There are two (related) debates raging following the decision of the Herald and other newpapers to publish the photo of VC winner Willie Apiata on active duty in Kabul following a Taliban attack.
The Christchurch Press argues this morning that it was just sharing a photo ‘that anyone could see on the internet’. The Press denies this puts Corporal Apiata at more risk. ‘Every Western soldier in Afghanistan is already a target.’ Other commentators have argued that because Willie Apiata is a VC winner, and now known to be operating in the SAS unit in Kabul, he could now be more of a target.
My question is that if the NZ Defence Force is so aware of the risk to our VC winner, why did they:
A. send him back to Afghanistan?
B. help anyone in Afghanistan to recognise him by publishing on the NZ Army website a picture of a bearded Apiata, in combat fatigues, apparently in the field. (Also see Tim Watkins on this)?
The other important question, forthrightly addressed in Saturday’s NZ Herald editorial, is why the government still has such an impenetrable blanket of secrecy around what our SAS troops are doing in Afghanistan. In my opinion, both Labour and National administrations have done this to inhibit debate over the mission, which is not popular among New Zealanders.
There is no good reason for our government to be less open than the Australian government, which discloses where its special forces are based in Afghanistan, and issues some post-operation reports on what they are doing.
New Zealanders deserve better. For a start we need accurate information on what is the general mission of our SAS unit. Last October Prime Minister Key said it was training Afghan soldiers – and then assured us they wouldn’t be involved ‘in theatre’ with the Afghan troops. This squares with what MPs like myself were told last year. It was considered too problematic and dangerous for our special forces to be operating as a subsidiary part of an Afghan combat unit.
Now it appears our SAS was involved with Afghan soldiers in last Monday’s response to a Taliban operation in the centre of Kabul. In yesterday’s Sunday Star-Times Anthony Hubbard and Jon Stephenson laid out the evidence that some of our SAS soldiers were right there with the Afghan Crisis Response Unit, which they also train.
Photographer Philip Poupin took the picture of Willie Apiata and his colleague as they came out of the building where Afghan commandos had shot three Taliban, and a Norwegian correspondent, Tom Bakkeli, said the Crisis Response Unit was ‘absolutely involved in the fighting’.
I will be asking the government some direct questions about these matters when Parliament resumes in February.