"No civilian casualties were caused by the NZSAS."

That's the NZ Defence Force's blunt summary of the controversial 2010 NZSAS operation, issued just days before the first of few public hearings into accusations it carried out a "revenge" raid which left civilians dead.

The blunt denial the NZSAS killed those people sits in the narrative alongside NZDF's concession to the possibility non-combatants might have been killed.

"The (international) investigation team concluded that civilian casualties may have been possible due to a gun sight malfunction on one coalition aircraft."

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It was an Apache gunship helicopter, belonging to the United States.

According to the latest NZDF narrative, the chain of events shows that if civilians were killed, then our ally and coalition partner did the killing.

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The formal Inquiry into Operation Burnham is due to start next week and inquiry heads Sir Geoffrey Palmer and Sir Terence Arnold ordered the account be published now so the public could see events "as NZDF perceived them".

The inquiry is aimed at investigating three NZSAS operations in Afghanistan in 2010 which were the focus of the book Hit & Run by journalists Nicky Hager and Jon Stephenson.

The book alleged six civilians were killed and 15 injured during an NZSAS "revenge" raid in Baghlan province aimed at killing those who had attacked Kiwi personnel - killing one - in a neighbouring district.

Journalists Nicky Hager and Jon Stephenson at the launch of their book Hit & Run. Photo / Mark Mitchell
Journalists Nicky Hager and Jon Stephenson at the launch of their book Hit & Run. Photo / Mark Mitchell

It paints a picture of US helicopters hosing the area down with heavy fire and of NZSAS troops setting fires and burning down homes.

Next week's hearings will hear arguments over whether the inquiry will be largely public or if Government concerns over classified information mean it should be behind closed doors.

Hit & Run claims rejected

The NZDF chain of events continues to utterly reject Hager and Stephenson's account while introducing little new evidence.

It does present the first coherent and official account of why and how the mission came to be and then exactly how it was executed.

Paul Radich QC, who has been hired to represent the NZDF, said in a memo to the inquiry "the NZDF is making an unprecedented amount of information publicly available".

"The NZDF narrative account is based on information held by, and research conducted by, the NZDF on the events in issue."

The narrative sets out the background to the NZSAS involvement in Afghanistan, then pins the starts of the specific operations which led to the inquiry with the attack which killed Lieutenant Tim O'Donnell in August 2010.

It said "three insurgent commanders" had been identified and were "associates of an active and armed Taliban group with a track record of targeting Afghan and ISAF (International Security Assistance Force) security forces".

NZDF troops on patrol in Bamiyan were exposed to greater risk through insurgent strikes. Photo / Supplied
NZDF troops on patrol in Bamiyan were exposed to greater risk through insurgent strikes. Photo / Supplied

The NZDF account said the group had also attacked and killed security forces from Afghanistan, Germany and Hungary, operating from a border region which had not seen Afghan or coalition security forces for eight years.

Current NZ Army commander Brigadier John Boswell was a lieutenant colonel at the time, and commander of the New Zealand provincial reconstruction team at Bamiyan from which O'Donnell was based.

The NZDF narrative said Boswell believed the successful attack would make the insurgents bolder and create more attacks, leaving Bamiyan locals doubting either Afghan or Kiwi security forces could provide protection.

It said the mission evolved through the ISAF system which saw the three insurgent commanders identified as targets. Two of the three commanders were linked to the Tirgiran Valley, which saw a mission planned specifically for the mountainous terrain, with approval being sought up the ISAF chain of command, and also with Afghanistan's Ministry of Interior Affairs.

It also sought and received approval from the Chief of the Defence Force, as the mission was outside the areas where the NZSAS was meant to be operating.

In previous missions, the NZSAS had acted as trainer or mentor to the Afghan Crisis Response Unit, or alongside on law enforcement operations.

