Nicky Hager and Jon Stephenson’s new book, Hit and Run, which details the horrific and murderous raids by NZ Special Air Service (SAS) troops in two Afghan villages in 2010, is creating shock waves across the country as we learn details about the suffering and gruesome death of 6 people, and the wounding of 15 others. The raids were essentially in retaliation for the killing of a New Zealand soldier. Hager has said cautiously in legalese that, “there are reasonable grounds to believe” that war crimes were committed.
No doubt there will be considerable political fallout, but the main players – John Key and Wayne Mapp – have already sung their swan song, so the government may or may not be able to wear this debacle through to another success at election time. We can be sure they will use their frequent refrain that “Labour did it first”, and indeed, they would be right.
New Zealand’s role in Afghanistan began on October 8, 2001 when Helen Clark committed Navy frigates and Air Force Orion’s to the US’s Operation Enduring Freedom. Secretly, SAS were also deployed at that time for “long range direct action missions.” Our knowledge of what that deployment involved has been carefully stage managed, but there have been some significant fractures in the domestic “hearts and minds” campaign. In particular, Jon Stephenson’s investigation of the raid on Band-E-Timur which resulted in the death of one child, and the handing over to US forces some 50-70 Afghan men, was a serious fracture in the positive narrative of “reconstruction” and “peacekeeping” sold to us at home. The Afghan men were subsequently sent to Bagram, a notorious US torture facility. Those raids occurred under Helen Clark’s government, and Stephenson was slandered by the government for daring to air the military’s dirty secrets in his excellent “Eyes Wide Shut” article for Metro magazine.
But this post is not a retelling of the past 15 years of New Zealand’s involvement in Afghanistan or the NZDFs raids there. It is a post about another raid and slaughter: one committed by New Zealand and Australian troops in Surafend, Palestine in 1918.
On 9 December 1918 outside the Palestinian village of Surafend, Leslie Lowry of the NZ Machine Gun Squadron was awoken from his sleep by an intruder in his tent. The soldier pursued the man, and was subsequently shot dead. Despite the fact that an enquiry later found that Lowry had been shot with a standard issue service revolver, suspicion immediately fell on the local Arab village. The following evening, two hundred soldiers of the New Zealand Mounted Rifles and Australian Light Horse entered Surafend, first expelling all the women and children. Then using pick handles and bayonets New Zealand soldiers murdered between 40 and 120 men before torching their huts. The flames lit up the countryside for miles around. They then moved on to a neighbouring Bedouin camp, which they also burned to the ground.
Despite initial disavowals by Australian troops, recent evidence has implicated them in the massacre at Surafend along with the New Zealanders.
During an investigation into the murders, the Anzacs refused to name any individual soldiers responsible. No one would ever be charged or disciplined for the massacre.
There is a very long historical tie that binds these wars, and these raids together: one of “ours” dead, a revenge raid, and lots of “them” dead. In some respects, it is the very same war that is being fought 100 years on. Just as New Zealand troops were deployed across the Middle East in WW1 in order to secure oil for the British Navy, and more colonial possessions for Mother Britain, so too, the War on Terror is the US’s strategy for imperial conquest of the Middle East and Central Asia. Certainly those on the ground are making the connection. In 2014, ISIS said that it would “erase” the Sykes-Picot Agreement, a reference to the post-WW1 secret agreement between the English and French which carved up Ottoman territory into new colonial possessions for the victors.
The victims of those wars are the same, too. Muslim men, women and children, ordinary people living very ordinary lives, have been and continue to be on the deadly receiving end of Western imperialist violence. It is, as Edward Said so poignantly documented, our processes of “othering” which makes it possible for us to see these people as somehow less human, less worthy of living than ourselves. This “othering” of the “Orient” is a strategy of control so that when our governments and our soldiers kill these people, we can justify it. There is another name for it. It’s called white supremacy. New Zealand is not involved in some humanitarian project in Afghanistan: it is involved in an imperial occupation.
For 15 years, parts of the peace movement have been calling for an end to New Zealand’s involvement in the War on Terror. We have been calling for an end to the deployment in Afghanistan.
So it is with heavy hearts and deep sadness at the horrors unleashed on Afghan people that we say that at the core of any investigation into these contemporary raids there must be a rethink of New Zealand’s entire military project. We must stop being duped by the public relations of “humanitarian aid” and realise that the New Zealand military and intelligence agencies are in the service of a campaign of global terror.
And we must stop it.