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Rethinking NZ’s Military Commitment In Afghanistan

Rethinking New Zealand’s Military Commitment In Afghanistan

(and its commitment to international security assistance in general)

By Paul G. Buchanan

One of the ironies of small democracies is that even though they are economically and physically vulnerable to external events and actors, the majority of the populations in many of them remain disinterested in foreign affairs. Perhaps it is due to a fatalistic sense of resignation, perhaps it is due to diffidence. New Zealand is a case in point.

In an election year that has less than four months to run, media and public attention remains fixated on celebrity scandals, sports, violent crime and accusations of ethical and material impropriety in the upper reaches of government. Meanwhile a number of critical policy issues—domestic crime, health and education funding, energy production and distribution, sale of strategic assets (the list is long)—languish virtually unattended as the election draws closer. Where government policy bears fruit, the lack of general interest is remarkable. For example, the Free Trade Agreement with the People’s Republic of China announced in April is the Labour’s government’s crowning foreign policy achievement, yet was as long in the making as it was short on public comment and parliamentary scrutiny.

Beyond that, issues of foreign policy have virtually disappeared from public discourse. Among the neglected foreign affairs is New Zealand’s international security policy, and within that, its commitment to the NATO-led International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) nation-building and counter-insurgency operations in Afghanistan. That commitment, which is due to expire in September, needs to be re-evaluated in light of events on the ground.

Since September 2003, under the name Task Force Crib, New Zealand has operated a Provincial Reconstruction Team (PRT) in Bamyan, located in north-central Afghanistan. Operating under the (US-led) ISAF Eastern Regional Command, the 140 troop PRT is complemented by medical, training and liaison personnel as well as four policemen attached as trainers to the Afghan National Police. In addition, New Zealand has committed one frigate to Maritime Interdiction Operations conducted in the Arabian Gulf in support of Operation Enduring Freedom (the name of the ISAF mission). The total number of New Zealand security personnel in Afghanistan is approximately 160, and over 900 servicemen and women have rotated through the country over the last five years, at a cost of NZ$34 million. This includes deployments of NZSAS troops in combat roles in 2004-05, for which the unit received a US presidential unit commendation and Corporal Willie Apiata received the Victoria’s Cross for valor under fire. Even so, and in spite of government claims that on a per capita basis New Zealand is shouldering more than its fair share of the burden, as a contribution to the 40 nation, 53,000 strong ISAF, New Zealand’s effort falls short of the contributions of many other nations, including several small democracies.

Among the minor partners involved in ISAF, the number of troops contributed (mostly to the 26 PRTs now operating) is telling. Australia has 1000 troops in Afghanistan, including front-line combat troops and SAS personnel. Norway has 580 troops deployed; Denmark (which has extended its troop commitment to 2012) has 690, Portugal 165, Belgium 375, Bulgaria 420, Croatia 210, Hungary 205, Lithuania 200, Estonia 120, the Czech Republic 370, Romania 570, Albania 140, and Macedonia 140. Interestingly, contrary to claims that the ISAF presence is a purely Western occupation of Muslim soil, two predominantly Muslim countries, Jordan and Turkey, have contributed 90 and 760 troops respectively.

Equally interesting is that the western border provinces with Iran (purportedly a sponsor of terrorism), under a Spanish-led regional command, are the most peaceful in the country, while the eastern and southern provinces bordering Pakistan (an ally in the “war on terrorism”), which are under US and UK command, are the most restive (in large part due to Pakistan’s inability or unwillingness to stop cross-border excursions by Taliban and al-Qaeda militants headquartered in Pakistani territory). Of additional note is that there are no Latin American, Asian (other than Singapore), or additional Muslim nation troops committed to ISAF in what is arguably the most important UN-sanctioned multinational military-led nation-building exercise of the last decade. That is worth pondering.

A number of other countries have contributed troop numbers to ISAF ranging from 4 (Singapore) to 70 (Slovenia and Slovakia). That puts New Zealand’s contribution, both in total numbers as well as a percentage of ready-status NZDF troops and GDP, in the middle to lower range of the contributions of the 40 coalition partners. This runs in concert with New Zealand’s total expenditure on military forces, which amounts to 1.9 percent of GDP, just below the OECD average of approximately 2.3 percent. More importantly, ninety percent of what Task Force Crib does in Bamyan is (re) construction and pubic relations (also known as civil-military affairs). Although Kiwi troops engage in regular patrols and targeted searches for weapons caches and suspicious activity, and have been targeted by roadside bombs on occasion, the bulk of their mission is humanitarian nation-building rather than combat. In fact, once the NZSAS returned from deployment in November 2005, the majority of (the limited) causalities New Zealand forces have suffered have been from accidents.

