President Obama is in Europe this week to sell allies on a new strategy for Afghanistan – “disrupt, dismantle and defeat al Qaeda and its safe havens”. Do not expect to see New Zealand rushing to the front-line
The good news is that the new American president has a sharp new strategy for Afghanistan and Pakistan and the not-so-news is that New Zealand has still to develop one.
Do not expect to see our new government rushing to the front line in the refocused war against al Qaeda that Barack Obama promises to wage.
We did that in December 2001, when New Zealand joined the international effort to hunt down the terrorists responsible for the September 11 Twin Towers mass murders, and those who supported and sheltered them.
We stopped doing that in November 2005, when the NZSAS returned to New Zealand from its last overseas tour of combat duty. Since then, New Zealand Defence Force troops in Afghanistan have been confined to peace-making roles in Bamyan, which is about as far from the combat front-lines as you can get in Afghanistan.
The curtailment of combat deployment and the continuance of military provincial reconstruction have never been fully explained, just like the shift in our alliance relationship in October 2006 when we stopped being part of the US-led Operation Enduring Freedom and became part of the NATO International Security Assistance Force instead.
We do know from the brief delivered last November to the incoming Minister of Defence, Dr Wayne Mapp, that “the NZDF is being stretched by the sustainment of existing peace support operations – particularly Afghanistan, Timor-Leste and Solomon islands – as well as the NZDF’s commitment to multi-agency and other tasks and training.”
Apparently, NZDF was even more stretched when combat duty was part of the mix. Our SAS troops acquitted themselves well in battle – but they were not equipped or resourced with the back-up to hold or process their prisoners.
Last year, NZDF admitted that between 50 and 70 prisoner captured by the NZSAS in snatch and grab raids during 2002 were bundled over to our American allies as quickly as possible. Standard NZDF procedures for the identification of prisoners were not followed.
This year, my Official Information Act inquiries have uncovered more about what happened when New Zealand officials finally tried to meet our obligation to see those prisoners were subsequently treated in accordance with international humanitarian and human rights laws. In August 2006, we could not even provide their names.
Censored copies of official cables obtained from the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Trade under the OIA confirm this deficiency in our war management capacity.
In 2006, the Americans were willing to follow up our request for information on the status of the Afghani prisoners taken by the NZSAS. The process came to a grinding halt when the Americans “asked if there was any further information New Zealand could provide on these persons, such as ideally their names.”
The cable exchange between our embassy in Washington and MFAT Wellington ends with Washington’s request: “Grateful you advise.” This was another of those little embarrassments that has not been previously revealed in any Parliamentary examination of NZDF performance in Afghanistan.
We can only be thankful that the NZDF Kiwibase in Bamiyan or the security patrols by the resident provincial reconstruction team have not been seriously threatened by the Taliban or al Qaeda - so far.
If they were, and our troops captured assailants jeopardizing their mission, they would not be in any better position to handle prisoners than the NZSAS was in 2002.
As members of the International Security Assistance Force, NZDF troops are required to transfer their prisoners to Afghan custody. Unlike other ISAF members, New Zealand still has no bilateral agreement in place with the Karzai government that enables our troops or officials to check if any transferred prisoners are subsequently treated in accordance with international humanitarian and human rights laws.
The new government needs to ensure that agreement is in place, and that the NZDF is properly resourced to meet the challenges that will arise as the new Obama strategy sharpens the conflict between a significantly enlarged US force and the revitalised Taliban and al Qaeda in the run-up to Afghanistan’s election in August.
Last week, Defence Minister Mapp gave a carefully qualified response to my questions about New Zealand’s possible involvement in the ISAF operational mentoring and liaison training programme, in which military trainers are embedded in combat units of the Afghan army.
He reveals that New Zealand has received several requests from different sources to contribute troops to the OMLT programme, but declines to provide copies of the requests. Mapp goes on to state:
“You will have noted, however, that the New Zealand government recently renewed the mandate for all current contributions to international stabilization efforts in Afghanistan until 2010, centering on the Provincial Reconstruction Team in Bamyan Province. This will remain the primary focus of our defence efforts in Afghanistan for the time being.”
We still need to ensure that NZDF is adequately equipped for its existing tasks in what will be a rapidly changing war environment within a matter of weeks.