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Gordon Campbell on the only foreign policy in this campaign

Gordon Campbell on the only foreign policy issue in this campaign

Ten years ago come Saturday, the Taliban fled Kabul as the US–led forces of Operation Enduring Freedom reached the gates of the Afghan capital. Things have really gone swimmingly since then, haven’t they? Stability, security and independence are as far away as ever. At last count – by Jane’s Intelligence Weekly, in their October 2011 edition – a whopping 97% of Afghanistan’s GDP is still directly related to foreign military and development aid, and to in-country spending by foreign troops.

The desertion rate in the Afghan Army? According to a NATO report cited in the same article, one in seven members of the Afghan Army deserted during the first six months of 2011. That’s 24,590 deserters in all, up from 11,432 in the same period the year before. “In June alone, 5,000 soldiers deserted,” the Jane’s report says, “nearly 3% of the 170,000 soldier force.” This hapless Afghan Army remains Tajik – dominated, and the ethnic imbalance in the armed forces continues to be a source of social friction. In 2009, the ethnic Pashtuns who comprise 17% of the population contributed only 1.5% of the recruits to the Afghan Army.

The failure of the Afghan war effort extends to Bamiyan province. In July, the New Zealand’s Provincial Reconstruction Team (PRT) work handed over security control to locals during the first stage of a nationwide security transition from NATO to the Afghanistan National Security Forces. Since that July handover, the security situation has seriously deteriorated. Afghan expert Professor Thomas Johnson of the US Naval Postgraduate School (and the author of the Jane’s Intelligence Weekly cover story cited above) has described the situation in these terms :

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Local engineers in Bamiyan were reported by media as saying that the surge in attacks had severely disrupted security for the Ashpusht mine by the first week of September. The mine is a key economic source for hundreds of local residents who work there. Other insurgent attacks left scores of Afghan police in Bamiyan dead or wounded, since the security transfer with the district of Tala wa Barfak nearly succumbing to insurgent control.

So far, Afghanistan has been the only foreign policy issue to emerge during this election campaign. Only minor policy differences exist between Labour and National on the subject, and even then, all the focus has been on the SAS deployment in Kabul – which Labour (in an entirely symbolic gesture ) wants to bring to an end a few weeks before the March pullout date announced as likely by the government. On the stump, Prime Minister John Key has said that he won’t be revealing his final decision on the SAS deployment until after the election. Allegedly, the delay has something to do with Key having to inform NATO headquarters first. (Given the time lag, Key must be communicating with NATO by carrier pigeon.)

The exclusive election campaign focus on the SAS seems misguided. Reportedly, our 140 troops in Bamiyan are due to stay there until 2014, amidst a deteriorating security situation. On Monday, I wrote to Professor Johnson to get chapter and verse on what he knew about recent events in Bamiyan which (in the New Zealand media) is still being burbled about by the likes of Deborah Coddington (“Peaceniks Disrespect The Sacrifice of Our Soldiers”) in rosy terms:

Like it or not, our troops are making a real difference, as the Dominion Post's Vernon Small reported from Bamiyan province in August, when locals told him it was the first time they had had peace in 200 years.

That is sheer fantasy. Yesterday, Professor Johnson related a quite different picture to me, by email :

