Whatever happened to Afghanistan?
The war in Afghanistan is almost over, but will that prompt any deeper thinking about New Zealand's role in it?
There has been much discussion about the offer of a safe haven for Afghan people who have served as translators for the NZDF when troops pull out next year. However, this discussion has failed to prompt a wider examination of the justifications for the war in Afghanistan and New Zealand's role in it.
The situation now
New Zealand troops are due to leave Afghanistan in early 2013. Two NZ bases in Bamiyan have already been closed, and the troops consolidated into the main NATO base called 'Kiwi base.'
The entire US/NATO operation is due to wind up in 2014. The government line is that the 'Afghan forces are ready to take over'. This includes the Afghan National Army and Police. Yet the situation in Bamiyan, once a province almost totally devoid of any Taliban activity, is decidedly less secure:
"Currently, there are no Afghan National Army (ANA) units garrisoned in Bamyan, and the 800-man Afghan police force in Bamyan is ill-equipped to counter attacks conducted by heavily armed Taliban insurgents. Local police have repeatedly complained that their small arms and unarmored vehicles are no match for insurgents armed with rocket-propelled grenades, heavy machine guns, mortars, and deadly roadside bombs." (From: The Long War Journal)
Remind me, why are they there?
The NZDF originally decided to take on responsibility for operating a PRT in Bamiyan precisely because it was an area of little "insurgent" activity. Helen Clark thought the PRT would be a way that NZ could have its cake and eat it, too. On one hand, she couldn't afford not to support the Americans and a long-term SAS deployment was politically untenable; on the other hand, the PRT would win the hearts and minds of most liberals with the rhetoric of human rights and nation-building, and she was unlikely to have to answer to kiwi troop causalities.
The role of the PRT was not to reconstruct critical infrastructure - as is often touted - but rather to promote a sense of security by going out on patrols and being seen. In the intervening 10 years, Bamiyan has become more and more dangerous. The most recent attacks upon NZDF soldiers were claimed by the Taleban, and their statement should be an opportunity to examine the basis of New Zealand's deployment there:
"New Zealand has not sent us workers or engineers. They have sent their soldiers to us...The soldiers don't do the work of aid or assistance. The soldiers come for secret purposes and they carry guns. They have military equipment and they have entered our country illegitimately, illegally as an invading force." (Taliban spokesman Zabihullah Mujahid).
In Other People's Wars, author Nicky Hager has provided ample evidence of the presence of CIA and US State Department personnel at the NZ PRT bases. This alone casts the PRT into a role, not of protecting the Afghan people, but of supporting clandestine US operations.
More saliently, however, is that the premise that sending foreign troops into a community where there is little violence as a means of ensuring their security is utterly flawed and in fact a recipe for creating violence. New Zealand's role was self-serving; it was not based on any request from the people in Bamiyan. It has ultimately attracted the very violence that the NZDF says that it was there to prevent.
There are causes worth dying for, but none worth killing for.
As the war winds down, we can look back at all of the justifications for the war: to stop terrorism, to promote human rights, to help women, to 'build a nation', and to 'spread democracy.' One can take none, some or all of these as valid.
But at end of it, the questions must be: Are the people in Afghanistan any better off for it? Are they safer? Do they have greater rights and freedoms? Are we safer? Do we have more rights and freedoms?
The answer is an unequivocal no. And those who authorised and supported New Zealand's involvement ought to be doing a lot of soul searching to examine why the NZDF was ever there in the first place, and how its role contributed to the horror wrought on the people of Afghanistan.