
The unit deployed and acquitted itself well against Malaya’s communist insurgency developing patrol and tracking skills valued as highly today.
From Malaya in the 1950s, the NZSAS was sent to Borneo in 1965 where it again joined British special forces on commando raids into Indonesia. Borneo was replaced by Vietnam from 1969-1971, during which time the NZSAS honed their skills as trackers, reconnaissance specialists and direct-contact fighters.
Its future seemed constantly uncertain until the need for a domestic counter-terrorist specialist force came as a result of the rise in international terrorism through the 1970s, including the 1978 bomb detonated during the Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting in Sydney.
Sir Robert Muldoon was present at the CHOGM meeting and his emphasis, along with the NZSAS pushing through military channels, saw the unit take on what was called the counter-terrorism “black role”.
Muldoon formed a close connection with the unit. Crosby recounted one visit to the NZSAS when Muldoon was seated in a darked training room with former commander Graye Shattky, both playing the part of hostage.
As he sat with Muldoon, there was a disorienting explosion and clouds of smoke, through which troopers emerged with weapons blazing.
Muldoon told Shattky he was impressed, asking calmly: “I suppose on occasion you practice with live ammunition.”
Senior military accompanying Muldoon went pale when Shattky pointed out holes in targets. “That was live ammunition, Prime Minister.”
McLeod recalls visiting the Beehive with other members of the NZSAS. Having been shown to Muldoon’s Beehive office, the NZSAS members made themselves comfortable.
“I remember sitting in his chair in Parliament. I had my feet up on his desk and had my guys around.
“He walked in and says ‘hello boys, how are you?’.” Muldoon closed the door and, on the back of the door and only visible when it was closed, was a photograph of the Prime Minister with members of the unit.
“There you are - you’re my gang,” said Muldoon, with a laugh. “Are you comfortable?”
Having passed selection, would-be NZSAS troopers face nine months of “cycle” training.
“Training is built on the principle of “crawl, walk, run”,” says Stephen, NZSAS regimental sergeant major. Troopers “start at the bottom, learn the foundations, the principles of whatever activity or mission you want to achieve and then obviously go to the higher level”.
McLeod: “If they think they’re great - be all, end all - it knocks the smarts out of them... At any time during that cycle training, you don’t measure up, you’re gone.”
Basic skills include advanced first aid, demolitions, jungle warfare, marksmanship, medical training, advanced navigation, weapons handling and a range of other core abilities.
They practice how to attack and how to respond to an ambush. There are developed patterns for different situations, which must be learned and repeated to become second nature.
They learn how to build observation posts so they can’t be seen, camouflage, tracking. Jungle warfare is a key part of training, even though the NZSAS hasn’t deployed to the jungle since Timor a generation ago.
Exercises last overnight, over several nights and even weeks.
McLeod recalls running courses which saw candidates sitting frozen in sub-alpine bush, having set an ambush with a bank of claymore anti-personnel mines.
And then dawn comes and the ambush is practised - claymores detonated and the frozen NZSAS patrol coming to life, fighting.
Longer exercises incorporate helicopters, aircraft, naval craft and long, careful movement across the countryside.
NZSAS commanding officer Chris says those who succeed will be “self-motivated, a self-starter” with “the ability to follow instructions but also think for themselves”.
It’s a cluster of traits which is rare - Chris estimates about 5 per cent of people.
Massey University strategic studies lecturer Dr Rhys Ball, who has studied the NZSAS, lists basic expectations including “long marches with a lot of weight on their backs that have to be completed in a set period of time”. Parachuting, too. “If you’re not prepared to jump out of a plane, then you’re not going to be selected.”
There is also escape and evasion training, described in the book Soldier Five, culminating in the interrogation experience. The former NZSAS trooper (who wrote the book recounting his experience as one of the British Bravo Two Zero patrol) describes being blindfolded, bundled into a truck at night, in the middle of winter, to be dumped somewhere in the Waiouru defence training area.
Tipped out, the men are handed a rough map and told they need to meet with a someone at a set of coordinates. For the next week, pursued by soldiers and helicopters, the NZSAS troopers are expected to live off the land as they move - hopefully without capture - from one “agent” meeting to the next.
At one meeting, the trooper describes being offered a “lucky dip” food bag - “a couple of slices of bread each, two or three potatoes and a piece of raw tripe”.
Inevitably captured, the exercise ends in 30 hours of “gruelling interrogation” - anything divulged other than name, rank, number and date of birth sees the trainee marched out of the unit.
Blindfolds are used, and a range of interrogation techniques designed to replicate those used by an unfriendly, enemy force under pressure of time.
Then, if they’ve learned what is needed at the level required, they “pass the cycle” and become full-badged members of the NZSAS, with winged dagger and NZSAS belt.
