Afghanistan – lest we forget

New Zealand troops could be out of Afghanistan next year – but are we stumbling out of one ill-considered international military commitment straight into another, and what happens to our reconstruction and development commitment to the country our troops are leaving?

As New Zealand prepared for ANZAC Day, Prime Minister John Key made a surprise announcement: New Zealand could end its military commitment to Afghanistan as early as next year. The previous timetable – affirmed only a fortnight ago by Defence Minister Jonathan Coleman – had us leaving some time in 2014. So, what’s changed?

We may already have the answer. The United Nations Security Council intends to expand its team of military observers in Syria by an additional 300 troops. Within 24 hours of the Prime Minister’s signal of an accelerated exit from Afghanistan, Defence Minister Coleman was committing two NZDF personnel to the advance team paving the way for an expansion of the UN presence in Bashar al-Assad’s blood-stained country. “At this stage,” Coleman says, “the New Zealand government has not received a request for personnel for the expanded Mission.” Watch this space.

Two weeks ago, Admiral James Stavridis, a US Navy admiral who is now NATO’s Supreme Allied Commander, was in New Zealand. One of his reasons for being here was to thank the country for the work of the NZ SAS in developing the capability of Afghanistan’s crisis response unit. But he is also reported to have met senior Government ministers with the aim of strengthening the New Zealand-NATO relationship as future conflicts loom. No-one appears to have asked him if Syria was one of the future conflicts on the agenda, but it would be surprising if it wasn’t.

This week,US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton is denouncing the Assad regime’s “intimidation, harassment, and possible violence” against Syrians who have been meeting with UN monitors and says Washington is consulting with its allies about additional steps to be taken against Syria. “We are preparing additional steps in case the violence continues or the monitors are prevented from doing their work."

As Clinton was speaking, a team of 70 USmarines and army personnel was arriving at Linton Army Base to start their first joint training exercises in 20 years. Is it all just coincidence?

There are enough coincidences to be wary about the prospects of New Zealand stumbling from one ill-considered international military commitment straight into another. We should take stock of the Afghanistan experience and make sure we are not going to repeat our mistakes.

Bruce Ferguson, the chief of defence at the time of New Zealand’s entry to the Afghanistan conflict, now admits his troops were not prepared for the conditions they would encounter. His successor Jerry Mateparae has admitted the SAS was not equipped to capture prisoners, to interrogate, or detain them.

No-one has yet been able to explain what happened to the prisoners taken in their ‘search and seizure” raid on the village of Band-E-Timur. No-one expected that the American allies who took custody of those prisoners would abuse their human rights, or would apply interrogation techniques to prisoners that can only be described as torture.

An NZ SAS officer complained about the treatment of Band-E-Timur prisoners, but his complaints were not taken seriously by the Americans or the military brass at HQ inWellington.

The SAS tried to shift out of “search and seizure” operations by inventing a new role for itself: long-range reconnaissance. But they were not equipped for it. They had to scrounge vehicles from the Americans and motorcycles from the Germans.

No-one in the Labour government that committed the SAS to Afghanistan was prepared to admit at the time of their withdrawal in 2005 that it was happening because their government was unable to extract commitments from Karzai’s administration in Kabul that guaranteed prisoners the rights granted by international human rights and humanitarian law.

After the NZ SAS was recommitted to Afghanistan by the succeeding National Government and it was admitted that the unit had participated in joint operations with Afghan units where prisoners were taken, there was no public Ministerial response to the statement by the new chief of defence, Lieutenant General Rhys Jones, that members of the NZDF have “no standing in Afghanistan” to visit or inspect detainees taken in those operations, and it was “not within the NZDF’s capability to unilaterally assume a comprehensive monitoring role”.

Wayne Mapp, the Minister of Defence at that time, declined to provide any detail of the advice he had been given by NZDF on its inability to ensure that NZDF detainees were not transferred to institutions identified by the United Nations Assistance Mission [UNAMA] in Afghanistan as places where there was compelling evidence that torture and/or abuse of detainees had occurred.

No-one in government was prepared to explain why New Zealand did not respond to UNAMA’s recommendations that international military forces “explore viable alternatives to night raids and ensure that all search and seizure night raids are jointly conducted with or led by Afghan National Security Forces, fully respect traditional cultural and religious practices and comply with the forces international legal obligations…”

No-one in NZDF has explained why its provincial reconstruction unit in Bamyan province was not equipped to conduct urine tests when six PRT members were accused of drug abuse in 2008; what was done when subsequent NZDF investigation concluded that drug use among the six soldiers was "not an isolated incident or a `one-off' affair"; or why the accused were not read their rights so that all charges against them were dismissed - despite the fact that five of the six had admitted their offence.

No-one has questioned the alcohol abuse discovered during the Bamyan 6 investigation at the PRT’s forward operating base Romero – despite the fact that Afghanistan is a dry mission where the consumption of alcohol is banned. Romero is also the base where the most recent fatality among NZDF PRT personnel occurred in as-yet-unexplained circumstances this month.

And - so far – no-one has explained what happens to the solar power generation projects in Bamyan province that will not be completed until 2014 - if the NZDF unit at Kiwi Base, Bamyan, is withdrawn in 2013. Or what our ongoing commitment to reconstruction and development in Afghanistan might be once the Karzai administration assumes full responsibility for the security of the country and all the “foreign” troops have left.

Our exit after more than 10 years in the Afghanistan conflict is a time to take stock of the experience to ensure we don’t repeat our mistakes.

We need to determine where our international interests really lie in the second decade of the 21st century, the role our defence force should play in advancing those interests, and the capabilities it needs to perform that role in accordance with the requirements of international human rights and humanitarian law.

So, let us have a thorough review of our military involvement in the Afghan war, before we involve ourselves more deeply in the campaign to save Syria from itself.

We owe it to the memory of the five New Zealand soldiers who died serving the interests of our country in Afghanistan.

  • August 2010: Lieutenant Tim O'Donnell, PRT soldier, killed in an ambush inBamyan Province.
  • February 2011: Private Kirifi Mila, PRT soldier killed in a Humvee accident, Bamiyan Province.
  • .August 2011; SAS Corporal Doug Grant, killed during Taleban attack in Kabul.
  • September 2011: SAS Lance Corporal Leon Smith, killed during an operation in Wardak province.
  • April 2012: Corporal Douglas Hughes ,PRT soldier, died in incident at Forward Patrol Base Romero in Bamyan Province.

Lest we forget.