In around two weeks time the government will make an important decision on whether to send New Zealand’s SAS troops back to Afghanistan. They were last there four years ago. Since that time the war has become increasingly unpopular among people in Western countries that have sent significant numbers of combat troops. In Australia, Britain and Canada most of the population favours a withdrawal of those troops.
The combat operations launched by foreign troops in the south and east of Afghanistan are also attracting more criticism from the Afghan people. In general, Afghanis are not keen about foreign troops fighting on their soil. The British troops found this out during the colonial period; the Soviet troops learnt the same lesson during the 1980s, and now the American forces are discovering it all over again.
Afghans have also complained about American manipulation of their political system – they have often supported corrupt politicians and warlords – and the way the American generals have fought the war. The American forces have often been insensitive to Afghan customs as they charge through villages – and they have often used their awesome military power – particularly air power – in a manner that has caused excessive civilian casualties.
We are now learning more about the history of mistreatment of Afghan prisoners in the US bases since the 2001 invasion. Unfortunately, an earlier New Zealand SAS unit was implicated in this problem. It captured some prisoners which were passed over the US forces, where it is likely that they were mistreated. The NZ Defence Force was unwilling or unable to track these prisoners through the US prison system, and in any case the prisoners had not been properly identified by the SAS before they were handed over – thus potentially creating ‘ghost’ prisoners, contrary to the Geneva conventions.
There would still be a “prisoner” problem if our SAS went back. Even though the treatment of prisoners is probably improving under the Obama administration, the US detention facilities in Afghanistan have not yet been given a clean bill of health. And there is still much mistreatment of prisoners in Afghan government facilities, as reflected in the reports by Amnesty International.
Before sending back the SAS to re-engage in the war in the south and east of the country, the New Zealand government should properly assess whether the American-led war effort is actually helping Afghanis. This doesn’t seem to be the case: it only seems to be driving even more Afghans into the arms of the extremist Taliban.
Political leaders supporting the war effort – including John Key – try to dodge any real assessment of how the war is going. They fall back on the very thin argument that it is a necessary part of the global “war on terror.” If we don’t fight the Taliban in Afghanistan, the argument goes, more bombs will go off in London and Jakarta – and some New Zealanders will lose their lives.
What is really needed in Afghanistan today is dialogue and reconciliation between the factions, as a prelude to effective nation-building. There are some promising beginnings, such as a ceasefire between the Karzai government and the Taliban in Bagdis province. New Zealand is well placed to help out in this. Our Provincial Reconstruction Team in Bamian province has essentially been a peacekeeping operation, not directly engaged in armed conflict and helping in civil reconstruction work. It would be a big step backwards to replace this successful PRT with an SAS combat team which would be involved in an illegal war.
The government has in front of it a very significant foreign policy decision. At stake is whether New Zealand continues on a path towards a more independent foreign policy, constructively engaged in peacemaking and peacekeeping, or whether it falls back into a more subordinate role in a Western alliance structure led by the United States.
We shouldn’t go backwards now. We have progressed so far since the massive protests against New Zealand’s participation in the Vietnam war, our effective withdrawal from ANZUS to stop nuclear armed and powered warships entering our waters, and more lately staying out of the illegal war in Iraq.
Let us continue this peaceful and independent course.