Nicky Hager is a ground-breaking investigative journalist and best-selling author. Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist Seymour Hersh once said of him: “Nicky Hager has more knowledge and understanding of the American intelligence world in Afghanistan — both its good and its very bad points — than any reporter I know.”
Hager’s latest book, which he co-authored with Jon Stephenson, is called Hit and Run: The New Zealand SAS in Afghanistan and the meaning of honour. It documents potential war crimes committed by New Zealand personnel in Afghanistan in 2010 and includes a variety of sources, including members of the military who came forward to the authors with the truth about what happened at the time. Anti-Media caught up with Mr. Hager to get his take on the recent developments currently under way in the Middle East and Asia, as well as to learn about his latest book.
AM: Hi Nicky, thank you for talking with us today, and thank you for your work. I want to get your take on the recent developments that have occurred; for example, Donald Trump’s decision to strike the Syrian government, the ramped up operations in Iraq and Afghanistan, and the looming war with North Korea. What are your thoughts on what is going on right now?
NH: I believe that what we see at the moment is not about the personality of Donald Trump or the policies of Donald Trump. It is important to understand that what we’re seeing is a vacuum at the top because of the non-person there that doesn’t understand the issues – more so than most politicians don’t understand the issues, and they never do understand them all that much. And what I think we see going on is that there is a re-establishment of power, a move for dominance by the U.S. military which could have well found the same pretexts and done the same things with a different leader at the same time because it’s part of their power rather than some kind of erraticism on the part of Donald Trump.
AM: Not long after you published your book, Hit and Run, breaking the story regarding the revenge attack committed by New Zealand SAS soldiers in Afghanistan, an aerial bombardment in Iraq reportedly killed over 200 civilians. These events seem quite commonplace now. Without necessarily saying one particular attack is more noteworthy than another, what can you tell us about the particular attack described in your book that Western audiences should really take note of and learn from?
NH: You could find more terrible tragedies with more blood than the events we wrote about in our book, that’s not the point. The point is that with a lot of work and extremely good sources, sources inside the military – the New Zealand military, the U.S. military, the Afghan military, the villagers on the ground, the human rights groups that went in afterwards to try to make sense of what happened – by taking all the different parts of the story about the catastrophe of civilian deaths in Afghanistan we were able to give a really full picture, which, if anyone reads it, will help them understand not just that little atom of that incident, but the war it’s a part of, the moral structure, the legal structure, and why people do the things they do.
Why the insurgents were the way they were; how the villagers handled it; what decision-making took place that made the New Zealand government and military decide to cover up the event. By having one story that you tell in great detail, that’s the way you learn about the whole thing.
The events described in our book took place after the first New Zealand combat death in Afghanistan, after New Zealand had been partly fortunate in being situated in a very peaceful part of the country. When the first New Zealander died there was this great ferocious rush to find out who the insurgents were, and in response, there was the biggest New Zealand Special Forces operation in close to a decade of being stationed in Afghanistan, where two small villages were attacked and bombarded because they believed they would find the insurgents.
But the problem was they had acted rashly and without common sense because it is very common in Afghanistan for insurgents – this was a roadside attack against New Zealand troops in the first place – the more normal thing for them to do was what most insurgents do and that is to go up into the mountains and hide for a long time. So New Zealand went in with its biggest SAS operation, with Afghan troops, and borrowed U.S. attack helicopters and drones and all kinds of weapons of war to two small villages where there were no insurgents. Just children and their parents, and the elderly. And an inevitable catastrophe resulted.
AM: It seems that with Afghanistan, these kinds of attacks are all too commonplace. Just recently, the U.S. dropped the so-called “Mother of all bombs” on an ISIS position in Afghanistan that the CIA originally built in the first place. Conservative estimates show the financial cost of the bomb amounted to $450,000 per ISIS fighter killed. With developments like this, where do you see the war in Afghanistan headed?
NH: The first thing to note is that the dropping of a large bomb in Afghanistan and publicizing it to the world with its malignant title “the mother of all bombs” – that bomb was not aimed at ISIS fighters. It was aimed at the new administration in Washington. It was bringing them into line. It was conditioning them – to turn them from being anti-interventionists into being routine overseers of a huge military which goes its own way to a large extent. We shouldn’t misunderstand what went on there; that was a political gesture in my strong opinion. Of course, going after ISIS is sexier and more contemporary than some supposed remnants of the Taliban, but the politics are the same.
When that MOAB was dropped recently – so many years since the war began in 2001 – the real lesson is that it is an act of desperation. It is the act of a losing war. What we are seeing is the kind of inevitable playing out of bad strategy as it has constantly gone wrong in Afghanistan. The original reason for going in was in relation to what happened on September 11, 2001, as we all know, but this ceased to have meaning in as little as a few weeks as Osama bin Laden and his colleagues had walked across the mountains in Tora Bora into Pakistan and never returned to Afghanistan. And from that point on, there was no sensible purpose for the war.
There was a great moment which I wrote about previously. I was leaked a document from a very senior military official, known as the Commander of Joint Forces, who had gone into Afghanistan in early 2002 and met the other commanding officers and the troops and government figures there. He wrote a secret report in which he said he could find no evidence of any coherent strategy or even “clear commander’s intent” for why they were in Afghanistan.
This has never changed. Not long after that, the U.S. started withdrawing its troops, in part because it had lost interest and in part to prepare for the invasion of Iraq. And it continued to roll on like that year after year, where Special Forces have led strategy-less kind of fighting.
It has been a slow-motion train wreck for the last 16 years.
AM: To go back to the events in your book, one of the biggest criticisms I have seen, particularly on social media, is a very warped and superficial argument that goes something to the effect of “Well, it’s wartime, so of course, civilians will die.” What do you say in response to these types of apathetic comments?