In recent years Afghanistan has tested the mettle of the NZSAS, testing capability and resourcefulness.
It gave the government of New Zealand a resource it could send quickly to show its support for the United States after September 11 - an important diplomatic show.
About 40 NZSAS and 20 support staff dropped into Kandahar in late 2001, grouped with coalition special forces surrounded by an anarchic country torn by conflict.
It was difficult to find a role, especially after foot patrols dropped high in the mountains during winter were spotted early during their first two missions. The NZSAS needed urgent extraction after being spotted, requiring helicopters to pull them out and a flight of fighter bombers far overhead, sent from aircraft carriers, to protect the helicopters.
In contrast, the NZSAS found success with Operation Anaconda in March 2002. Crosby’s book revealed three patrols were sent in before the battle against Taliban and Al-Qaeda to watch routes to Pakistan.
They stayed, undetected, reporting on movement and - along with other nations’ special forces - are believed to have guided air attacks against those retreating to safety.
There were also missions in which NZ was bolted on as the “Quick Reaction Force”. In one case, it narrowly missed a front row seat in catastrophe when acting as QRF for two US Navy SEAL teams tasked with attacking two compounds believed to be filled with Taliban.
The QRF support wasn’t needed - the Seals killed almost everyone before discovering their opponents were fledgling members of the country’s new government.
Similar missions saw the NZSAS supporting Seal teams in attacks on compounds searching for intelligence. In author Leigh Neville’s guide to special forces roles in Afghanistan, he quoted a US Army soldier: “[We] worked a bit with the NZ SOF (special operations forces). They had a reputation for going pretty hard on their DA (direct action) stuff... I was with Army (special forces) and we definitely weren’t going soft but we paled next to the Kiwis.”
They went to battle in compounds, in caves, in the mountains and in urban areas. In the hurly-burly of the Wild West that Afghanistan was at the time, the leash was tight - certain missions required Beehive approval.
A Canadian academic who met with the NZSAS claimed that included gaining permission to chase a “high value target” into Pakistan. NZSAS service over this time saw the regiment awarded the United States Navy Presidential Unit Citation by George W Bush. This is not confirmed.
By mid-2002, the forced reliance on coalition air assets for insertion and emergencies led the NZSAS in a different direction. Troopers got hold of Dumvees (Humvees converted for desert use), kitted them out with heavy weapons, modified them for long-range missions and headed out on patrol.
Operating hundreds of kilometres away from base, they set about gathering detailed intelligence on the ground - photographs, maps, identities of local leaders, signs of Taliban.
Major Sholto Stephens, who was deployed with the NZSAS in the early to mid 2000s, said during an interview with the Combat Studies Institute in Kansas there was a command imperative “on gaining that information” rather than “going out and getting a high body count or killing or capturing an HVT (high value target) on every mission”.
“They realized that it was going to be a long conflict and they would probably be returning to Afghanistan time and time again. So, they realized the importance of gathering that information on infrastructure, population and the ethnic and cultural backgrounds of the population as well as information directly related to threat entities.”
It was during one of these missions Corporal Willie Apiata was awarded the Victoria Cross.
The NZSAS deployed again in 2009, taking on the mentorship and training of the Afghan Crisis Response Unit in Kabul. It was in this role that Lance Corporal Leon Smith, 33, and Corporal Doug Grant, 41, were killed.
It was also during this period the NZSAS carried out the Operation Burnham mission, which NZDF says killed nine insurgents but others have claimed civilian casualties and war crimes. A government inquiry is preparing to get to the truth.
The NZSAS is considered one of New Zealand’s three strategic military assets. A strategic asset is one which can be targeted in such a way as to achieve victory, not just for the battle but the war.
As a point of comparison, our others are the Te Kaha and Te Mana frigates, together worth around $500m and the six P-3K2 Orion surveillance aircraft, together worth $291.94m.
NZSAS operators are - and have always has been - been male. A handful of women have tried out and one, in particular, has come very close. The Special Operations Command is going to include an all-woman team - it is in the process of developing a Female Engagement Team, similar to those coalition countries have found so useful in Afghanistan and Iraq where it is culturally and religiously difficult to have male soldiers speak to women.
The average age of a NZSAS trooper is mid-30s. It creates a mix, says Stephen, of “the guys who have seen operations, who know what’s it really like to be on the front line” and “the young soldier, the young buck, that came to perform because they want to be that guy or they want to be leading from the front”.
“So there’s a measure of control which generally is used by experienced operators who will tone down the activity of the level of intensity for some of the (younger) guys.”
