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Q+A: Shane Taurima interviews Jonathan Coleman

Sunday 26 August, 2012

Q+A: Shane Taurima interviews Jonathan Coleman

On the increased risk and danger our Kiwi troops are in, Defence Minister Jonathan Coleman says we always knew that this was going to be a difficult period coming towards the end of our engagement in Bamiyan.

On media reports our troops are being directly targeted: Coleman thinks the Taleban are partaking in a war of words and propaganda and would want to unsettle the public and the government of New Zealand with statements like this.

If the troops pulled out any earlier than April 2013, they’d be “leaving a mess”, and they need to pack up and leave in an orderly way so it’s part of an orderly transition.

Coleman believes Afghanistan is better for our efforts there.

On extending patrols into Baghlan: It’s not happening now, the Chief of Defence has sought a mandate should he need to, it’s just a “tool in his toolbox”.
But Coleman admits such patrols would be “very dangerous”.

And, “It’s important to me that we finish the job in Afghanistan and that we reduce the risk to our personnel there and that we don’t have to attend any more funerals at Burnham.”

Q+A, 9-10am Sundays on TV ONE and one hour later on TV ONE plus 1.

Thanks to the support from NZ ON Air.

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Q + A – August 26, 2012


Interviewed by SHANE TAURIMA

SHANE Minister, welcome to the programme. Thank you very much for joining us.

JONATHAN COLEMAN – Defence Minister
Good morning, Shane.

SHANE Dr Lafraie says our soldiers are in more danger and face greater risk. Is he right?

DR COLEMAN Look, I’d just like to open by saying it’s been a very tragic two weeks for the NZDF and for New Zealand, and I just want to acknowledge the sacrifice that our five soldiers have made and the sacrifice their families have made. In terms of those comments, is it going to be more dangerous for our soldiers over time? Well, we always knew that this was going to be a difficult period coming towards the end of our engagement in Bamiyan. Our focus now is on making sure that we finish the job well, that we honour the sacrifice of those soldiers by completing their job well, and we’re now working towards a timetable that will see us draw down over the next few months and return our operations to New Zealand and leave Bamiyan in a state where it has a chance to build on the very excellent gains that the NZDF and the PRT have made over the last decade.

SHANE Media reports today claim that our soldiers are being targeted and that there will be more bloodshed. Let me read you what the Taliban spokesman said, and let me quote: “We will find them and kill them. There's no safety for them.” End of quote. What do you make of that?

DR COLEMAN Well, you’ve two things there. You’ve got an insurgency, and obviously it has become more dangerous in the north-east over time, but at the same time, the second point is there is a war of words and propaganda, and naturally the Taliban would want to unsettle the public and the government of New Zealand with statements like this. So we know that it has become more dangerous in that part of the province, but, look, this is what's happening across Afghanistan every day. This is just a usual day in Afghanistan.

SHANE Has it unsettled you?

DR COLEMAN I’m very concerned for the safety of our people, but, you know, the NZDF and the government always realised that this was a dangerous deployment and there were risks, so we were prepared for this eventuality. We hoped it would never happen, but we are determined to stick to the course, because we just can’t cut and run and lose the gains that New Zealand’s made there over a decade, so while it’s very sad, it’s very tragic, and of course it’s a very disturbing series of events, it doesn’t deflect us from our path in Bamiyan. That remains unchanged.

SHANE You talk about the course. What's going to happen between now and April that will make any difference to Bamiyan’s future?

DR COLEMAN Well, look, we’ve got some major aid programmes going on up there around agriculture and energy, and the role of the PRT over the last decade has been to provide security for a whole range of aid work. Major gains made. The longer we’re there, the more those programmes are bedded in, the more the local forces are trained to respond to security emergencies. So we’re on a timetable. We always said 2013. We said earlier this year that’s now been brought forward for practical logistical reasons. We actually can’t leave before April 2013, because it takes time to pack up and leave. There's the issues around the weather and the ability to fly in and out, and then the availability of the airport. So people who think we could suddenly go now are actually wrong. If we did, we’d be leaving behind a mess, and that would not honour the sacrifice of our 10 dead soldiers in Afghanistan.

SHANE So what's on the to-do list between now and April next year? What can we say in April next year can we tick off the list?

DR COLEMAN Sure. I just want to clarify, when I say “leaving behind a mess”, we need to pack up in an orderly way and show that we’re part of an orderly transition, so we’d be leaving behind a whole lot of buildings and equipment. In terms of the to-do list, we’ve got to continue to train up local security forces so they are in the best possible position to manage security in that province. We’ve also got to make sure that the solar energy and agricultural projects are bedded in. There's continued work around governance and making sure that the good gains are not lost and the insurgents can’t get traction in the hearts and minds of the Hazara people – the majority people in Bamiyan.