Former Prime Minister Sir John Key visiting Kiwi troops in Bamiyan, Afghanistan. Photo / Supplied
Former Prime Minister Sir John Key visiting Kiwi troops in Bamiyan, Afghanistan. Photo / Supplied

This mission was different, said NZDF. It was a "national" mission and involved Afghan forces and coalition air support. "The operation would not have been possible without this level of support."

The NZSAS would remain bound by the Law of Armed Conflict and the predetermined Rules of Engagement, which had been drafted and studied prior to being deployed.

The intent of the missions, according to NZDF, was to capture, or, if that proved impossible, kill the commanders, along with destroying ammunition and weaponry.

The night of the mission

The mission unfolded on the evening of August 21, first with the arrival of a remotely-piloted drone above Tirgiran Valley.

It was joined by two Apache gunship helicopters, one minute before midnight, which used its advanced sensor equipment to carry out an inspection of the intended landing zone for NZSAS and CRU troops.

The drone overhead was able to send imagery back to Kabul, where NZDF commanders - and a legal adviser - watched over the battlefield. The NZDF narrative said it gave the ability for those watching from afar to contact the ground force commander - a NZSAS major - if any actions overstepped legal boundaries.

Four transport helicopters were used to move troops into the valley. The first, a large Chinook helicopter, dropped NZSAS and CRU troops at 12.30pm.

Troops moving from the aircraft headed towards a house believed to be the home of one of the commanders - a man designated "Objective Burnham".

At the time, presumably through coalition air support, "a number of insurgents, military-aged males armed with weapons including rocket propelled grenades were observed".

Former Chief of Defence, Lieutenant General Tim Keating, who rejected Hit & Run's portrayal of the NZSAS raid. Photo / Mark Mitchell
Former Chief of Defence, Lieutenant General Tim Keating, who rejected Hit & Run's portrayal of the NZSAS raid. Photo / Mark Mitchell

The men had left a building near the landing zone and moved towards higher ground.

"Some of the insurgents had hurriedly left the building but then returned and left again, carrying weapons and ammunition that appeared to have been stored in the building. They ran to rejoin the insurgents moving to the high ground."

A woman and two children could also be seen leaving, then returning to the building.

The presence of armed men with RPGs caused the other Chinook, carrying the remainder of the troops, to hold off landing. The great transport helicopters would be easy targets for determined opponents with RPGs.

At 12.45pm, a light helicopter delivered to a ridge above the village the ground force commander, a joint terminal air controller - the link between air support and the commander on the ground - and a NZSAS sniper team.

Three minutes later, the second Chinook landed to disgorge the remaining troops. It was also then the ground force commander received reports "armed insurgents were moving above the village to a position that would enable them to fire on the task force from the high ground".

It would imperil both troops and helicopters, according to the NZDF account, so the NZSAS major gave the Apache helicopters clearance to open fire if no collateral damage would result.

The Apaches could not open fire - NZSAS and CRU troops were too close.

Apaches attack

Six minutes passed before "shots were fired by aircraft at the insurgents making their way up to the ridgeline".

"A number of insurgents were assessed to have been killed in this engagement."
Then came the moment which NZDF concedes could have led to civilian casualties.

"A single insurgent was seen breaking away from the group that had been moving towards the ridgeline, and appeared to be returning back to the building from which the armed insurgents had been seen leaving.

"One of the Apaches fired on this insurgent. During this engagement, several rounds fell short due to a gun sight malfunction and this resulted in a building near the (helicopter landing zone) being inadvertently hit by gunfire."

The NZDF account said ground forces had no idea, until more than a week later, civilian casualties were a possibility.

NZDF troops in Bamiyan faced an increased threat because of insurgent raids across the border. Photo / Supplied
NZDF troops in Bamiyan faced an increased threat because of insurgent raids across the border. Photo / Supplied

The two groups of troops dropped by the Chinooks had two separate objectives. The first group was aimed at two houses believed to be home to one of the commanders, and the likely site of weapons.

At 12.52pm, around the time the Apaches were killing those heading towards the ridge, CRU troops used loudhailers to "call out" to the village. The NZDF account explained the action as "intended to protect civilians by informing them that this was a legitimate Afghan Government security activity".