The NZSAS has grown in size and presence and is now a formal regiment, denoting its size and hard-won status inside NZDF. It has six squadrons in total - a mix of those whose focus is missions abroad, a Commando squadron which has taken on the “black role” of counter-terrorism full-time and a specialist explosives team, which supports police and is trained to handle biological, chemical or nuclear threats. With support and training staff, it likely sits around 500 people.
Troopers are expected to build a specialisation based around the types of environments in which they might operate.
Rhys Ball says the specialist skills are aimed at the four troops inside each of the NZSAS’ two Sabre squadrons.
The mountain troop will be trained to a high standard in rock climbing, high altitude operations and related skills. Those in the air troop train for parachute and other forms of aerial deployment. Mobility troop specialises is vehicles, from motorcycles to the new Supacat special operations vehicles. The maritime troop trains for water - scuba diving, inserting into operations on boats, canoes, submarines or anything else that might work on or below water.
It takes around eight weeks to train a trooper to survive in the mountains, then about three weeks a year to maintain those skills.
Along with environmental specialisation, they submerge deeper into communications expertise, demolitions, higher level medical training, patrol skills, and tracking.
“Everything we do is achievable, otherwise no one would be here. So it’s difficult, but as one of my mentors said to me, ‘If it’s not difficult, it’s probably not worth it’,” says Chris, the commanding officer.
If basic training is learning how to put an explosive charge together, McLeod says advanced training is learning how to shape a charge to a particular task - “to blow a radio tower down or something”.
“The training is intense. It is very intense. And you don’t realize it when you’ve been in there for a while how intense it is.
“When it does show is when you go on leave. You get to about day six or seven, you start to feel yourself relaxing, sort of coming down sort of thing.
“If you go past that 10 days on extended leave, you really notice it. Unbeknown to you, you’ve been on such a high. You don’t realize it, because they’ve built you to that level.”
Weapons training is constant. McLeod describes it as central to training. “Starting off with blanks … then going into live ammunition so the guys get used to the rounds going past.”
It simulates close combat and drills with “guys standing in front… and you shooting past them”. “And quick reactions and building up the speed with that so it just becomes automatic.”
Training escalates, putting troopers at “a higher trained-level state”, says Stephen, meaning they are ready for the quick deployment required.
The training is so demanding it has resulted in the deaths of twice as many people as those who have been killed in action. In 63 years of existence, nine NZSAS have died in training and four on operations.
The most recent of the eight to have been killed during training was Sergeant Wayne Taylor, who died on a training exercise off the coast of the Coromandel Peninsula. A Court of Inquiry into the accident is yet to be completed.
Like those who died on active duty, their names are etched on the war memorial at the NZSAS regimental headquarters in Papakura.
Those who lost their lives did so in extreme conditions - one died after sliding down a mountain side, another trampled by an elephant in Zimbabwe.
Ball says it shows “the significance and the level in which training is conducted in the special forces space”.
“When you look at accidents within the training regime of SAS or any special operations forces units around the world, I think you need to understand and appreciate just what they do.
“Particularly in the NZSAS, you might hear this adage: ‘Train hard. Fight easy’. It’s part of their training ethos and philosophy that they’re dealing with some serious stuff.”
Preparing for real-world, complex and deadly situations requires intense preparation.
Ball: “In order to reach that standard, NZSAS and special operations forces apply training techniques which … have an element of risk about them.
“We’re talking about live fire exercises, operating with live rounds, parachuting, swimming, rock climbing, climbing buildings, jumping out of aircraft, sliding down ropes and those sorts of things.
“Now, the skill and the art of SAS training is to ensure that level of risk is kept at a manageable point, but at the same time you do these things because you know that that’s what it’s going to be like in the real world when it comes time to be operationally deployed.”
Ball says real world experience feeds back into training. “Quite often, you will receive instruction from SAS directing staff that have that direct experience of these events.
Some of the training is extreme and uncomfortable. “There are unexpected circumstances that we have to deal with,” says Stephen. “So that the training that they put us through is more designed to allow us to think when the pressure is on.
Bojilova says the intent is to stretch capability to an Olympic level at which point what others might see as “extreme” becomes normal.
Each trooper needs to know “how they can perform at their best without having any sense of comfort” - under physical strain, without sleep, without enough food, without social support, without enough information while craving more so as to make good decisions and, without it, still making good decisions.
Chris talks of mental preparedness and mental wellbeing as essential.
“I think a useful analogy might be one of a pack of wolves versus a racehorse. And what I mean by that is a racehorse has just got to prepare for one race and perform particularly well on that particular day or event.
“A wolf or a pack of wolves for example, need to hunt and work together to achieve their particular mission or their result, and they need to be ready to do that whenever.”
They flow through the facility, barely individuals and completely a unit.
There are six in the “stack”. They wear green coveralls and body armour with webbing, which carry extra magazines of ammunition, plasticuff hand ties, flahsbang stun grenades.
