Keith Locke’s speech launching the Urgent Debate on SAS deployment to Afghanistan



I move,

That the House take note of a matter of urgent public importance

. That matter is the commitment by the Government of special forces to Afghanistan. The Green Party is strongly opposed to the Government’s decision to send the SAS back to Afghanistan. We do not want our soldiers fighting and dying in an unjustifiable war that is not helping the Afghan people. It is very important that we have this debate today, because we as a Parliament should always debate the sending of New Zealand combat troops overseas to participate in foreign military conflicts. We should never lightly risk the lives of our soldiers, and we should never lightly participate in armed conflicts, which inevitably result in much death and destruction and have a huge impact on the lives of local people.

War can never be the preferred means of settling disputes. My colleague Kennedy Graham currently has a member’s bill before Parliament, the International Non-Aggression and Lawful Use of Force Bill, to bind New Zealand not to commit aggression against another people acting contrary to international law. It is important, in particular, that we debate the commitment of combat troops to Afghanistan, because of the important moral, legal, and practical issues it raises. Such commitments of combat troops have been controversial in many of the countries that have contributed forces to Afghanistan, and in particular in countries similar to us such as Canada, Australia, and Great Britain, where half of the population is now opposed to the presence of those combat forces in Afghanistan, and want those combat forces withdrawn.

Half of the New Zealand people, according to public opinion polls, are against the commitment of our special forces, as well, and today in Parliament, the Green Party is trying to represent their views. There is a very strong anti-war feeling in New Zealand. We had a very big movement against New Zealand’s involvement in the Viet Nam War, and there is a strong Kiwi commitment to peace, which is shown by the fact that we became a nuclear-free country and are very proud of that. There is nothing more tragic than our solders dying in an unjust war, as Kiwi soldiers did in Viet Nam.

The Government’s arguments for sending the SAS to Afghanistan just do not stand up. It is claimed that this decision will help the Afghan people, yet, clearly, the American-led offensive has so far only strengthened the extremist Taliban. It has allowed the extremist Taliban to cloak itself in the mantle of Afghan nationalism as the defender of Afghanistan against foreign invaders. That has enabled it to recruit new supporters and fighters hand over fist. In short, the US-led effort, of which the SAS will be a part, has been counter-productive. It has resulted not in the weakening of the Taliban but in its strengthening.

The main rationale used by the Prime Minister and the Minister of Defence, Wayne Mapp, to justify the sending of SAS personnel to Afghanistan is that the war they will be part of is necessary to stop Afghanistan becoming “a haven for terrorists”. In fact, the war is itself a war of terror, with terror coming from both sides. The Taliban has used terror against Afghans who resist its extremist practices, and the American forces have used terror in bombing targets in rural Afghanistan, where there has been significant loss of civilian life. Even the United Nations Secretary-General, Ban Ki-moon, has criticised the bombing and the resulting civilian casualties, and what he calls “a type of military conduct that alienates the population”.

So Afghanistan is already a haven for terrorists of all types, including the Afghan Government itself. The United Nations special rapporteur Philip Alston reported in May that “Afghans are unlawfully killed by police and other armed personnel acting under the authority of Government officials.” The US mission in Afghanistan also reports complaints about torture in Afghan Government prisons, and those reports are verified by human rights organisations like Amnesty International. That provides another problem for a New Zealand combat unit operating in Afghanistan if it hands over prisoners who it cannot be sure will not be tortured by the Afghan authorities. For some years New Zealand has tried to obtain a written agreement on the treatment of any prisoners it hands over, but to date the Afghan Government has simply refused to provide a written assurance. Its assurance is only verbal. There is also the problem of New Zealand contravening the UN convention on torture if it hands over prisoners to US authorities. Even though the treatment of Afghan prisoners is probably improving under the Obama administration—there has been some progress there—US detention facilities in Afghanistan have not yet been given a clean bill of health.

We are now learning more and more about the systematic mistreatment of Afghan prisoners in US bases such as Bagram Air Base and the Kandahar base since the 2001 invasion. Unfortunately, in 2002 an earlier SAS unit was implicated in this problem. It captured some 50 or so prisoners who were passed over to the US forces, and it is likely that at that stage they were mistreated. The New Zealand Defence Force was unwilling or unable to track the 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, contrary to the Geneva conventions, what are called ghost prisoners.

