Afghanistan: temperature rising

New Zealand is reviewing its involvement in Afghanistan, as President Hamid Karzai fights for his political life, the US and NATO pour thousands of additional troops onto the battlefield, and Kiwi troops come under fire in Bamiyan

The temperature is rising in war-torn Afghanistan. The country is less than two months away from presidential and provincial government elections. The number of security incidents across the country is up 43% on the same period last year.The United Nations says Afghanistan is currently in what may well be its most intense fight season since the invasion to oust the Taliban and Al Qaeda in 2001.

Even the New Zealand Defence Force’s provincial reconstruction team in comparatively peaceful Bamiyan province is feeling the heat. Its patrols have come under attack twice in the space of five days. Meanwhile, in far-away Wellington, their future is being decided in a process that few New Zealanders even know is under way.

Last February, Prime Minister John Key announced that the commitment of NZ Defence Force personnel to Afghanistan would be extended through to September next year, at an estimated cost of $41.5 million.

There was no indication in the Prime Minister’s announcement that his government had also decided to review New Zealand’s commitments to Afghanistan beyond September 2010. That news would spill out quite casually over the next few months.

On 8 April, American enthusiasm for an additional New Zealand contribution of combat troops surfaced at the first meeting between US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and Foreign Affairs Minister Murray McCully.

Clinton spoke in “glowing terms” about the New Zealand SAS troops. McCully carefully noted that, while the inference could be drawn from her comments that she wanted the SAS to return to Afghanistan, she had not made a formal request. She was aware that New Zealand was reviewing its commitment – a fact that had still escaped our media’s attention until this point.

Within a week, the New Zealand government received a formal request to provide additional troops for combat purposes. Defence Minister Wayne Mapp confirmed this development in an Official Information Act response to me, dated 15 April, just seven days after the Clinton-McCully meeting.

Mapp declined to provide any details of the request, beyond saying that “at this stage, no response has been made by the government, and the timing of any eventual response has also not yet been determined.” To date, no further public statement has been made on the subject.

Pressed for details on the Afghanistan review, McCully says: “the basic objective of assistance to Afghanistan [is] to enable Afghanistan to build towards self-reliance”. The government wants to scope the prospects of Bamiyan moving more quickly to this objective and for transiting New Zealand’s role there from security to development assistance.

The review will develop “options for contribution beyond the PRT commitment, both military and non-military”. It will take account of “moves towards ‘Afghanisation’ and the rebalancing of military and non-military effort by other international contributors.”

McCully advises that he and Mapp are leading the process, with inputs from an organisation known as the Afghanistan Reference Group [ARG], comprising officials from the ministries of Foreign Affairs and Defence, the New Zealand Defence Force, the New Zealand Police, the New Zealand Agency for International Development, the Department of Prime Minister and Cabinet, and the External Assessments Bureau. In short, all the usual suspects.

The “intentions and expectations of international partners, including the US and Australia” will be sought and assessed by the Afghan Reference Group

The prospects for a broad review of New Zealand’s involvement in a war that has lasted longer than World War II – a review with opportunities for input from the public, interested parties, or independent experts, or for open hearings by a Parliamentary Select Committee – look pretty minimal.

“Information analysed as part of this review will include reports published by independent agencies,” Mc Cully notes. “Parliament, through the Foreign Affairs, Trade and Defence Committee is involved in scrutiny of New Zealand’s involvement in Afghanistan.”

Parliamentary scrutiny of New Zealand’s involvement in Afghanistan has been pretty minimal to date, with the notable exception of the Green MPs Keith Locke and Kennedy Graham. On 16 June, Locke and Graham certainly gave McCully a run for his money during question time.

Graham probed the legal basis for the deployment of the SAS to Afghanistan, both in the past and in the future, and had McCully floundering for an answer.

Locke followed up with strong second punch question on the call by the UN chief of mission in Afghanistan, Karl Eide, for an urgent review of US special forces operations in Afghanistan “because American air raids are killing so many innocent Afghan civilians.”

“In fact, I discussed those precise concerns with him [Karl Eide] when I met him in Afghanistan,” McCully revealed in his response. “The point Mr Eide makes is that there is always a risk with the use of special forces that there will be heightened casualties. That is the point he has made directly to the NATO forces and the International Security Assistance Force over some months now. I understand that there will be ongoing dialogue on that point. In that respect, I endorse the manner in which he continues to take up this matter.”

We will soon see how far McCully’s endorsement of Eide’s call for a review of special force operations goes. His answer already demonstrates why New Zealand needs a broad and carefully-considered view about extending its involvement in Afghanistan both now and beyond 2010 – and, particularly, on any response to the invitation to commit our own special forces unit to combat duty there.

McCully and Mapp are due to take the ARG review of New Zealand’s involvement in Afghanistan to Cabinet for discussion and decision in August.

Ironically, August is the same month that voters in Afghanistan go to the polls for presidential and provincial elections. It is a fair bet that they have a clearer view of what is at stake in their endless war than the voters of New Zealand.