SHANE On your first point, can you say by April next year that the Afghan police will be ready to maintain security in the region when we leave?

DR COLEMAN Well, look, they are getting better and better all time—

SHANE But will they be ready by then?

DR COLEMAN They are getting better and better all the time. They’re leading a lot of the operations now. They’re leading security in 90% of the province. There's just this last 10% in the north-east. So we are confident that by working with them, they will have the capacity to manage security in Bamiyan. If you look across the whole country, you’ve had a massive increase in Afghan security force numbers, so that wider context is far more capacity to deal with the security situation. So these months are going to make a difference, and if we left now, they wouldn’t be as well prepared as they will be by April.

SHANE I suppose the question is, Minister, if our presence there has made any long-term difference, and whether in five years’ time, as an example, girls will be still going to school, or if the Taliban are just going to wait for us to leave and go back in there to take over?

DR COLEMAN Look, it’s certainly made a huge difference in terms of governance, in terms of aid programmes. Young girls going to school – they weren’t doing that under the Taliban. The maternal mortality rate – a quarter of what it was 10 years ago.

SHANE But will they still be going to school in five years?

DR COLEMAN The mortality rate for children under 5 – halved compared to what it was. Now, we can’t predict the future, but what I’m confident of is that area around Bamiyan town where the Taliban, frankly, are hated, I’m confident that a lot of those gains will be maintained in the longer term. But we can’t predict the future, but if you look at the wider Afghan situation, the international community, they’re putting huge resources into bolstering security – $16 billion for aid programmes. We’re putting aid programmes in. So there’s going to be a lot of sustainable infrastructure and a lot of change in the attitude of the people long term, which means that a lot of those gains will actually be preserved. So Afghanistan is a much better place for the work that our soldiers have done there over a decade.

SHANE The American ambassador to Kabul up until last month, Ryan Crocker, says if we leave Afghanistan too early, Al Qaeda will be back pronto. Are you confident they won’t be back in a year’s time, say?

DR COLEMAN Well, I would say I haven’t read his comments, but no one’s leaving too early. The point is it’s part of a clear sequence for an ISAF coalition draw-down, and we’re part of that, and that’s one of the important reasons why we suddenly can’t leave. But, you know, our understanding is Al Qaeda have been eliminated in Afghanistan. Obviously, the Taliban are still there, but it was very important we went in there and did that work back in the early 2000s, because New Zealanders —

SHANE But the ambassador says they’ll be back.

DR COLEMAN Well, I haven’t read his comments, so I can’t verify them. But one thing you will find – there's a huge range of views on what happens in Afghanistan, and there have been major gains there in terms of security, in terms of wiping out Al Qaeda and in terms of long-term gains that make a real difference to the everyday lives of ordinary Afghans. It’s a safer place, people’s health is better, and people are getting educated, and governance is better than it was. But we’re not talking an ideal Western democracy here. We’ve got to look at it in the context of what Afghanistan was before ISAF went there and how it is now, and there have been great gains.

SHANE But isn’t the truth, though, that civilian casualties are up over the last three years?

DR COLEMAN Well, what has happened is there's been some large events which have caused large numbers of casualties, but if you look at a place like Bamiyan, 10 years ago people couldn’t go about their daily business in the town. I’ve been into that market town now back in April, and people can go about their daily business in Bamiyan safely. The north-east corner, yes, there is an insurgency. 90% of the province, people are enjoying a relatively peaceful lifestyle compared to what they once were, so there have been real security gains, and at the same time, the local security forces are getting much stronger and more confident and are much more able to deal with any—

SHANE Because you just said before that Afghanistan is getting safer.

DR COLEMAN Well, look, if you look at the wider context over time, it’s safer than it once was a decade ago, but there's no question it’s a dangerous place. I mean, it’s not like being in a modern Western country, and the insurgency is definitely stepping up in an attempt to destabilise the confidence of Afghan people and destabilise the ISAF.

SHANE So is it getting worse or is it getting better?

DR COLEMAN Overall, I think Afghanistan is better for our efforts there. Certainly, Bamiyan has got better over time.

SHANE And what happens, though—?

DR COLEMAN Kabul is better because of the efforts of our SAS there. But there are pockets of the country that are extremely dangerous.

SHANE What happens, though, when our efforts come to an end? What happens next year after April?

DR COLEMAN OK, well, if you’re talking in Bamiyan, we’re leaving behind—

SHANE In terms of security, in terms of safety.

