In the normal theory of civil-military relations, Samuel Huntington says the “healthiest and most effective form of civilian control of the military is that which maximises professionalism by isolating soldiers from politics, and giving them as free a hand as possible in military matters”.

The political leadership determines its nation’s geo-strategic goals and the military is then given space to develop and deliver the means to achieve them. The military, in return, accepts the legitimacy of civilian dominance. That is the deal.

In these circumstances, according to Huntington, when politicians leave purely military matters to officers, and when they draw clear boundaries between their activities and those of civilians, outstanding military organisations emerge. 

That corresponds with New Zealanders’ view of our defence forces.

Problems in civil-military relations, however, can arise in two directions: first, political leaders may interfere in too many lower-order military decisions that are rightly the preserve of the professional military leadership. The second problem, which is a far more threatening one to a liberal democracy, is when the professional military leadership involve themselves too much in politics. By doing so the pact is broken and our democracy is weakened rather than protected by its guardians.

It is these thoughts that lead me to suggest that there are deeper implications to the SAS raids in Naik and Khak Khuday Dad villages in 2010; concerns that simply demand an inquiry into all aspects of the raid(s) and their aftermath, up to and including this week’s incredible statement by the New Zealand Defence Force (NZDF); one that still maintains there were no civilian deaths in the actions, notwithstanding clear evidence sourced to the Independent Directorate of Local Governance in Afghanistan, which recorded the names of both the dead and wounded on August 22.

It’s a bizarre response given the quality of evidence supplied in Nicky Hager and Jon Stephenson’s Hit & Run, strengthened by former Defence Minister Wayne Mapp’s subsequent admission, and further confirmed by an SAS soldier’s comments about how widely the “fiasco” was known inside the service. They obliterate the NZDF defence.

Otherwise, you have to hold in your head the absurd notion that six civilians died violent deaths and another 15 civilians suffered violent injuries on the same night of the raid in some totally unrelated fashion.

Second, the official NZDF position remains that 12 or nine insurgents were killed. This claim has also collapsed. The immediate implication for the NZDF after its stonewalling is that an independent inquiry is both inevitable and necessary because the NZDF cover-up is so palpably obvious and, so far, ongoing.

One can understand a desire to protect soldiers caught in a confusing situation, armed with faulty intelligence, and determined to take care of their mate to the left and right of them. One can also understand why the military and civilian leaderships would prefer to not have their decisions, taken before and after the operation, placed under scrutiny. Careers and reputations are at stake. The individuals involved, however, from the lowliest soldier to the highest politician, should not be the primary focus; the issue, instead, is the reputation of the NZDF and, ultimately, the honour of our state.

An inquiry is also needed to understand deeper concerns about the civil-military relationship as they relate to the August 22 military operation. If after Tim O’Donnell’s tragic death a more aggressive policy was warranted to better protect the security of their Bamiyan base and operations, and that was agreed to by the civilian leadership, then that was a fitting and proper response. That’s the civil-military relationship working. But if that was the case, the military leadership should have then been left to plan and execute the operation. They were entitled to under their rules of engagement anyway. Why, therefore, was the civilian leadership – in the form of the Minister of Defence and the Prime Minister – involved again?

But that doesn’t seem to be what happened. Instead, Mapp was briefed hours before the raid and then decided along with then Chief of the Defence Force Lieutenant-General Jerry Mateparae, to get the final green light from the Prime Minister. Was this a tragic merging of military operational decision making and political leadership?

If so, the country’s political leadership was badly exposed and let down by their military leadership. The Prime Minister and his advisors needed time to consider a much wider set of questions about any proposed military response to protecting the New Zealand force in Bamiyan, including their considering the wider implications of a deteriorating security situation, canvassing different options, with the necessary trade-offs understood, testing the quality of intelligence, and, not least, assessing their own political risk.

Whichever way decisions were made, the civil-military relationship has been compromised. Mateparae should have known better than to place his civilian masters in this position, and they should have known better than to allow it. They are now all embedded in this tragic “fiasco”. This issue needs explanation and given the high standing of the individuals involved only a properly constituted inquiry granted the widest powers can explore this fundamental dimension.

At such an inquiry one also hopes that those 20 or so sources who assisted Hager and Stephenson in their work show a different type of courage, by choosing to appear before an inquiry to get all the contested facts on the record. That would take some of the pressure off the authors, given their relationships with the defence, security and political establishments, and to ensure that the public learns the facts.

It’s vitally important that civil and military leaderships learn from the “fiasco”. We are a nation that takes pride in our armed forces, from their courage and sacrifice over many conflicts to their professionalism and selfless commitment. We pay respect to our military every year, both formally and otherwise, and to their proud traditions.

It is therefore more damaging to the reputation of the New Zealand Defence Force to keep stonewalling in an attempt to try and plug a dyke that has already crumbled around them. The flood has hit and by their continued denial the NZDF, led by Lieutenant-General Tim Keating, has breached its side of the civil-military compact by involving itself in every which way, in politics.

Military strategist Bernard Brodie said that one of the lessons of Vietnam was that “the civil hand must never relax, and it must without one hint of apology hold the control that has always belonged to it as a right”. Bill English, an empiricist if ever there was one, needs to familiarise himself with the evidence produced and then reassert control. One way he could do this is by standing Keating down until an inquiry is conducted – because by his words and actions Keating is a barrier to finding out the truth.

It is entirely prudent that the Prime Minister takes advice before commiting to any inquiry but it is also his duty of care to protect the well-earned reputation of our professional military. If the NZDF stonewall continues it will guarantee that this issue will dog English’s own leadership. Only an inquiry can help answer the many troubling questions raised during the past week and those raised here about our civil-military relations.

Finally, we New Zealanders are a people whose modern society is shaped by an acknowledgement of past injustices, committed against our first peoples. Apologies that accompany every treaty settlement are one important symbol of sincere attempts to restore mana to Māori  Apologies to the Samoan community and to the Chinese, made during Helen Clark’s years, were likewise powerful symbols of state wrongdoing and the desire to more honestly explain our past so as to place our future on a better footing.

It is this strength that is democracy’s taonga; the ability to self-correct and learn from past mistakes. That is what democracy’s enemies want to destroy. For the isolated villagers of Naik and Khak Khuday Dad we should show our strength, however painful it proves, and not succumb to weakness.

Dr Jon Johansson is a senior lecturer in politics at Victoria University of Wellington.

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