Secrecy is obviously advantageous and even necessary for a national fighting force when it is in the field but it should never forget that it represents a modern democracy. It is accountable to the public and needs to be as open as its operational needs will permit. This does not seem to be the culture of the New Zealand Defence Force.
For three years the NZDF has refused to release a report on its largest operation in Afghanistan, now obtained by the Herald with the help of the Chief Ombudsman. The report suggests many shortcomings in the Provincial Reconstruction Team's deployments in Bamiyan Province from 2003 to 2013 but nothing that could not have been shared with the public once the mission was finished.
The Commander Joint Forces NZ, Major General Tim Gall, considers the issues it identified to be "unremarkable, business-as-usual irritations". In that case, why bury it? When the draft was written in early 2014, Defence Headquarters had the choice of correcting what Gall calls its "self-contradictions" or ignoring it. But it did not have the option of suppressing it. The preparation, training, equipping and direction of New Zealand's armed forces are matters of legitimate public interest.
The public would expect the Defence Force to undertake a proper review of its performance in a mission of this kind and military professionals serving an open democracy ought to make their report public as a matter of course. It should not have taken the perseverance of a journalist as dogged as the Herald's David Fisher to bring it to public attention.
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The whole Afghanistan mission has been conducted too far below the public radar for the NZDF's own good, as witness the pressure now to hold an inquiry into an incident dating from 2010. It was obliged yesterday to admit civilian casualties could have occurred. The incident ought to have been properly reported at the time.
The unusual degree of secrecy of our troops' activities in Afghanistan arose from the use of the SAS as a front-line force. Special forces usually operate in territory where they need total secrecy. But when Helen Clark's Government answered the call from the United States to help drive terrorist bases out of Afghanistan, the SAS seemed to be our only available combat unit. They were sent and New Zealand heard little more about them except incidentally in reports of actions by allied forces, which were being reported more openly.
As long ago as 2005, we complained editorially that other countries seemed to be able to keep their citizens reasonably briefed on what is being done in their name. But it was not until 2010 that we learned from the New York Times that "a small group of commandos from New Zealand'' had fought a battle in the streets of Kabul and a few days later we published a French cameraman's photo of two of the SAS in full battledress. They were clearly fighting in the open in our name.
After that disclosure the Key Government made an effort to keep the country better informed but the Defence Force does not appear to have changed its culture. It is not a secret service, it has to stand up in public and be accountable.