NH: The “bad things happen in war” argument is the refuge of the right-wing talk back host or politician who doesn’t want to face up to the issues. This argument is not aimed at a thinking audience. We need to be clear about arguments like this. They are aimed at the people who aren’t listening – the radio is going on in the background or the television is on while they are eating their dinner and multitasking. These are arguments that only work because there is a portion of the public that will come with you even if you say ridiculous things.
The reason why it is such a flawed argument – and this is worth talking about – the reason it is so flawed is because in times of war there are huge structures of laws, codes of conduct, and international obligations. If we didn’t have these, then the brutality and the losses would be much larger even than they already are. When somebody says bad things happen in war, what they are in fact saying is, “I don’t care about the Geneva conventions.” But these are incredibly important foundations of a civilized society. Civilized societies shouldn’t go to war anyway, but if they do there are structures there to stop them being as terrible as they would be. People still have to act with restraint and govern their own activities and investigate their own activities when they are wrong.
AM: Following on from that topic, if people are so sure that in wartime “bad things happen,” why is it we see such a denial on the part of the authorities? The denials surrounding your book have been quite staggering. Would there ever be a scenario in which authorities would accept responsibility for their wrongdoings?
NH: In this particular case that we wrote about, it is very hard for the government and military to own up. First of all, what they had done was seriously inconsistent with what they say about themselves, their core values, their integrity, and their image of themselves as being different from the American troops or Australian troops. They are much more respectful of the local people, have more empathy for the local people that they are working around, and they stick up for these values much more strongly than other countries involved in these wars. This is who they believe they are. So it is a very difficult and challenging thing for them when this turns out to not be the case.
So firstly, they don’t want to own up because it is embarrassing for them and makes them look bad. The other level is that they have been covering up these incidents for many years now. Not only do they not have to own up for their actions but the people in authority have to own up to something much worse, being their indifference and connivance in covering up what happened. This set the bar very high for people to be willing to front up.
AM: Do you have anything further you would like to add in relation to this topic? In your book, you describe a rogue unit within the New Zealand military. Would you like to elaborate on that further?
NH: To be specific, in the United States, the Special Operations Command and the Special Forces generally have become a lobby group for the U.S. government. [When it comes to] real politics of what happens in war and government decisions regarding war, the Special Forces lobby is very powerful. It has its own agenda, which is different from the navy, the air force, the peacekeeping troops, or the State Department. That very aggressive Special Forces lobby sees the world through a particular lens and sees solutions to the world being the use of Special Forces. They have been very successful in promoting themselves and [are] being used in more and more countries.
There is a microcosm of that in New Zealand during the last decade in the Afghanistan war. New Zealand’s Special Forces have done exactly that, and this has never happened before. The Special Forces lobbied to get themselves into the Afghanistan war – [they] deliberately went to Florida where the U.S. Special Operations Command is located and lobbied for it themselves. As the years passed, they lobbied for more and more aggressive roles there. If you look at the New Zealand military now, the chief of the Defence Force, the chief of the army, the deputy chief, and others in key positions are all previous commanding officers of the SAS. There has been a political empire building takeover of the senior levels of the military by the Special Forces.
This goes together with a policy push by the special forces. In Hit and Run I was able to put in a secret document that was leaked to me from a review of special operations in New Zealand early in the Afghanistan war, [when] the Special Forces were saying they saw the vision of an expanded and more powerful role for the Special Forces in New Zealand, and they saw this being within the context of the so-called Tier One forces working with the countries in the Five Eyes Alliance (U.S., U.K., Australia, Canada, and New Zealand). How New Zealand would react in future wars, including the Syrian war, for example, is that we would have Special Forces that would seamlessly – as they put it – slot into an Anglo-American war structure and be the lead part of New Zealand’s contribution to wars.
This has never been talked about in public. By talking about it in Hit and Run, we are hoping that we can illuminate and bring this out into the open.
AM: Interesting point. It reminds me of how for a period in Syria, we had CIA-backed rebels fighting against Pentagon-backed rebels. So essentially, the U.S. was fighting a proxy war against itself. To what extent are these conflicting strategies and goals of the different military units affecting a country’s military? Is this merely a power-hungry group of people or is there something else worth noting here?
NH: The conventional public view is that you have governments in each country who control the military and their other institutions. That’s what we are taught at school. It is partly true. But of course, in order to see how a country works, you look at who holds the power. Where does the power lie? In New Zealand, Australia, and the United States, a lot of power lies with corporations. We can only explain what happens by looking at the power of the industry players.
This is the same with military and war. Governments have some power over what goes on and have some knowledge — but not all knowledge. What actually goes on is a play out of the power of the different institutions. In Afghanistan, for example, and in Iraq and Syria, too, the CIA has been fighting an almost separate war from the other entities.
The CIA in Afghanistan had its own commander units, its own paid local militias, its own bombing raids, [and] its own intelligence systems. It was like a parallel war going on there, different from the rest of the U.S. department of defense and allies. In order to get a full picture what’s going on there, you actually have to see what the respective power is. Some are more brutal than others, some more secret, some more unaccountable than others, and the whole catastrophe is the sum of those different parts. What we are getting increasingly is wars with an incredibly large CIA component and an even larger Special Forces component.
The reason this is important to highlight is that the culture of the CIA and the culture of the Special Forces are completely different than say, the culture of the U.S. State Department. The more the war is being determined and fought by these more aggressive, more secretive parts, the more the war becomes like that. These differences and dominances and power plays and empire building instances are actually highly relevant to what happens to the poor people whose country the war is being fought in.