The blanket secrecy over SAS operations has been ditched, effective immediately, with the Defence Force revealing that elite troopers recently helped capture bomb-makers in Kabul.

Force Chief Lieutenant General Jerry Mateparae yesterday said the SAS last year destroyed a rocket station on the outskirts of Kabul that had been abandoned by insurgents preparing to fire into the city.

But he also said that he was not aware that the SAS had fired any shots "in anger" in the present deployment, coming to the end of the first of three six-month rotations.

This included an operation last week against insurgents who attacked six Afghan government and commercial buildings in downtown Kabul.

"No NZSAS person fired his weapon or took part in an assault or cleared any of the occupied buildings," he said. "Their role in this particular incident was very limited."

SAS member and Victoria Cross holder Corporal Willie Apiata was photographed on patrol after the battle. The photograph sparked a controversy after its publication in the Herald, and questions were asked whether he was now more of a Taleban target.

Prime Minister John Key revealed Corporal Apiata's identity after the picture was published.

Contrary to reports at the time, General Mateparae said the clearance of insurgents from the buildings last week had been carried out by the Afghan National Army, and that the SAS role was to supply information.

Secrecy surrounding the SAS has been a long-standing national policy, but has looked increasingly out of step when its actions have been the subject of foreign media attention.

The new approach was announced yesterday by Mr Key - a policy he said had been under discussion for some time.

It had been intended to hold a full briefing after the end of the first rotation of the current deployment - thought to be next month - but it had been brought forward because of the current interest.

"We felt for some time that we couldn't actually adequately answer the question why we weren't prepared to give you more information when it is quite clear that other international forces do give their media more information."

The intention would be to provide more detail about SAS operations, where it was deemed not to be a risk to their safety.

The policy would be assessed on a case-by-case basis and their operations and locations would not always be revealed.

"No one should be under any illusion," said Mr Key. "The SAS at any particular time could be involved in a conflict that could see them hurt or killed. It could certainly see them firing weapons. They are not there to eat their lunch in Afghanistan. They are there to play a very important role."

General Mateparae said the SAS was authorised to conduct missions in support of ISAF headquarters revolving around reconnaissance, combat operations and military assistance, including training and liaison to a Ministry of Interior special operations unit (SOU).

When the SAS arrived in Kabul they had to undergo a course which included how to "counter improvised explosive device (IED) techniques".

In direct support of the SOU, the SAS had also conducted "disruptional operations against insurgent networks, predominantly insurgent IEDs.

"A recent operation saw members of our contingent assist the Afghan security force take into custody people who were alleged to have participated in recent violent attacks and also IED attacks in Kabul and who were alleged to be planning a further attack."

Those detained had been in possession of bomb-making materials when they were captured.

Referring to last week's events, General Mateparae said other coalition forces had supported the Afghan National Army in clearing the buildings, a fact that had not been reported.

"For example, in the photograph that was published in the Herald, there is a US vehicle in the background."

General Mateparae said the attacks took place about 9.30am and that by around 10.45am the SOU had been deployed as reserve troops near the incident. The scale of the incident meant that the entire SAS taskforce was on standby, but only a small group went to the incident area.

At 2.20pm a further SAS group reinforced the SOU. At 3pm the Afghan National Army reported that it had cleared the last building of insurgents.

He said that at 3.10pm two SAS soldiers had been photographed.

Twenty minutes later, forces returned to base.


Other countries keep their citizens reasonably briefed on what is done in their name. We need not be kept in the dark.
- Herald editorial, Saturday

It is quite clear that other international forces do give their media more information.
- John Key, yesterday