The Government has sent SAS troops back to Afghanistan, to a war commentators frequently describe as ‘unwinnable’. Opinion polls in countries that are actively engaged in the war – such as Australia, Britain and Canada – show a majority in favour of withdrawing combat troops. Going into Afghanistan now in a combat role is akin to deciding to send troops to Vietnam in late 1974.
John Key has said that New Zealand has to play its part in the ‘war on terror’.
Mr Key is right to be concerned about terrorist actions around the world, including the Jakarta hotel bombing which killed a New Zealander. However it is stretching credibility to link terrorist bombings in Jakarta, Spain and Britain to fighting a Taliban insurgency in Afghanistan.
The conflict in Afghanistan is about who rules that particular country. On the one side is the corrupt Karzai government, with warlords and drug traders influential in the provinces they control. The other side is the Taliban, guided by a reactionary version of Islam.
It is not the sort of conflict New Zealand should be engaged in. And if we want to reduce the incidence of terrorism in a country, sending in foreign troops is not the way to do it.
Historically, Afghans have not looked kindly on foreign troops trying to determine the future of their country. The British and Soviet empires discovered this at the cost of many lives.
Unfortunately, the Taliban has been able to gain support by presenting itself as the main opponent of foreign troops.
The Taliban have also benefited from the way the United States has fought the war, with air strikes and shelling which has killed many innocent civilians – leading to many Afghans who had not previously been radicalised aligning themselves with the Taliban.
Further aggravating this situation is the way the United States has treated captured prisoners – while some prisoners may have been foreign fighters the vast bulk of prisoners taken on the battlefield are Afghani.
In the aftermath of the invasion in 2001 the United States treatment of prisoners has paid little regard to international human rights law.
When the New Zealand SAS was deployed between 2001 and 2005 there was the problem of what to do with any Taliban fighters it captured. Our small force had no capacity to process prisoners, and therefore handed them over to either the US or Afghan authorities. We know that torture of such prisoners has been commonplace, contrary to the Geneva Conventions.
The Prime Minister has been quoted as saying any further commitment to Afghanistan would be part of a long term exit strategy. It has been suggested by commentators and journalists that to avoid offending the United States any withdrawal may involve sending our Special Forces in for an unspecified period of time.
The most bizarre aspect of this argument is that it involves cutting and running from one of the least dangerous parts of Afghanistan – the Bamyan province where New Zealand has been successfully engaged in reconstruction work for some years.
New Zealand should be a part of the non-military solution to Afghanistan’s problems, through strengthening its public infrastructure and democratic institutions.
Our Provincial Reconstruction Team in Bamyan province is doing useful work. It is essentially a peacekeeping unit which also helps in reconstruction.
Building on this contribution, through more civil aid, would be better than sending SAS troops to rejoin the war in the south of the country.
The reality on the ground is forcing both the Obama administration and the Karzai government to alter its strategy.
Dialogue with the Taliban is on the table, and the Afghan government announced a ceasefire with the Taliban in Bagdhis province earlier this year.
There is another legal problem which should stop our SAS fighting alongside US forces in Afghanistan under Operation Enduring Freedom. Technically this would be aggression because this operation has not been endorsed by any UN Security Council resolution. And we could hardly argue we are there for self defence as the United States did when it first went into Afghanistan in 2001 following 9/11.
New Zealand forged a principled independent stance by not going into Iraq with its traditional partners, the United States, Britain and Australia. Not going in to this illegal war was definitely in tune with New Zealand and world opinion.
It is a mistake to destroy this political capital by recommitting SAS troops to what is rightly becoming a very unpopular war.
Internationally, it may be seen as New Zealand moving back into the more subordinate role in the Western alliance – as we were in the Vietnam era. This is a regressive step.