DR COLEMAN Yep, yep. Absolutely. So we’re leaving behind a sustainable security structure, well-trained local people. If you’re talking the wider country, the West have learnt from the Russian experience, where they left too early, left no resources. There's actually a huge emphasis on making sure we build up the Afghan security forces, that they’ve got the money to be sustainable, and that aid programme are bedded in. Also post-2015, there will be an ISAF presence there. It’ll be much scaled down, but it’ll be in terms of mentoring and supporting Afghan forces and special forces. It won’t be New Zealand special forces. But we’re not just running out and leaving them. They will be there leading the security effort – so the Afghans will be leading the security effort, but with ISAF background mentoring and support.

SHANE Because, Minister, many New Zealanders ask this question, and I’m sure you’ve been asked the same question – do you really have any choice on the date, or are we getting out next year simply because the Americans are getting out, and the Americans are getting out because the public is so opposed?

DR COLEMAN No, you’ve got to look at it – we’re part of a coalition effort. Our province was one of the first to move towards transition, and it’s a sequenced effort. So it’s time now for New Zealand to move out of Afghanistan as part of that sequence, but it has to be in a very orderly manner, so there's a clear plan to all this which is separate from what's happened over the last—

SHANE So it’s got nothing to do with the US?

DR COLEMAN No, well, the US is part of the wider coalition. It’s—

SHANE But can you—?

DR COLEMAN It’s working together with our partners. The other thing I’ll say – look, we could talk philosophically about this, but the reality is it’s going to take till April to pack up, and there's a window in April when the Bamiyan Airport is available, so realistically, there's a logistic element to this which is actually going to determine the final timing of when we leave, and Cabinet hasn’t made a final decision around that yet.

SHANE Let me ask you, though, can you put your hand on your heart and say honestly that our work in Afghanistan has nothing to do with a US trade deal?

DR COLEMAN Oh, it doesn’t have anything to do with a US trade deal.

SHANE So you can?

DR COLEMAN Yes, I can. What it’s to do with is that since September 11, New Zealanders have been caught up in every major terrorist event around the world – Bali bombings, London Tube bombings. The Labour Government felt that New Zealand had to get in and play its part to eliminate Al Qaeda and then rebuild Bamiyan province. We agree, as the National Government, and we’ve continued on that work. And now we’re determined to finish the task in an orderly manner, which works in with our coalition partners and our local Afghan partners and, very crucially, honours the sacrifice of 10 dead New Zealand soldiers, because we cannot fritter away the gains we’ve made by suddenly cutting and running.

SHANE You talk about terrorism, though. What are we doing about Indonesia? What are we doing about Saudi Arabia?

DR COLEMAN Oh, look, I’m not going to get into a wider discussion, because there's lots of things happening in many parts of the world, but, look, we work very closely with the Indonesians. They are a nation we have very good relations with at a government and actually at a military level, and it’s important that that government is supported, as is the Saudi government, to make sure that insurgency and Jihadists don’t take root there. But, look, this is a collective international effort. New Zealand can’t be isolationist. We need to stand up for our values and what we believe in, and that’s been what's driven our involvement in Afghanistan, and the Labour Government agreed before us. We continued on that work.

SHANE I’d like to talk about – before we wrap up – about the plans to extend our patrols to Baghlan. What's the aim of those patrols?

DR COLEMAN Well, look, the CDF – the Chief of Defence Force – has sought a mandate from Cabinet to do that, if he deems it necessary. So we approved that in principle. That doesn’t mean he’s necessarily going to do it. But how it was explained to us—

SHANE But what is the aim?

DR COLEMAN That is a tool that could be used to break up an insurgent presence, get to know the local people in that border area and just make it harder for insurgents to do stuff out in the open, because they know that with those patrols there, they will be caught. That doesn’t meant those patrols are actually going to take place. It’s a tool in the toolbox for CDF.

SHANE Isn’t it more, though, about flushing out the bomb-makers and finding those responsible for killing our three soldiers?

DR COLEMAN Well, look, that’s an operational matter. I mean, obviously if you’re in an area, you make links with the local people. You may get information which prevents this happening again, and we certainly don’t want a repeat of what we’ve had in the last fortnight.

SHANE Is that important to you, though – that we get the guys that killed them?

DR COLEMAN It’s important to me that we finish the job in Afghanistan and that we reduce the risk to our personnel there and that we don’t have to attend any more funerals at Burnham.

SHANE Do you know how dangerous it is by extending patrols?

DR COLEMAN It’s very dangerous. Oh, we take the professional advice on that, and those patrols are not happening at the moment. It’s a tool that the CDF has got if he needs it, and he would come back and give us his best professional advice if he felt that should be done. But, look, there's no question – the north-east of Bamiyan and over into Baghlan province, it’s a very dangerous area, and the CDF would be using his best professional calculation before he came to us saying he wanted to do anything like that.

SHANE Minister, unfortunately we have to leave it there. We thank you very much for joining us.

DR COLEMAN Thanks, Shane. Thank you very much.

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