Having warned it was present, NZSAS troops used explosives to make a hole in the wall so as to avoid being surprised going through a door. Shortly after entering, the wall collapsed onto a NZSAS trooper, causing serious injuries.

Another entry point gave better access, leading to the discovery of an RPG launcher, projectiles and other weapons and ammunition. The other building was searched with nothing found.

The aircraft opened fire again at 1.23am - "support aircraft observed and positively identified more armed insurgents moving to the south and engaged them".

Sniper's two shots

Around 1.25am, one NZSAS trooper fired the only two shots the NZDF said its personnel fired during the course of the mission. A single insurgent had been seen running towards the ridge where the NZSAS major was watching over the village.

The insurgent was "identified as a threat" and "two shots were fired; the first killing the insurgent while the second hit a rock".

The process repeated itself further down the valley at 1.45am, as the second group of troops reached the building it was assigned to search.

The "call out" was carried out, an entry point created by explosives then a "flash bang" grenade tossed inside. The "flash bang" was described by NZDF as "less than lethal" and intended to create noise, light and shock waves to "disorient any persons in the close vicinity of the explosion".

Food inside was still warm, the fire was still burning but the home was empty. More weapons were found.

Around this time, aircraft watched another group of insurgents gather south of the second group's building.

No action was taken, as the second group moved from its target building back to join the first group and collectively destroy the weapons and ammunition.

As the NZSAS were preparing to destroyed the confiscated ammunition and weapons, the final aerial assault took place.

At 2.38am, "air support identified four insurgents leaving the group to the south and moving with purpose towards the high ground overlooking the valley".

"These insurgents were engaged and neutralised."

The charges to destroy the weapons cache were detonated at 3.19am and the entire force were airborne and out of the area 30 minutes later.

The NZDF narrative includes an analysis as to how two buildings came to catch fire, saying one was likely caused by an abandoned cooking fire while the other inadvertently burned after an RPG motor was flung by the explosion onto a roof about 25 metres distant.

It also deals with other claims in the Hit & Run book, including a return raid on the same valley and the later arrest and detention of one of the targets.

In all cases, NZDF said it followed the Rules of Engagement and acted within the Law of Armed Conflict.

Where does it differ?

NZDF's account of the assault on Tirgiran Valley is utterly at odds with the operation depicted in Hit & Run.

In NZDF's version, there were nine dead insurgents. In Hit & Run, there were none.

Instead, Hager and Stephenson detailed the deaths of six people and named each, along with 15 others who were wounded.

NZDF has explained it did not torch any buildings. Instead, a cooking fire destroyed one and a burning RPG motor spiralled into the roof of the building from which it had been recovered, setting it alight.

In all cases, NZDF said it followed the Rules of Engagement and acted within the Law of Armed Conflict. Photo / Supplied
In all cases, NZDF said it followed the Rules of Engagement and acted within the Law of Armed Conflict. Photo / Supplied

In Hit & Run, one was set fire through weapons fire. NZDF said only two shots were fired by the NZSAS.

In Hit & Run, the troops arrived with liquid propellants. NZDF discounted this.

The narrative does not deal with the cover-up claim, largely founded on then-defence minister Wayne Mapp adamantly insisting no civilians had died during a 2011 television interview.

NZDF has moderated its position over time, now insisting no civilians were killed by NZSAS personnel.

The ISAF investigation concluded "civilian casualties may have been possible due to a gun sight malfunction on one coalition aircraft".

Details of the inquiry was passed to the Chief of Defence and to Mapp "to the fullest extent possible and based on available information".

It does not explain Mapp's 2011 interview, in which he was asked: "There's an Associated Press report around that time that contains a claim that a number of civilians were killed during that operation.

Mapp: "And that's been investigated and proven to be false."

Question: "So no civilians were killed in that? You're satisfied about that? You've seen some reports on it?"

Mapp: "I am satisfied around that."