Forgotten war heats up

Military leaders in Afghanistan are dramatically re-thinking their strategies, but the ministerial briefings given to the new government reveal little planning and even less urgency

The news from the war zone is not good. In the last month, 50 civilians have been killed in US special force operations, 21 police officers were taken out by a single Taliban suicide bomber who infiltrated their training centre, and the NATO supply line through the Khyber pass has just been cut again.

US secretary of defence Robert M. Gates, is warning there is “not enough time, patience or money” to pursue overly ambitious goals in Afghanistan, like “creating some sort of Central Asian Valhalla.” That is a big turnaround for the man who called on NATO allies last year to send more troops “willing to fight and die in Afghanistan”.

Britain’s chief of defence staff Sir Jock Stirrup and NATO’s secretary general Jaap de Hoop Scheffer are airing their concerns about the “weakness” in the governance of Afghan and President Harmid Kasrzai. Stirrup says:

This mission is, essentially, all about governance and there is no doubt that there is a lack of capacity within Afghanistan.

The British seem to be forgetting their own previous experience in this graveyard of empires.

Karzai is striking back at western criticism by looking east for new allies – to Russia, China, and Iran. He claims Moscow has accepted his request last month for defence aid. Reuters correspondent Sayed Salahuddin quotes Karzai saying:

We told America and the world to give us planes soon and if you do not, we will get them from another place. We told them we have become impatient and we cannot live without planes.

Last week, the Afghan president and his country’s independent electoral commission deferred the presidential and provincial council elections that were due in May until August, to provide time for the additional troops promised by the Obama administration to arrive and bolster security. In short, Karzai is saying:“if you want functioning democracy in Afghanistan, put up or shut up.”

Karzai is also pressing for a new agreement with the United States and NATO – one that would give his government control over where and how their troops are deployed, coordination at the "highest level" on the use of air power, and would put an end to house raids by foreign troops.

The current word from senior administration officials in Washington is that President Obama intends to adopt a tougher line toward Harmid Karzai – one that will demand a crackdown on endemic corruption and more emphasis on waging war than on development, or more particularly, development aid.

All in all, Afghanistan is developing into a festering mess – but official Wellington, as ever, seems unperturbed.

The briefs prepared for incoming ministers by the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Trade and the New Zealand Defence Force are certainly brief when it comes to any significant appraisal of the challenges to the mission in Afghanistan.

In the versions of the ministerial briefs doctored for public consumption, there is little sense of urgency in regard to decisions on Afghanistan that the incoming government will be required to take – despite the sense urgency being displayed in Washington, London, Ottawa, Canberra, and Kabul.

There are no references to the fact the security in Bamiyan and Kabul provinces where NZDF troops are stationed has deteriorated to the point where an additional 3,000 US troops are being deployed this month to counter the mounting threat from Taliban insurgents.

There is no mention that the prospects of famine are fueling already high tribal tensions between the resident Hazaras and nomadic Kuchi in Bamyan province, or that the NZDF has been testing its ability to undertake aerial food drops now its road patrols are hampered by the threat from improvised explosive devices, as well as the snow.

There is no progress report on New Zealand’s protracted negotiations with the Karzai government to achieve an agreement on the treatment of NZDF detainees transferred to Afghan custody – or the potential problem caused by the fact that the NZDF provincial reconstruction team has no capacity to hold or process any detainees it might need to capture in defence of its mission.

There is also no sign of the proposal to increase New Zealand’s military presence in Afghanistan that Opposition leader Phil Goff told Radio New Zealand was in the Cabinet pipeline last August, long before he left the building.

The NZDF simply comments that it is “being stretched by the sustainment [sic] of existing peace support operations – particularly in Afghanistan, Timor-Leste and Solomon Islands – as well as the NZDF’s commitment to multi-agency and other tasks and training.”

MFAT offers a stunning appraisal of the impact that the change of administration in Washington will make on U.S. policy in Afghanistan:

The foreign policy implications of the ascension of Barack Obama to the Presidency of the United States in January 2009 are still taking shape. As usual in US foreign policy we expect there to be a good deal of continuity. There is no reason to suggest that an Obama administration would take anything but a positive view of the recent strengthening in New Zealand/United States relations. New Zealand’s ongoing contribution to security and development in Afghanistan will continue to be welcomed.

The brief also says our officials are currently drafting post-election Cabinet papers that will provide options to the incoming government on New Zealand’s future integrated participation in Timor-Leste and Afghanistan. It gives no hint of what those options might be – and the mandate for the current NZDF deployment in Afghanistan ends next September.

Afghanistan is going to be an acid test for New Zealand this year. Official Wellington had better be ready for it.