What makes the New Zealand contribution worth re-examining are two factors: 1) The worsening security situation in the country, with revitalised Taliban and other insurgent factions increasing the scope and tempo of their operations in eastern and southern provinces (particularly the northeastern border region, where tribal areas in Pakistan provide safe haven and sanctuary for Taliban irregulars and al-Qaeda internationalists as well as their leaders). 2) Calls by theater commanders for more troops to fight this increasing threat. The US has 36,000 soldiers in Afghanistan (with more to come), and the United Kingdom has 8,500. Canada, Germany, France, Italy, the Netherlands and Spain have contributed regiment to brigade-sized numbers, and it is these countries that have shouldered the majority burden of combat duties. Yet NATO commanders feel that the initiative may have been lost in pursuing and engaging the insurgents along a multitude of fronts, and that without reinforcements the NATO combat mission will revert to defensive holding efforts rather than the offensive search and destroy operations that were the original brief once the Taliban were ousted from power.

Six years on, the military tide has turned against ISAF, with the Taliban growing bolder and more aggressive while diversifying their tactics. These include using suicide bombers against non-military targets in cities, employing improvised explosive devices and small group ambushes against convoys and patrols (both signs of the influence of internationalist learning curves on the insurgency), and most recently, massed assaults using rocket propelled grenades, mortars and heavy caliber assault weapons on ISAF outposts and forward bases. The Taliban-led insurgents are no longer fleeing; instead, they are increasingly taking the fight to ISAF. The proof is measured in lives: more ISAF troops are dying in Afghanistan than coalition troops in Iraq. NATO forces alone may not be enough to reverse the trend. It is in light of this strategic reality that New Zealand’s military contribution to the Afghan campaign must be reassessed.

Because the Bamyan PRT is located in a relatively peaceful part of the Afghanistan, Kiwi troops are not in the immediate danger confronted by front-line troops in Kunar, Khowst, Nuristan or Kandahar provinces. The security threat environment is considered “medium,” and in March 2008 Prime Minister Clark rejected suggestions that New Zealand increase the number of troops it contributes to ISAF. But the situation is fluid and can change for the worse in weeks, if not days. Even the government admits concern about escalating violence in provinces neighbouring Bamyan. The questions thus beg: what are the options come September? What is the justification for continuing New Zealand’s ISAF contribution to what increasingly looks like a military quagmire? What specific benefits does the military contribution in Afghanistan accrue to New Zealand? What are the monetary and familial costs to New Zealand(ers) in sustaining the effort? More broadly, what is the purpose and utility of New Zealand’s international security assistance efforts?

With regard to the latter question, the purpose and role of overseas military operations in New Zealand’s foreign policy remains largely unscrutinised. The government touts its “special friendship” with the US and its close alliance with the UK (including on security matters), although no tangible benefits (beyond military-to-military) have accrued from either other than photo opportunities for the ministers involved in tending to these relationships. Australians, including Rudd government security advisors, have expressed concerns about New Zealand’s commitment to international security affairs outside of its immediate sphere of influence (as did their predecessors in the Howard government). Even that commitment has been open to question.

To illustrate: consider New Zealand’ security assistance in its supposed sphere of influence, the southwestern Pacific. Be it out of neo-colonial guilt or servitor imperialist ambition, New Zealand allocated itself a tutelary role with regard to its smaller island brethren. Yet New Zealand’s purported commitment to democracy promotion in the region has not seen it defend or support attempts at democracy in Fiji, Samoa or Tonga other than symbolically (say, by denying entry into new Zealand of relatives of regional despots). Instead, conflict avoidance appears to be the approach adopted By New Zealand towards authoritarian usurpations in the region (the government will call it soft power diplomacy), which has only confirmed in the minds of island autocrats that they need not fear foreign military intervention on humanitarian grounds.

Likewise, recent New Zealand security missions in the East Timor, the Solomons and Papua New Guinea have had little discernable impact on the political situation or ethnic tensions in either country, although they did help alleviate short-lived episodes of violence. New Zealand has chosen to cast a blind eye on accusations of authoritarianism in Tahiti, perhaps out of respect for the security relationship it maintains with the French as much as for the sovereignty of the Tahitian people. It is, for all intents and purposes, a regional paper tiger—all roar and toothless bite, even when it comes to supposedly “core” foreign policy interests. Yet none of this elicits more than cursory editorial or public comment.

