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Why New Zealand should say “No’ to Obama’s war

Gordon Campbell on why New Zealand should say “No’ to Obama’s war in Afghanistan.

The Taliban circa 2001


If Iraq has been George Bush’s war, Afghanistan is shaping up to be an operation that is owned and operated by Barack Obama. The major increase in US and other Western forces ( and the new ways that these forces are to be deployed ) will be decided by President Obama, in line with the sentiments he expressed on the campaign trail. More than once, Candidate Obama signalled his intention of winding down the distracting, debilitating US mission in Iraq and beefing up the US troops levels and reconstruction work in Afghanistan – up to and including hot pursuit and pre-emptive raids across the border into Pakistan in order to kill and/or to neutralize, the al Qaeda leadership.

Over the next six months the USA troop presence is expected to double, with 20-30,000 more US troops being sent to Afghanistan by the northern summer.

Later this month, the first influx is reportedly destined for the troubled provinces of Wardak and Logar.

It smacks of desperation. Increasingly, the Karzai government is seen as hopelessly corrupt and inefficient. Patricia Grossman, a senior researcher at Human Rights Watch in Islamabad summed it up like this in Harpers magazine, a couple of days ago :

In 2004, at the time of the presidential election, [Karzai] was fairly popular. Hopes were high then that the situation would turn around, that even if reconstruction was slow, it was going in the right direction. That’s not to say anyone saw him as a savior–far from it. As one Afghan friend of mine put it: “It’s like you have a job interview and you discover every shirt in your closet is dirty. What do you do? You wear the least dirty one. That’s Karzai.” But since then, as Karzai has shown little interest in backing reform efforts he had originally claimed to support. He has embraced some of the worst officials, appointing well-known torturers to high police positions, relying on other abusive and corrupt leaders for support. It’s all about patronage, it’s all personal, and the international community shares the blame.

The levels of rampant corruption in the Karzai regime are also tabulated here as well. What it means is that billions of dollars are being spent and thousands of lives expended to prop up a regime that has no moral authority and no viable future – and at the moment, the Taliban are winning the war against it. Reportedly, the Taliban have even begun setting their own local courts and appointing shadow governors in Wardak province, which is barely 30 miles down the main highway outside Kabul.

Though US/NATO coalition forces still enjoy overwhelming air and land power and win battles, they lack the troop numbers or the resources to actually hold onto the territory – and so gradually, the Taliban are moving in and taking over on the ground. At best, a massive influx of US troops and a bigger military contribution by the likes of New Zealand would only reduce the current parlous situation to a bloody stalemate – from which (perhaps) in a few years, an orderly exit of Western forces could be managed. Once again, we are back in the realm of wasting lives in order to be saving face.

As the sands continue to run out on Hamid Karzai, New Zealand seems likely to become more, not less involved. Currently, our main contribution in Afghanistan is via our Provincial Reconstruction Team in the peaceful enclave of Bamiyan. In the foreseeable, it is difficult to believe a National government will not continue to renew this commitment - which has been relatively successful in winning the hearts and minds of a local, predominantly Hazara population that was already staunchly anti-Taliban, well before we started.

Given that the US is beefing up its own commitment, it is equally hard to imagine that John Key would be willing or able to say “No” to President Obama, who will be exerting all of his diplomatic charms to ensure that the US does not get to carry the added burdens in Afghanistan all by itself.

The test will be whether Key reverts to taking his directions from our traditional allies, such as the US, the UK and Australia – or chooses to continue Helen Clark’s lead, in requiring a recent and compelling UN mandate before we send our troops overseas to fight. That UN-based strategy brought a welcome breath of independence to our foreign policy and defence posture – and it kept us out of the war in Iraq, and thus ensured New Zealand was not exposed to the kind of terrorist responses that we would have risked if a National government had been in power when Iraq was invaded in March 2003. Surely, we all remember how in May 2004, when Simon Power was Defence spokesperson under Don Brash, he famously said of the war in Iraq that "where Britain, the United States and Australia go, we go". No questions asked, no thinking required.

The real decision this year is not about New Zealand renewing its current PRT deployments in Bamiyan. It will be whether we bow to pressure to extend our military contribution, and offer up some of our SAS special forces to Obama’s war. The mainstream US media is already reporting a rise in US special forces activity with 20 new SF units expected to be deployed within the next four months. However, before the Key government takes any decision about increasing our support for the Karzai regime in a losing war, it should also be taking pains to ensure that our troops are deployed effectively. As the above US media report indicates, the US top brass is still divided on the question of the current special forces are being used - or mis-used – and about whether special forces teams should be under NATO command

The proposal [to deploy new special forces units] is controversial. The plan is being pushed by Lt. Gen. Doug Lute, the so-called war czar under President Bush….Yet many within the tightly knit Special Forces community say the Special Forces teams already in use in Afghanistan should be employed far more effectively before any new teams, which number about a dozen men each, are deployed.

"I just don't think it's a very good use of the units if they are not going to be doing combat advising in an effective way," says one Special Forces officer with recent experience in Afghanistan…."Textbook" operations for Special Forces dictates that the 12-man teams, known as Operational Detachment Alpha teams, or ODAs, should be paired with units of at least a few hundred Afghan security force soldiers.

But in many cases, the Green Berets are paired with much smaller groups of Afghan forces, sometimes even one-on-one. In other cases, they are used to man checkpoints, say some Special Forces officers.

Obviously then, before John Key re-commits any New Zealand special forces to Afghanistan, the rules of their engagement need to be tightened. Because at the moment, not even the Americans seem to have in place a consistent plan for using their own special forces, much else those of any other country. As last week’s Christian Science Monitor report on the ground continues :

Too few of the Special Forces teams are partnered with Afghan forces for longer than, say, a month at a time, creating an unsustainable and unproductive training relationship that runs counter to Special Forces doctrine. Special Forces officers blame the problems on a lack of a coherent strategy for using the Green Berets in Afghanistan. Others say some Special Forces teams operate under NATO commanders from other countries, and don't know how to employ the teams properly.

Perhaps most significant, Special Forces officers and experts say it would be a waste of time and resources to send additional Special Forces teams to Afghanistan unless there is a "surge" of helicopters, remote-controlled aircraft for surveilling the enemy, and other "enablers" to allow the teams that are there now to be more effective.

Also, before any further role by New Zealand in Afghanistan is envisaged, the Key government needs to address the issue of treatment of detainees handed over to the Karzai regime by New Zealand forces. As David Beatson has ably pointed out, New Zealand’s bilateral agreement with the Karzai regime fails to contain the kind of human rights safeguards for the treatment of detainees that our fellow Western countries in the Nato-led International Security Assistance Force have managed to negotiate. At a time when we have draft Immigration legislation waiting to re-enter the House that enshrines the Convention Against Torture as part of our domestic law, it would be totally unacceptable to find that our armed forces in Afghanistan were complicit in violating that Convention while serving offshore. What is Key prepared to do about this glaring anomaly?

Clearly, much has yet to be revealed about how the Key government plans to manage New Zealand’s defence and foreign policy stance in the coming months and years. Afghanistan will provide a useful litmus test as to whether Key will choose to follow a path of savvy independence, or of dutiful obedience.


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