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Speech: Goff - SAS To Afghanistan, 2009

Hon Phil Goff
Labour Leader

18 August 2009

Deployment of SAS to Afghanistan
Speech notes for debate in the House

Putting the lives of NZ troops at risk by deploying them into a combat zone is not a decision taken lightly by any Government.

Nor is it an issue to play politics with. It is too serious for that.

For the same reason, it is an issue that demands careful analysis – of the risks, of the benefits to be gained, of whether this is the most effective response to the situation we face.

There are times when it is necessary to resist aggression and to fight to protect ourselves and to stand up for what we believe in and what is right.

Thousands of New Zealanders in my parents' generation laid down their lives for their country in the Second World War.

In Opposition I have endorsed and in Government contributed to decisions to deploy our Defence Force personnel into combat zones.

After returning from East Timor as a UN monitor in the 1999 referendum, I strongly supported the decision of a National Government to deploy troops to that country.

As Minister of Foreign Affairs, I was closely involved in decisions to send troops to the Solomons and SAS forces and our Provincial Reconstruction Team to Afghanistan and redevelopment to Timor Leste in 2006.

I stand by those decisions because they were the right thing to do at that time.

There is an enormous weight of responsibility in making those decisions. Because lives are put at risk.

You must believe that it is the right thing, not just in a moral sense but also in terms of choice of the options before you.

In determining to make a deployment, you have to consider carefully the cause, the options that you have, what positive difference a deployment by New Zealand can make and whether the benefits that can be gained outweigh the costs which may be incurred.

In Iraq, the fifth Labour Government withstood pressure from others and made the decision, which history proved right, not to send combat forces. National, in Opposition, took a different stance.

Earlier, in Afghanistan, we made the decision, freely and without pressure from others, that we should commit troops. We were one of the early countries to deploy combat forces, sending in the SAS. We were the third nation to set up a Provincial Reconstruction Team, in Bamyan.

The rationale for sending troops to Afghanistan in the wake of the Al-Qaeda-instigated attacks of 9/11 were sound. Few New Zealanders doubted the need to do so. Al Qaeda had killed thousands of innocent people in its terrorist attacks and if not stopped would have continued to do so.

After the third rotation of the SAS withdrew in late 2005, however, the Labour Government reassessed the situation and decided not to recommit its special forces.

This in no way reflects on the NZ SAS itself. I know many of them personally. They are decent people, highly skilled and highly disciplined, and I have absolute confidence in them.

The decision not to recommit them reflected our assessment of the situation which had evolved in Afghanistan, and our firm belief that in this new situation there were better options.

The conflict had largely ceased to be about defeating foreign Al Qaeda forces exploiting Afghanistan as a base for terrorist attacks against the world. Indeed, much of the Al Qaeda leadership had moved to Pakistan.

As the conflict evolved and expanded in Afghanistan, it became much more a domestic and factionally-based conflict within that country.

Afghanistan is a country, but the loyalty of its peoples are much more to its ethnic and tribal groupings – Pashtuns, Tajiks, Uzbeks, Hazaras and others. Tribal, geographic, linguistic and ethnic groupings are more powerful than any sense of nationhood.

The lack of success of interventions from outside Afghanistan to establish centralized control of the country is legend, as past British and Russian attempts have demonstrated.

I believe it is a mistake to think that Afghanistan can be reconstructed from the top down.

While we rightly deplored the excesses and the fundamentalism of the past Taleban regime, it is also a mistake to believe that the conflict in Afghanistan is simply one between good and evil.

The values of the current Afghan Government also reflect religious and cultural beliefs that most of us would find it hard to sacrifice New Zealand lives to defend.

In the last week it was announced that the Afghan Government had made it lawful for a man to starve his wife into submission. Sharia law also allows a person to be executed for changing their religion.

Nor am I keen to sacrifice the lives of New Zealanders for a narco-state that provides 93% of the world's opium production, enriching warlords and government figures, and a state which suffers from endemic corruption.

Some argue that these considerations are secondary to self-protection through denying Al Qaeda the opportunity to re-establish a base in Afghanistan.

Yet the fact remains, that the threat by Al Qaeda is presently predominantly Pakistan-based.

Gordon Brown has acknowledged that three quarters of the most serious terrorist plots investigated by the UK are Pakistan-based, and Al Qaeda operates in other places like Yemen, Sudan and Somalia without our feeling the need to intervene and send our troops there.

Questions are being asked whether military force and a surge in troop numbers will contain or end the conflict in Afghanistan.

For more than three decades the country has been blighted by conflict. And after seven years of the US-led intervention, the defeat of the Taleban looks further away than ever, as fighting extends to areas where the Taleban was not previously active.

Seventy-five US and NATO troops died in Afghanistan in July, the deadliest month in the war since 2001. More than 1,000 Afghan civilians have died this year, up 24% from 2008.

The Taleban are responsible for many of those deaths, but many are the inadvertent consequence of International Security Assistance Force conflict with insurgents. For the families and for the villages where those civilians die, foreigners are blamed and the crucial battle for hearts and minds is lost.

A further 17,000 US troops are to be sent to Afghanistan, adding to the 90,000 US and ISAF troops already there.

A further 70 New Zealand SAS troops, probably only half of them badged, are unlikely to make a difference to the outcome. It is hard to see real benefit from sending them.

The risks on the other hand are intensifying.

I am not arguing that risk is the key reason to not send the SAS. I am however saying that if a positive outcome is unlikely from their deployment, costs potentially incurred will outweigh benefits.

Why then send the SAS to replace our current contribution in Bamyan through the Provincial Reconstruction Team which seems to be the Government's intention?

The PRT is effective. It has helped secure stability and security in Bamyan. It has allowed the conditions for and facilitated development, a prerequisite for longer-term success in Afghanistan. It has won the battle for hearts and minds of the local people. It is working with an administration in Bamyan led by Afghanistan's only woman governor, Governor Sarabi, who is competent and honest.

These things are being achieved at a lower risk level for our soldiers. The benefits clearly outweigh the risks. That is not the case with a further deployment of the SAS.

I don't question the motivation and reasons why the US went to Afghanistan. I am not however convinced that their strategy there will be effective.

Mr Key has given no good reason for why the SAS should be preferred as a contribution over the PRT. The assumption must be that the reason for the decision is because the Americans have requested it.

With all respect to the US, that is not a sufficient reason to deploy the SAS. That is a decision for New Zealand alone to make, consistent with our values and judgement.

I believe that New Zealand has more than pulled its weight in respect to its contribution to Afghanistan. As a small country, it has spent over $180 million, predominantly through our military presence. Our PRT is regarded as a model for others by the US and the UN.

We are assisting with training the Afghan Army and Police. We contribute to ISAF in Kabul and make a small medical contribution in Kandahar.

But for the reasons I have set out, after 2005 Labour did not recommit the SAS to Afghanistan and does not support that action now.


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