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Secrecy on SAS must stop
17 September 2002
The Government's refusal to comment on the deployment of New Zealand SAS troops in Afghanistan is becoming increasingly absurd. By now, it is fair to assume that the soldiers have undertaken combat missions. Yet even that minimal information is considered too hot for public consumption. According to the Government, it would jeopardise the troops' safety and their ability to operate covertly. It would do nothing of the sort, of course, and the wall of silence means that scraps of comment from overseas websites are being seized upon to fill the information vacuum.
That, in itself, presents a danger that could easily be surmounted by a brief official summary of SAS operations. There is a website for every conspiracy theorist under the sun, and the credibility of each site must be carefully evaluated. Take the information carried by the latest website to comment on the activities of the SAS. It seems credible enough but some of the content is so confused as to demand caution.
The website - www.thesealstore.com - says it is reporting a briefing to the United States Navy Seals Association by Commodore Bob Harward, the commander of Task Force K-Bar. That force is said to include 40 of our SAS troops, who have been raiding locations in southern Afghanistan suspected of harbouring al Qaeda or senior Taleban personnel, arms and intelligence materials. That all seems reasonable enough. Yet the report is confused, saying on the one hand that the taskforce had suffered no casualties and on the other that an Australian SAS soldier had been mortally wounded after driving into a marked minefield. No such casualty has been announced by the Australian Defence Force.
Such discrepancies aside, the website suggests that New Zealanders are operating in areas where there have been bombings of civilians. This prompted a retort from the Prime Minister yesterday that she was ©comfortable© with what the SAS was up to. But, again, she refused to discuss specifics, just as she did when a German newspaper reported that the troops were - quite out of character - renovating buildings near Kabul. No one wants a blow-by-blow account of the activities of the SAS that could jeopardise their safety or their viability. But the public should be told of their activities in general terms, just as Australians were told after their SAS shot two al Qaeda fighters in a firefight southeast of Kabul.
Indeed, so out of step is Helen Clark that it is reasonable to question her motive. Is she displaying an inherent distaste of combat soldiering? That she would, in fact, be happier if the SAS were not in Afghanistan? Certainly, she was more forthcoming about the Army's role in East Timor. But that was soldiering of the peacekeeping type, the role favoured by the Government and the basis for a woefully misjudged redesign of the Defence Force. Then again, is this a shrewd policy that will limit damage if the American-led campaign comes up empty?
Either way, the policy is untenable. We should not have to rely on confused and potentially erroneous comment on overseas websites. Our allies have, quite correctly, provided brief outlines of the operations of their troops. New Zealanders merit the same consideration. At the very least, knowing their soldiers have been in combat would make the announcement of casualties less calamitous. It would also be reassuring to know the troops were making the contribution for which they were trained. Soldiering on in silence is not an option for the Government.
© 2002 New Zealand Herald