Not all fault with the stasis in foreign policy lies with the Labour government. National appears to advocate an international approach of “Labour/right.” It will not review either the non-nuclear policy or the abandonment of the tactical air wing. It supports Labour’s trade negotiation efforts, but has not detailed whether its sees bilateral or multilateral negotiations as the preferred instrument for promoting New Zealand international economic profile (a subject on which there is much debate and literature). It has offered nothing in the way of suggestions on how to promote democracy and diminish sectarian violence in the Pacific Rim, nor has it uttered a coherent statement on the reasons for and role of international security assistance within the context of New Zealand’s foreign policy. It would like to have a closer relationship with the US than currently exists, but is short on reasons why that would benefit New Zealanders as a whole.

Of the minor players, the Greens have the most coherent foreign policy orientation, but it is at odds with many of New Zealand’s current international commitments and would therefore involve significant costs if implemented. The remaining parties offer little more than visceral nationalism, reverential market genuflection, post-modern affectation or vague “more of the same” as foreign policy prescriptions. They, like the public at large, have little real interest in what occurs outside Aotearoa. Since governments are only as good as the quality of their opposition, something that is measured by the standard of policy debate, this augers poorly for improving discussion about foreign relations in general and international security assistance efforts in particular.

That resurrects the immediate issue of Afghanistan. There are three general options available to current and future governments when it comes to the military commitment to ISAF. The least likely course of action is to withdraw New Zealand troops and abandon Afghanistan. The work in Bamyan is unfinished and the ISAF coalition needs all the help it can get. Withdrawal would be seen by the UN (which authorized the ISAF mission) and NATO as a slap in the face of the international community’s efforts to prevent the failure of the post-Taliban Afghan state. It would undermine New Zealand’s credibility as a reliable international partner, and give the lie to its rhetorical commitment to multinational peacekeeping and conflict resolution efforts. It could jeopardise participation in future military missions and security partnerships. It would, in effect, damage New Zealand’s international reputation. It is not a plausible option.

The second course of action is to maintain the status quo unchanged. This is the option that most likely will be renewed in September. It is the safest course of action, as it keeps New Zealand personnel away from the front lines in relatively low cost support roles, which if not entirely to the liking of ISAF commanders is the most expedient alternative given New Zealand domestic politics in an election year. But in light of the mounting pressures on the ISAF coalition, refusal to increase New Zealand’s military contribution in any capacity might be seen as welching by those countries that must shoulder the burden of the engagement. New Zealand’s reticence to commit more military assets in ISAF’s time of need may increase foreign skepticism about its commitment to UN mandates when the going gets tough. That could have long-term negative consequences.

The third option is to increase the New Zealand troop commitment to ISAF by restoring the NZSAS contribution and/or deploying combat troops in more front-line or force protection (as opposed to humanitarian assistance) roles, or by volunteering for expanded PRT duties. The former would be welcomed by NATO and the UN, but runs the risk of voter disapproval at home in the event that a more combat-oriented focus brings with it Kiwi causalities. It would cost more to activate, deploy and sustain a combat element, perhaps doubling the current expenditures in support of Task Force Crib and its complements. It might invite retaliation from irregular warfare actors by unconventional means. It therefore entails both political and physical risks to the politicians and troops involved. Increasing the PRT complement would be a lukewarm gesture of reserved support for ISAF, but would not address the pressing combat realities in-theater and would only add to the force protection burden of coalition allies.

It would therefore seem worthwhile that in the run up to the general election there be public discussion about New Zealand’s contribution to and role in international security assistance programmes such as ISAF. It may not appear to be as pressing as various domestic policy areas, and it certainly is nowhere as salacious as kidnappings, murders, rapes and celebrity scandal-mongering. But in a year where there is also a general election in the US that will impact heavily on international security affairs and in which the value of New Zealand’s international security assistance is open to foreign scrutiny, such discussion would serve to honour the service of those who have undertaken the ISAF mission (and other international security assistance missions around the globe) while redefining (or reaffirming) the how and why of New Zealand’s foreign military deployments.

That discussion needs to be held now rather than after the election so that voters get a good grasp of the stakes involved before they cast their ballots. After all, the value of international security assistance is measured more by lives saved than those lost.

Paul G. Buchanan writes on issues of comparative and international politics. He is writing a book about the security politics of small democratic states.


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