On New Zealand SAS “Mentoring”
A Word From Afar – By Paul G. Buchanan
When John Key authorized the re-deployment of an SAS company to serve as counter-terrorism advisors to the Afghan Police's Crisis Response Unit
(CRU) in 2009, he was authorizing a mission that differed from the long-range tracking and infiltration missions that
are the mainstay of SAS deployments and which were the basis for its original deployment in that theater from 2001-2005.
In doing so he was placing the SAS at the forefront of the urban guerrilla war in and around Kabul (to include Wardak
Province) that was part of the Afghan resistance's two-pronged (urban and rural) irregular war conducted against the
foreign occupying force led by the US and NATO under the banner of the International Security Assistance Force (ISAF).
By the time Key authorised the deployment the security situation in Afghanistan had evolved into a civil war involving
the Western-backed Karzai regime, the Pakistani-backed Haqqani network, and various Taliban factions based in and
outside of Afghanistan (with Pakistan facilitating cross-border cover for those based inside its territory).
The SAS inherited the counter-terrorism advisor mission from the Norwegian special forces, who had advised the CRU from
2007-2009. The CRU has its origins in 2005, so rather than a new unit it is almost seven years old and has had foreign
professional military training and advice for nearly five years. In most modern militaries the time taken for
specialisation beyond basic training (such as sniping, sapping, intelligence-gathering and counter-terrorist response)
varies from 6 to 18 months. That means that the CRU, which has 285 members, is lagging behind when it comes to being
able to autonomously respond and fight on its own.
The SAS initially sent a light company's worth of troops (70) in 2009, but the number has been reduced to 38 in the last
year. The job consists of providing training on-base in which counter-terrorist assaults are mounted in various
scenarios, using abandoned buildings, vehicles and other simulations that replicate the dense tactical environment in
which the CRU must operate. Close quarter clearing and entering, airborne rappelling, hostage rescue and a host of other
skills are initially imparted in these exercises. But the mission also includes accompanying the CRU into real
situations, which means taking leadership roles in responding to live incidents when the CRU forces prove unable to cope
on their own.
As Taliban attacks on symbolic and military targets have increased over the last year in concert with the announcement
that the US will be withdrawing the bulk of its forces by 2014, with other ISAF members already doing so, the pace of
these "live" responses has accelerated as well. Most of the operations conducted by the SAS/CRU consist of pre-emptive
strikes against imminent threats based on intelligence flows provided by Afghan and ISAF forces. A smaller percentage is
dedicated to responding to terrorist incidents in progress such as the attacks on the Intercontinental Hotel and British
High Commission. The accelerated pace of operations now sees the SAS/CRU deployed in "live" mode 2-3 times a week on
Urban guerrilla warfare has no fixed lines or fronts. In fact, by definition the battle space in a guerrilla war is
amorphous and permeable. Thus the counter-terrorism mission is a combat mission within an irregular warfare context.
Training and advising in such contexts means involvement in close-quarter small unit kinetic operations, which given the
dense (heavily populated and urbanised) environment in which they occurs means that support and leadership roles are
indistinguishable to the enemy. Thus the SAS has always had a combat role in this mission.
It is evident that the CRU is not performing up to professional military or SWAT team standard, particularly when
confronted by a committed and well-prepared enemy. This may be due to a lack of will on member's part, which in turn may
be rooted in the deep divisions extant in Afghan society and in the knowledge that a post-ISAF political settlement that
avoids massive bloodshed will have to include the Taliban and the Haqqanis. Under such conditions in may appear foolish
to be closely identified with foreign forces working with the Karzai regime. That could sap the desire of some CRU
members to engage robustly in the counter-terrorism effort, no matter how eager they may appear to their SAS advisors
when back on base. This is compounded by faulty intelligence flows in which individuals or groups with personal
vendettas supply misinformation about rivals so that ISAF forces, including the CRU/SAS, launch raids against innocent
people. There is already at least one incident in which the SAS has engaged in an operation that resulted in the deaths
of innocents based upon faulty intelligence. The manipulation of intelligence by Afghan sources, in other words, raises
the probability that the SAS will be involved in the deaths of civilian non-combatants.
The SAS dilemma is compounded by the fact that, given CRU unreliability, the risks to SAS troopers increases every time
they deploy with them. It is one thing to deploy with fellow SAS on long-range patrols or in a counter-terrorism
situation. They are a tightly knit and cohesive fighting unit playing off the same tactical page. But adding the CRU to
the mix brings with it a lack of discipline and resolve, which forces the SAS troops to compensate by leading by
example. Doing so exposes them to a degree seldom seen when fighting with and on their own.
The latest raid that resulted in the second death of an SAS soldier in a month demonstrates the problem. In a
pre-emptive raid against suspected bomb-makers (or a family feud, depending on who you believe), the SAS deployed 15
advisors along side 50 CRU troops. This is a ratio of 1 advisor for every 3.1 CRU soldiers. That is remarkably low if
the SAS were merely "mentoring" in a support role but is consistent with involvement in small team fighting units. The
fact that the SAS trooper was killed while climbing a ladder to gain a better vantage point on the compound in which the
raid was taking place shows that even such basic tasks, usually assigned to the most expendable soldiers of lower-rank,
are having to be done by SAS troops. This demonstrates a lack of faith in the competence or reliability of the CRU
personnel and the need for first-responder pro-action on the part of the SAS in such situations.
Given that the Afghan resistance have increased the tempo of their operations in and around Kabul, the likelihood is
that the CRU/SAS will be involved in an increasing number of armed incidents. That may force the NZDF to re-increase its
complement of SAS back to the original 70 personnel, and raises the question as to whether it will be asked to extend
the SAS deployment past its March 2012 withdrawal date. Given the strategic dynamics at play in Afghanistan, that is a
It also raises the question as to why Mr. Key has from the day he announced the re-deployment insisted that the SAS are
in a non-combat "mentoring" and support role. The NZDF and Minister of Defense have now admitted that combat is part of
the mission. Mr. Key continues to deny that it is so. Besides the lack of synchronization of the government PR spin, the
question rises as to whether the government has misled the NZ public on the true nature of the mission, or the NZDF
deliberately misled the Prime Minister and his cabinet on the matter at the time the request for SAS assistance was made
by ISAF (it should be noted that Mr. Key's agreement to redeploy the SAS was based on his aand NZDF eagerness to curry
favor with the US, which may not have seen a trade deal as a reward but which has seen NZ elevated to the status of full
US security partner with the signing of the Wellington Declaration of November 2010. This may be good for the NZDF is
terms of access to modern weapons and training, but could well mean future involvement in US-led military operations
that have little to do with NZ's national security per se).
All of this makes the government and NZDF attacks on the credibility of Jon Stephenson and Nicky Hager, two journalists
who exposed the true nature of NZDF missions in Afghanistan and the duplicity surrounding them, all the more
contemptible and desperate. It also was very stupid to do so because the conflict environment in which the SAS operates
has deteriorated rather than improved since it arrived back in theater, which made the deaths and wounding of its
personnel much more likely if not predictable. Once that began to happen (there have been about a half dozen SAS
troopers wounded in combat on this mission), it was only a matter of time before the corporate media began to focus
attention on the dubious explanations about the nature of the deployment. With that now happening the house of cards
that is Mr. Key's justification for authorizing it has begun to crumble, and it will not be surprising if senior NZDF
heads will roll as a result.
Paul G. Buchanan is the Principal of Buchanan Strategic Advisors, a political risk and strategic analysis consultancy.
An earlier version of this essay appears in www.kiwipolitico.com
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