Some have boots, some do not. Some wear high-performance trainers.
There are breaching tools for smashing through doors and automatic pistols are strapped to their thighs - this is the age of urban combat and either become necessary when combat becomes too close for rifles.
They each know their place - who is leading, who is in support, who breaks left or right and who brings up the rear.
Weapons fire. Dull thuds not sharp cracks because the weapons have sound suppressors. The ammunition is real because training is about normalising death flying past your ears.
The sharp, dull drumbeat of live ammunition sounds as targets are found in rooms as they are cleared.
They assault the hallways, the stack together again, in a line down one side of the hall. Not too close to the wall - bullets hug walls - and all in a line. If the first is hit by an opposing force, the others will not be.
“Door to the right,” says one. Two at the door of the next room, shouting: “Hands up over your head.”
Inside a hostage in a bomb vest. Wires lead to a trigger in the mannequin’s hand. “Red shackles, red shackles” - the signal for a hostage with a bomb.
“Room is clear.” One enters the room, moving close to the mannequin. “What’s your name? What’s your name?”
Another moves inside the doorframe and is pulled back, slightly to the side. If the bomb goes off, there’s no point in two troopers being killed.
Inside the room, the mannequin and bomb vest are examined, closely. This is the job, being at times so close to death and training so it seems normal.
Two minutes, two floors, multiple targets “killed”, multiple rooms cleared, one hostage found.
Then: “Back downstairs boys.”
Clear weapons. Watch the video. Look for errors. Imagine excellence. Do it again.
NZSAS soldiers think differently.
McLeod: “It is (finding) the best way to achieve your goal… whatever that may be. The idea is to think outside the square.”
If you have a target, think like the target. “What’s he going to expect? If I was him, what would I do? Where would I go? So how do I catch him out? That’s what you’re trying to achieve. He’s trying to kill you, you’re trying to kill him.”
If it’s surveillance, think about where to place an observation post. “If I was the enemy and looking at that piece of ground, I would say, ‘I would put one in there.’ (So) you go and put one over there. You try and out-think, out-smart, and do things a different way.
“Think outside the square. You’ve got to, else you will die.
“You go attack a building. The normal thing is to go through the door isn’t it? Why not go through the roof, or come through the floor. Can you do it? Yeah, why not?
“We’ve got a guy in a tower over there with an RPG and a sniper rifle and he’s picking off all our guys. How do you get him? There’s two ways. You send old bloody Elvis zig-zagging across the road and then he’ll poke his head out. When he pops his head out, he’ll be concentrating on that guy. You’ve got a guy over there to take him out.
“What’s another way of doing it? You send a fire engine up the street. He’s bound to pop his head up and wondering what the hell’s going on. He’ll pop up when the sirens are going, guarantee. You’ve got your man up there ready to go.”
The unit cultivates unconventional thought. Famously non-hierarchical, “even the young trooper has thoughts on how to do things”.
Plans are put before all and thrashed for opportunity or weakness.
“And at the end of the day (it’s) to achieve your objective. And the unit’s objective, which is the ultimate thing. And everyone does it from command level all the way down to the bottom man.”
Bojilova says training helps refine innate abilities needed to complete missions in places where troopers are isolated. Problem-solving is a key skill, “not just with what you have, but to think beyond what you perceive your capabilities to be at that time”.
“Similarly, curiosity. It’s not simply about problem-solving with the pieces of the puzzle that you have, but asking questions around what are the missing pieces. What are the dots that are connecting these things that are seemingly not connected?”
It produces a soldier who is “both mentally hard but also agile”, says Chris, attributes which might work at odds but actually compliment each other.
“They have confidence that they can step into the unknown and have an effective response.
“Capacity to be able to deal with stress in a way that sharpens and nuances ability to think thoroughly through stuff, as opposed to be confronted or overwhelmed or intimidated.”
Faced with a problem on a mission, not only is a solution tested against whether it would solve the immediate issue but how it would impact on the overall objective, in terms of that conflict and New Zealand’s place in it.
Bojilova says it means knowing troopers can maintain a “sound moral basis”, particularly given “the level of ambiguity they might be exposed to”. They operate in remote places, a long way from the command chain, where situations change quickly and decisions can have far-reaching implications. The moral baseline reinforces the Rules of Engagement and international laws around conflict - the NZSAS might operate in the shadows but it is expected to do so under the same guidelines all NZDF personnel do.
“Those who make it into the unit have a sort of homecoming - they have found a place where they belong. It is a place where what they have to give is matched by the demands of the environment. They way in which they are expected to give it is matched in the way it is taken."
In that search to be “useful”, they have found a place where the extent to which they can contribute is matched by the exceptional demands of the situation.
A place where those who dare, win.