One brutal military truth is that we cannot win a war if the Government we are defending is not really worth defending and has alienated the people of the country, and that is the case with the Karzai Government. Yes, Hamid Karzai might win the presidential elections that are taking place in Afghanistan around now, but, as respected columnist Gwynne Dyer points out in this morning’s

New Zealand Herald

, it will be through “bribery, blackmail, and threats”. He will win in a coalition with local warlords, who have run roughshod over their people. Two local warlords, Mohammad Qasim Fahim and Abdul Karim Khalili, are Karzai’s vice-presidential candidates. Even Colonel David Haight, a US commander in Afghanistan, was quoted by Gwynne Dyer in this morning’s

New Zealand Herald

saying in relation to the elections: “There is going to be frustration from people who realise there is not going to be change. The bottom line is they are going to be thinking: ‘Four more years of this crap.’ ”

The Karzai Government is utterly corrupt, and it is also in an alliance with Islamic conservatives who are not too different from the Taliban. We see that the Karzai Government has just forced through a law, which Karzai himself supports, which allows husbands to starve their wives if they do not give them sex, gives males exclusive guardianship of children, and requires women to get permission from their husbands before they can go out to work. It also does not help that the corrupt Karzai Government is so weak that it has to be supported by foreign troops. That does not give it too much credibility among the Afghan populace.

There is also the whole question of the legality of foreign military operations on Afghan soil. The original US-led invasion of Afghanistan in 2001 was not justified under international law. Horrific though the September 11 attacks were, a single terrorist incident in one country is no legal justification for invading a country on the other side of the world. Article 51 of the United Nations Charter, which justifies self-defence, does not cover that. Operation Enduring Freedom, which was the name of the US-led invasion at the time, which continues today, was not and has not been endorsed by a UN Security Council resolution. Certainly, New Zealand cannot claim an argument of self-defence for sending the SAS to Afghanistan. The sending of the SAS to Afghanistan contravenes the international law against aggression, and may well also contravene the Geneva Convention if the SAS transfers prisoners to possible torture in the jails of either the Afghan Government or other coalition forces, such as the United States.

The Green objection to a unit being sent to actively engage in the war in the south and east of the country does not mean that we wish to run away from helping the Afghan people solve their very deep problems. Those problems have stood for years and years, and have only been complicated by foreign interventions dating back to the British intervention more than 100 years ago, the Russian intervention, and now the American-led intervention. On the political level, what is really needed in Afghanistan today is a dialogue and reconciliation between the different political factions as a prelude to nation-building—and there are some promising signs there. There has been an adjustment of some of the Western policy promoting, to an extent, dialogue between the different political forces, including the Taliban or elements of it. That is very positive, but it runs contrary to also engaging in the frontal war, in particular in the south and the east of the country. There are some promising signs in the ceasefire announced recently between the Karzai Government and the Taliban in the province of Badghis, and hopefully that sort of thing will spread.

We want to be promoting that sort of thing as a peacemaking country, and as a country with some moral standing, as seen through our presence in peacekeeping and peace building through our provincial reconstruction team. We want to build on the framework of possible ceasefires, and encourage the development of more democratic institutions and the development of the rule of law. The rule of law is not followed very much in Afghanistan today; that is something that has been commented on quite strongly by UN authorities. They complain that the rule of law is not really being upheld in Afghanistan. We also want to contribute to the reconstruction and development of Afghanistan, and we have been doing very good work there for the last several years through our provincial reconstruction team in the Bamian province. In the whole period the team has been there, it has been effectively a peacekeeping and reconstruction operation; it has not once had to fire a shot at any armed combatant during that whole time. We want that work to be continued. It is disappointing that when the Government made a decision to send the SAS, it said that it will pull out the provincial reconstruction team in the fairly near future. We support the Government in its announcement that it will be giving more civil aid. The Green Party has been promoting that for some time. We have a positive approach to helping the Afghan people.

The Government’s decision to send the SAS is very disappointing in another way. What is at stake here is the continuation of the path New Zealand has been taking for some years towards a more independent foreign policy, whereby New Zealand is constructively engaged in peacemaking and peacekeeping. Now it appears to be falling back into a role that we traditionally had in the time of the Viet Nam War, for example, of being subordinate to the Western alliance, and particularly to the foreign policy and military policy of the United States. I do not think we should go backwards now; we want to keep going forwards. We have progressed so far since the massive protest against New Zealand’s participation in the Viet Nam War some years ago; since our effective withdrawal from ANZUS to stop nuclear-armed and nuclear-powered warships from entering our waters; in the work we have done in the international arena to promoted nuclear disarmament through, for example, the New Agenda Coalition; and, more lately, in staying out of the illegal war in Iraq. Let us continue this peaceful and independent course.


House of Representatives