Putting the SAS back into AfghanistanJuly 28th, 2009
Who has stolen John Key’s brain? The Prime Minister who only a couple of months ago was demanding to see a viable exit strategy before he would put New Zealand combat troops back into Afghanistan, has been replaced by a John Key impersonator for whom the vaguest of goals – combatting global terrorism – now seems like a darn good reason for doing so.
At his press conference yesterday, Key was so gung ho that he seemed to think no counter-argument for caution even existed. “What is the counter-factual? If the world doesn’t get on top of the position in Afghanistan, the counter-factual is it becomes an even bigger hotbed for global terrorism. I can’t see how that is in New Zealand’s best interests.”
The problem with that line of reasoning is that it denies the only success the US/ISAF have had in Afghanistan since 2002 – which has been to significantly reduce the risk of global terrorism posed by the al Qaeda leadership based in Afghanistan/Pakistan. The outside world is now far safer than it was in 2001 from the foreign fighters and Bin Laden network that used to be sheltered by the Taliban. The foreign fighters have been killed or dispersed, the Bin Laden/Zawahiri leadership is on the run. No-one is arguing that Afghanistan poses an increasing risk to the outside world. We may just as well be preparing our troops to go into Somalia, if every ‘failed state’ is seen by Key as posing a personal threat.
The Obama strategy in Afghanistan now has quite different goals – and they are of the nation-building sort. Military force is being used in the service of a political outcome. The hope is that a renewed military effort will create the space for a political solution – one likely to include ‘moderate’ elements of the Taliban in government – that would then enable the US/ISAF to declare victory and pull out their forces ASAP. Having Key wittering on about in Mumbai and bombs in Jakarta is irrelevant to the current goals of the US and those other countries actively involved in the Afghan war.
On the evidence, Key got a request from Washington and is jumping to obey without any sign of knowing what would constitute success, or a viable exit strategy. Along the way, he seems intent on shutting down the Provincial Reconstruction Team effort in Bamiyan – just when that province is being widely cited as almost the only success story that the corrupt and discredited Karzai government has had in its struggle with the Taliban.
Pose New Zealanders the basic question. Would you rather have our special forces dropped back into the thick of combat or would you prefer we provide a military aid team to rebuild Afghan society? I bet they’d prefer the latter, and would want us to stay the course in Bamiyan. Otherwise, think about the signal we would be sending to the Hazara population in Bamiyan. Just as the Taliban are starting to gain ground in that province – the same Taliban who massacred thousands of Hazara not so long ago – we are getting ready to abandon them. Fantastic strategy! Lets dump the Hazara just when they look like needing us most, and undo all the good that we’ve accomplished over the last six years, at a cost of $180 million.
At the end of the day, there are only three possible reasons for putting combat troops back into Afghanistan (a) to eliminate or reduce the external threat posed by al Qaeda foreign fighters based in that country (b) to win a military victory against the local Taliban (c) to help create a viable political administration in Kabul.
As mentioned, the first goal has already been won. The second, a military victory against the Taliban, has already been lost. The third, to create a military stalemate that might induce parts of the Taliban to engage in a political solution is well on the way to being lost. The recent moves in the direction of a political solution have been utterly disastrous. In the Swat valley in Pakistan, the ‘moderate’ Taliban leader Sufi Mohammed whom we wooed into a political compromise was then almost immediately undermined by a Pakistan military offensive. He has now been largely discredited among his own people, has become re-radicalised and is now under arrest. Great work, team!
Right now, the Taliban correctly sense that almost every country except the US – and now, New Zealand – is losing belief that a political solution is viable. They feel no need to make compromises and deal politically because (correctly) they think they are winning – both militarily and politically. Our SAS forces will be swimming upstream against that tide. Any who die, will have done so meaninglessly. Cabinet will make a final decisoon on the SAS/Bamiyan deployments in about three weeks. On the evidence, it would be utterly irresponsible if Cabinet agrees to put our combat troops in harms way on a mission that is almost certainly doomed.
From a historical viewpoint, Key could as well be talking about the need to counter the threat from global communism. The logic is reminiscent of Vietnam, circa 1969. Then as now, the hope still endured in Washington, Canberra and Wellington that a puppet government could somehow gain sufficient credibility to survive – and thus enable our troops to declare victory, and leave with dignity. That effort failed, and the Afghan mission will fail for the same reason. Because the US, ISAF and New Zealand troops will continue to be seen as neo-colonial invaders, and a tyranny that casts itself as nationalist liberators fighting foreign aggression will prevail.
Ultimately, we will learn to live with it. The premise that we have to get bogged down in Afghanistan in order to save our own societies from destruction is as false today as it was 40 years ago, in Vietnam.
Nothing much in the interim seems to have changed in the National Party mindset. In its defence policy, this National-led government is dancing to an American tune as mindlessly it ever has. The brief era of independence in our foreign policy now seems over. At a time when everyone else –Canada, the Netherlands, Britain, Germany – is actively looking for excuses to withdraw from Afghanistan, we are looking for excuses to get in. In doing so, we will be taking our troops out of a successful aid effort in the safest region of Afghanistan and putting our effort into a failed combat role in the most dangerous part of Afghanistan . Go figure.
Doing Penance for Productivity
It was Finance Minister Bill English who chose Don Brash for that cushy job heading the new Productivity Commission. Since Brash has been given until 2025 to find ways to get us back on parity with Australia, he will be 85 years old by the time we find out whether his productivity task force has succeeded or failed.
Right now though, we know who is to blame for giving English the idea in the first place – it was Scoop! Yes, it was all our fault. Here was Scoop back in May of this year, on the eve of the Budget :
Expect to hear Finance Minister Bill English talking quite a lot about productivity…Why, it might even be a good idea for English to appoint a task force on the subject. Since no-one knows quite how to measure productivity properly, the field is wide open for political massaging. Lets all find ways to lift our productivity – to work harder, to work smarter. If English were to set up a productivity commission, it might even be able to find out – just in time for the next election – that our productivity levels have risen. Think how good we’ll all feel about that !
Sorry about that.