Afghanistan – alarm bells should be ringing

If the Afghanistan alarm bells were not ringing in Wellington over the last weekend – they should have been

The weekend saw four significant events that should be giving New Zealand’s foreign affairs and defence specialists cause for grave concern about our current risk exposures in Afghanistan.

These events are a reported riot in the capital of Kabul, a sudden ramp-up in military operations against Al Qaeda-aligned Taliban on the route between Khost and the capital, a video conference between presidents Hamid Karzai and Barack Obama, and Defence Minister Wayne Mapp’s announcement that the government is investigating allegations that prisoners taken by Afghan units receiving support from New Zealand SAS troops are being handed over to the national security directorate where they are at risk of being tortured.

The Kabul riot was a bloody ethnic clash between feuding Hazaras protesters and Kuchi nomads that ended with the police firing into the brawling crowd, 18 people reported dead, countless numbers injured, a police station torched, and the United Nations calling on “all parties to cease violence, to exercise restraint, and to maintain law and order”.

The major military operation was a joint attack by International Security Assistance Forces and Afghan army personnel on one of the country’s most dangerous Taliban networks, the Haqqani Group. It was designed to disrupt the Group’s operations from its havens along the West Pakistan border through the highway that links Khost and Paktia province staging points that are used to mount attacks on the capital of Kabul. Afghan authorities claim more than 20 insurgents – including Arab, Chechen and Pakistani fighters – were killed in the course of the operation.

The video-conference between the two presidents produced a curious call from Karzai for a strategic review to find more effective ways to fight the war. With one eye on Afghan voters who are due to elect a new Parliament next month, Karzai once more distanced himself from his most important foreign ally. In a statement issued after the video conference, he revealed that he had written to President Obama and asked for “a strategic review of the current counter terrorism approach on the basis of the rightful demands of the people of Afghanistan that terrorism cannot be fought in Afghan villages.”

Effectively, and purely for venal political gain, Karzai is trying to shift the blame for civilian casualties from who fight his government to those who keep his government in power.

The counter-insurgency strategy he wants reviewed has produced positive results that Karzai wilfully ignores. A United Nations analysis of civilian casualties in the first half of this year, compared to the same period last year, finds that the actions of the Taliban and other anti-government elements have produced a 31 percent total increase in conflict-related injuries and deaths, while casualties attributed to pro-government forces fell 30 per cent during the same period, driven by a 64 percent decline in deaths and injuries caused by aerial attacks. What a friend we have in Karzai.

Karzai’s long-term inaction on the issues that divide Hazaras and Kuchis is another ingredient in the volatile mix he expects us to swallow. Both groups consider themselves to be neglected, even oppressed minorities. The Hazaras have historic cause to hate the Taliban, but little reason to see the ineffective Karzai as a savior. The Kuchi are more inclined to see the Taliban and any other anti-government forces as an answer to their prayers. Violence between them has been escalating steadily for the last four years.

Two months ago, the Hazaristan Times reported six people were killed, homes were burnt, and thousands were displaced when the Kuchis made their annual incursion into Wardak province, next door to Bamiyan where the New Zealand Provincial Reconstruction Team is quartered. The majority of the population in Bamiyan are Hazaras. They turned out in thousands to protest at the inaction of the Karzai government.

Now, we have riots and deaths in the capital of Kabul, what can we expect to happen in Bamiyan?

Our SAS supports the police crisis response unit in Kabul, and our PRT supports the Afghan army and police in Bamiyan. They are in an invidious position.

On top of President Karzai’s ineffective management of the Hazara – Kuchi conflict, we also have to confront the implications of a recent decision by High Court judges in England to uphold a ban on British forces transferring prisoners to the National Directorate of Security in Kabul, because of the risk that they may be tortured.

Defence Minister Wayne Mapp has confirmed that New Zealand’s SAS supports one of the Afghan units that transfers prisoners to the centre named In the British judgement. The government is now investigating the possibility that these prisoners may have been tortured.

The fourth element of the troublesome equation that our defence and foreign affairs specialists should be considering has, until now, escaped notice.

You may recall that one week before the tragic death of Lieutenant Commander Timothy O’Donnell and the wounding of his companions Matthew Ball and Allister Baker in an ambush in northern Bamiyan, a TVNZ crew with a bomb disposal unit was also caught in a similar ambush in Khost province.

Fortunately, no-one was injured in the Khost incident. But what was a Kiwi bomb disposal specialist with a Kiwi film crew in tow doing operating in the tiger country where ISAF-Afghan military are now in hot pursuit of the Al Qaeda-aligned Taliban fighters of the Haqqani group?

I lodged an official information act inquiry with the Defence Minister to get the answer. Dr Mapp surprised me. The NZ Defence Force has a staff member assigned to the United States headquarters in Khost as part of a “Counter Exploitation Cell” [CEXC] conducting the clearance of improvised explosive devices on routes across the troubled province.

The deployment of the NZDF bomb disposal specialist is justified by Lieutenant General Jerry Mateparae on the grounds that “the CEXC itself collects material and information from IED and vehicle bourne [sic] IED attacks to enable the assessment of technical intelligence and threat information concerning developing insurgent tactics, techniques and procedures.” Our CEXC member provides this information directly to the NZDF Provincial Reconstruction Team to enhance local force protection measures for all NZDF staff in Afghanistan.

Mapp adds that the NZDF has cabinet authorization to assign as many as five personnel to be attached to various operational headquarters in Afghanistan on a similar basis – presumably to carry out similar high-risk duties.

From all this, it appears that the risk exposure of New Zealand’s current military deployments in Afghanistan is significantly higher than the public has been led to believe. Surely, the time has come for an in-depth inquiry into the nature, purpose and risk of our military activity in Karzai’s country.