This article was first published in the Spinoff on 18 August 2021.
I argued 20 years ago that sending troops would only help the Taliban. And so it has proved, writes former Green MP Keith Locke.
After the fall of Kabul, the obvious question for New Zealanders is whether we should ever have joined the American war in Afghanistan. Labour and National politicians, who sent our Special Forces there, will say yes. The Greens, who opposed the war from the start, will say no.
Back in 2001, we were the only party to vote against a parliamentary motion to send an SAS contingent to Afghanistan. As Green foreign affairs spokesperson during the first decade of the war I was often accused by Labour and National MPs of helping the Taliban. By their reasoning you either supported the American war effort, or you were on the side of the Taliban.
To the contrary, I said, New Zealand was helping the Taliban by sending troops. It was handing the Taliban a major recruiting tool, that of Afghans fighting for their national honour against a foreign military force. And so it has proved to be. The Taliban didn’t win because of the popularity of its repressive theocracy. Its ideology is deeply unpopular, particularly in the Afghan cities.
But what about the rampant corruption in the Afghan political system? Wasn’t that a big factor in the Taliban rise to power? Yes, but that corruption was enhanced by the presence of the western forces and all the largess they were spreading around.
Then there was the conduct of the war. Both sides committed war crimes, and it has been documented that our SAS handed over prisoners to probable torture by the Afghan National Directorate of Security. Western air power helped the government side, but it was also counterproductive, as more innocent villagers were killed or wounded by air strikes. In the end all the most sophisticated American warfighting gear couldn’t uproot a lightly armed insurgent force.
There was another course America (and New Zealand) could have taken. Back in 2001 the Greens (and others in the international community) were pushing for a peaceful resolution whereby the Taliban would hand over Osama bin Laden to justice. The Taliban were not ruling that out. But America was bent on revenge for the attack on the World Trade Centre, and quickly went to war. Ostensibly it was a war against terrorism, but Osama bin Laden quickly decamped to Pakistan, so it became simply a war to overthrow the Taliban government and then to stop it returning to power. The war had this exclusively anti-Taliban character when New Zealand’s SAS force arrived in December 2001. The war would grind on for 20 years causing so much death and destruction for the Afghan people.
The peaceful way of putting pressure on the Taliban, which could have been adopted back in 2001, is similar to how the world community is likely to relate to the new Taliban government. That is, there will be considerable diplomatic and economic pressure on the Taliban to give Afghan people (particularly Afghan women) more freedom than it has to date. How successful this will be is yet to be determined. It depends on the strength and unity of the international community. Even without much unity, international pressure is having some (if limited) effect on another strongly anti-women regime, namely Saudi Arabia.
The Labour and National governments that sent our SAS to Afghanistan cannot escape responsibility for the casualties and post-traumatic stress suffered by our soldiers. Their line of defence may be that they didn’t know it would turn out this way. However, that is not a good argument when you look at the repeated failure of Western interventions in nearby Middle Eastern countries.
America has intervened militarily (or supported foreign intervention) in Iraq, Syria, Lebanon, Yemen, Palestine, Somalia and Libya. All of these peoples are now worse off than they were before those interventions. “Civilising missions”, spearheaded by the American military, are not the answer, and New Zealand shouldn’t get involved. We should have learnt that 50 years ago in Vietnam, but perhaps we’ll learn it now.