Since the transition of security to Afghan Security Forces, Bamiyan's level of security has slipped considerably, according to residents, Afghan government officials, and Afghan security officials.
* The roadway linking Bamiyan with Kabul (there are three driveable routes*) is currently impassable for Bamiyan residents due to insecurity, and flights are virtually nonexistent due to poor weather.
* The average cost to travel from Bamiyan to Kabul is $208.30 (10,000 afghanis) and should only take the better part of a day, but insecurity has prompted many families to travel through Ghor to Herat, a much more timely and costly venture that few families can afford.
* Afghan government officials are considering dispatching an ANA division to the Ghoraband Valley area, where 100 fresh police recuits were sent late last month to help secure the Bamiyan-Kabul roadway as it cuts through Parwan Province.
* The security situation around the Ashpusht mine area has deteriorated rapidly since August. In September, there was a series of Taliban attacks against security outposts (at leat four ANP including an officer were killed) near the mine, causing a major disruption of work at the mine. Locals indicated the Taliban militants came from the Tala Aw Barfak district of neighboring Baghlan province and were not local Taliban.
* Efforts to supply more ANP forces to protect the mine have been slow coming, and no details have yet been released confirming reinforcements have been sent to the area where the Ashpusht mine is located.
* However, 1,700 security personnel and several new check-posts have been allocated for the Hajigak iron-ore mine in Bamyan's Shinbar district. International mining firms have put in bids to start mining the area (with bids expected to be decided on this month). The mining operation will likely provide much needed jobs for up to 30,000 local Afghan laborers. However, providing adequate security is essential to keep both the Ashpusht and Hajigak mines operating.
* The routes are: Hajigak iron-ore mine in central Bamiyan province, officials said on Sunday.Bamyan to Maidan Wardak, Bamiyan to Ghorband Valley of central Parwan province, and Bamiyan to the Doshi district of northern Baghlan province. Each are currently impassable.

In other words, it looks as though the NATO/US security effort in Bamiyan – including presumably, that of New Zealand troops – will be increasingly directed at protecting the mining by foreign multinationals of Afghanistan’s mineral resources. Activity that provides local jobs, but where the vast majority of the profits goes offshore. Professor Johnson is not the only person sounding the alarm about the trend of events in Bamiyan. Even in July, other reports had warned about the likely consequences of the security transfer in the province.

Despite the self-congratulatory tone of the New Zealand media coverage of our Bamiyan effort, only a slim majority of New Zealand voters currently support the PRT troops staying on until 2014.

That slim majority is likely to erode over the course of the government’s second term. As Mana Party leader Hone Harawira argued in a recent Native Affairs debate programme, the tens of millions of dollars currently being spent to keep our troops in Afghanistan would be far better spent at home – in combating, for instance, the hunger and Third World diseases currently blighting the lives of children in New Zealand’s poorest families, as this RNZ Insight report on poverty (by RNZ political reporter Brent Edwards) revealed earlier this week.

There are wider strategic reasons why we should not stay enmeshed in a losing Afghan war. Unfortunately, the Jane’s Intelligence Review article is not available online. But in it, Professor Johnson draws a compelling comparison between the current policy of ‘Afghanisation’ prior to the NATO/US pullout, and the almost identical policy pursued by the Russians, just before their ignominious departure from Afghanistan in the late 1980s. Just as the US is doing with Hamid Karzai, the Russians gradually abandoned their own puppet regime, headed by Mohammad Najibullah.

The current Afghan political situation resembles the unpopular Najibullah regime in many ways :an often corrupt and mistrusted cabal of powerbrokers that is viewed as illegitimate by parts of the country, a regime dominated by foreign influence, and one whose authority rarely permeates into the countryside, where an estimated 80% of the population resides. Like the Soviets, the US has announced that on top of the hundreds of billions of aid and support it has already spent in Afghanistan, over the next eight months [starting in September 2011] Afghanistan will receive an additional $US2.7 billion in arms shipments that have been referred to an the ‘iron mountain’ by NATO security analysts. This represents the largest transfer of military equipment by the US or NATO in the past eight years of conflict in Afghanistan.

At last count, this new arms cascade into Afghanistan will consist of 22,000 vehicles, 44 aircraft and helicopters, 40,000 additional weapons and communication gear. Does MFAT and NZDF really have no concern at all about the regional implications of such a gigantic arms transfer? John Key has just launched a major drive to enhance New Zealand’s trade links with India. Does Key think the Indians are not concerned about being the ultimate targets of the US arms influx into Afghanistan, once the Karzai regime inevitably collapses?

A new Afghan government allied to Pakistan will then be turning its attentions to India. That’s why Pakistani intelligence agencies have been supporting the Taliban all along – to recruit an ally for Pakistan’s end game with India. Frankly, we have far more to gain from getting onside with India in these trade talks than we have by pouring money and lives down the plughole in Afghanistan. If only because the enemies of India stand to be the prime beneficiaries of our current Afghan policy.


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