Scoop Election 08: edited by Gordon Campbell

On our first combat death in Afghanistan

August 4th, 2010

The first fatality in the New Zealand deployment in Afghanistan has occurred on the same day the Dutch ended their deployment in Uruzgan province, as a prelude to pulling their entire force of 1.900 troops out of Afghanistan next month. Clearly, conflict exists between the members of the ISAF as to whether this war is still worth fighting. Canada is pulling out next year, and Poland in 2012. Prime Minister John Key is almost the only leader still walking through the “In” door. He obviously thinks our military commitment is essential to our national interests, since he has also just decided to expand our combat contribution by sending our troops into Uruzgan.

One wonders why this logic doesn’t impress the Dutch – who have lost 24 troops and spent $1.8 billion in a cause that they evidently feel is no longer worth the candle.

The random nature of our commitment to Afghanistan is reflected in the deadlines for when our commitment will end, regardless. On current plans, the last 50 troops from the Provincial Reconstruction Team will be pulled out in 2014.
The SAS deployment is due to end in 2011, although whenever Key meets a US general in uniform, he tends to go weak in the knees about that date.

Still, as things stand, our effort in Afghanistan is not open-ended, and will end in 2011 and 2014 respectively regardless of the state of affairs on the ground at the time. On one day in 2014 the cause in Bamiyan province will be worth dying for, and on the very next day it won’t be. If we are there for a worthwhile reason, shouldn’t our departure depend on the cause actually being achieved?

Yet from the outset last year, Key has been hopelessly vague about the goal we are fighting for in Afghanistan. What would count as Mission Accomplished in Afghanistan ? If we are prepared to let them die for it, surely we owe it to our soldiers to be clear about what our overall goal actually is, beyond the day to day tasks on the ground? Especially when the president of Pakistan, our main regional ally is saying publicly that we are losing this war.

“[We ] are losing the war against the Taliban … because we have lost the battle for hearts and minds.” Zardari added, “It is unfortunate that certain individuals [ read :British Prime Minister David Cameron] continue to express doubts and fears about our determination to fight militants to the end…. Such fears will only weaken the international effort to fight militants and extremists.”

Does Key agree with Zardari? Because if Zardari is right, and we have already lost the battle for hearts and minds, what are we doing in Bamiyan? In Afghanistan are we simply engaged in a holding action – to delay events for a while before our allies can devise an exit that will be less damaging to their own domestic political agendas? If so, the real reason the New Zealand soldier died yesterday was in order to help shore up Barack Obama’s fortunes at the polls in the November congressional elections.

Are we really engaged in a nation building exercise in Afghanistan ? Even the US doesn’t seem to know whether it is, or isn’t.. Last year, US vice-president Joseph Biden was being very clear via his spokesman Anthony Blinken that the West certainly wasn’t engaged in nation-building:

“We’re no longer talking about doing nation-building in Afghanistan, we’re no longer talking about doing a counterinsurgency in every nook and cranny of the country, we’re no longer talking about defeating the Taliban, which Biden argued was neither likely nor necessary.”

Now the US seems not so sure. Its military commanders on the ground do seem engaged in a form of nation building, if only to buy time while their Commander in Chief in Washington tries to devise a politically viable exit strategy :

But as of August 2010, nation-building once again seems to be a key goal; the number of actual Al Qaeda in Afghanistan are few, according to the CIA. No one calls it nation-building, but “standing up civil societies,” building trenches and roads, training teachers and protecting jurists — that’s nation building. And that’s what General Stanley McChrystal, in his final months, and now Gen. David Petraeus, seem focused on. One reason is that the Karzai government has not asserted its sovereignty in the way that Biden anticipated.

New Zealand – and the rest of the ISAF forces – therefore to be engaged in a holding action, in the service of a goal of nation building that is headed by the widely discredited Hamid Karzai. No-one believes that Karzai can govern without foreign military support, or that he is expanding his mandate – so this is hardly a sustainable goal. The other rationale that is commonly given by Key is that we need to fight the Taliban because otherwise Afghanistan will once again become a haven for Al Qaeda and will ultimately threaten us. The underlying assumption being that if the ISAF troops were to be withdrawn, history would reel backwards automatically to the very same settings that existed in mid 2001.

This is a quite ridiculous assumption. Since 2002, the leadership of Al Qaeda has been decimated – the CIA assessment is that there are few Al Qaeda operatives left in the region – and Al Qaeda’s capacity for external projection has been destroyed. Also, there is little likelihood the Taliban would restore the Bin Laden network, given what harbouring them has cost the Taliban overt the past eight years. All of this indicates that the US and allies such as New Zealand could readily contain any residual threat from a Taliban government from outside the country, via what Biden has called his “From the Sea” strategy :

The document acquired a nickname in military circles: “From the Sea,” because in it, Biden sketched out plans for a minimal deployment of American ground forces in the country. Instead, special operations forces deployed on Navy ships and submarines and from Air Force and Army airplanes would target Al Qaeda leaders and Taliban collaborators, one by one. Only when necessary would tier-one special forces groups need to set foot on the ground. Secret, small intelligence-gathering cells would help find the targets, follow their trails, and complete the networks surrounding them. In public, this tactic became known as the “SOF” strategy, for Special Operations Forces.

If adopted, this is a strategy that would pose far less risk and cost to us. Namely, we would seek to control any threat in future from the Taliban (if one ever did eventuate) by actions that we launch by air and sea from outside the country, and no longer from on the ground within it. (Afghan citizens though, would remain at risk from the drone attacks involved.) The “From the Sea” approach would be one where our SAS troops would still have a role, beyond 2011.

However, there is no role for the PRT in Bamiyan in this scenario – now, or in future. For some time, our presence there has been wasted effort, and an unnecessary risk that has now been manifested in the death of the New Zealand soldier. Even the citizens of Bamiyan that we have been assisting have serious misgivings about our presence there, as this NGO report makes clear. The complaints in the report from Bamiyan residents have been summarized here.

Right now, we are in Afghanistan for the vaguest of political reasons that have little or nothing to do with our security, or that of the Afghan people. It is a war we seem well down the road to losing. At best, we are helping the US to buy some time, before US forces can leave in the least politically damaging way possible to the White House. Is that a cause worth dying for ? Hardly. Our efforts in Afghanistan are providing little or no sustainable benefits to the Afghan people – and if our effort really is about keeping us safe, this can be done more easily and cheaply from outside the country than from inside it. That’s the conclusion the Dutch came to, and so they have pulled out their troops. We should be doing likewise.


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