A Word From Afar: Why the NZDF is in Afghanistan.
The controversial publication of photographs of NZSAS soldiers in action in Kabul has again raised questions about the reasons why New Zealand military forces are
deployed in Afghanistan. Critics from both ends of the political spectrum question the utility of the mission as well as
its basic rationale. What stake does New Zealand have in a conflict in such a far-flung and forlorn place? What benefits
does New Zealand receive for its commitment? Given limited resources, why does not limit its attention to its own
geographic area and allow bigger nations to shoulder the burden of the conflict with the Taliban and al-Qaeda remnants?
What, exactly, is the real motive behind both Labour and National governments sending New Zealanders into harms way in a
seemingly losing war in a failed state that shows no immediate signs of stability or development?
The answers to these questions are multiple and inter-connected. They are outlined below.
The NZDF deployment in Afghanistan is part of the International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) mission in Afghanistan.
As the successor to “Operation Enduring Freedom,” the US military ouster of the Taliban government from Afghanistan,
ISAF has two facets: counter-insurgency (pacification) and nation building. Authorised by United Nations Security Council Resolutions S/RES/1386
, that mission involves troops from 40 nations, including Muslim-majority countries like Turkey. In the degree of
Security Council agreement as well as in the size of the multinational coalition involved, the ISAF mission is
remarkable for the degree of international consensus underpinning it. It also includes a myriad of international aid
agencies and private charities as well as private security contractors, engineers, development experts, political
advisors and education specialists. Part of its mandate is legitimated by “responsibility to protect” clauses adhered to
by the UN by which external actors are justified in militarily intervening in a failed state in the event that its
population or portions of it are at risk and unprotected (by choice or design) by the national security forces of the
country in question (a doctrine elaborated after the Rwandan genocide).
ISAF is a NATO-led mission. The US provides the majority of troops and shares command responsibilities with Europeans,
but Germany, France, the Netherlands, the UK, Australia, Spain and Canada among others have made significant military
contributions, often numbering in thousands of troops. All of these countries have seen their soldiers killed in
Afghanistan, and although the opinion of their home populations has wavered on the worthiness of the cause, to date
their military commitment has not (Spain and Canada have signaled intention to withdraw troops in 2011). Although
offering smaller troop numbers, many other countries have contributed Special Forces, including seemingly unaffected
countries like Colombia, Poland and Norway (who the NZSAS replaced as anti-terrorism advisors in Kabul in September
2009) who would appear to not have a stake in the conflict.
There are two aspects to the NZDF mission in support of ISAF. Since 2003 it has deployed a 140-member Provincial
Reconstruction Team (PRT) to Bayiman province northeast of Kabul as Part of Regional Command-East (RC-E) under Polish
command. The duties of the NZ PRT are to engage in reconstruction and infrastructure development projects such as the
construction of roads, schools and reticulated water facilities, as well as providing primary medical care services.
Comprised of combat medics, engineers and logistics specialists protected by infantry troops, it is non-combat mission
that is focused on essential nation-building tasks. The National government has announced that after seven years on the
job, the PRT will be withdrawn in September 2010.
The National government has re-deployed elements of the NZSAS into the ISAF theater of operations. Rather than the
long-range patrol and infiltration (“strategic reconnaissance”) it was assigned in 2001-2005, the current NZSAS mission
is to serve as advisors and trainers to a nascent Afghan Army counter-terrorism unit (the Crisis Response Unit—CRU, also
known as Task Force 24), which is why they were on-scene in response to the terrorist attacks on the presidential palace
and adjacent buildings in Kabul on January 18 (counter-insurgency and counter-terrorism “mentoring” roles always involve
advisors entering into kinetic operations with their trainees until such a time as the latter develop autonomous
proficiency in undertaking said operations. The NZSAS would have advised the government of this fact as part of the
decision-making process leading up to its assignment in Kabul. It was therefore disingenuous or naïve for Prime Minister
John Key to claim that the deployment of NZSAS counter-terrorism advisors would not see them involved in combat
operations). This latest mission, in three 70-man rotations, is scheduled to end in 2011.
From an operational standpoint, the NZDF/ISAF deployments give invaluable experience to their personnel, particularly
the junior soldiers and officers who will eventually assume senior NCO and command positions within the force. Although
there is the distinct possibility of injury and death during these deployments, that is what the military bottom line is
all about, and NZDF personnel are volunteers well aware of the risks involved in both combat and non-combat missions.
With a total complement of less than 300 (including liaison officers and intelligence agents), the NZDF contribution to
ISAF amounts to a tiny fraction of the 100,000 coalition troops currently deployed.
So why are they there? The reasons for the NZDF dual contribution to ISAF are twofold. One has to do with the nature of
the threat, and the other has to do with the nature of New Zealand’s international obligations.
Because they have no respect for universal human rights or toleration of difference, a Taliban victory over ISAF would
have seriously negative repercussions for the people of Afghanistan (women and non-Pashtun ethnic minorities in
particular). Its triumph will embolden jihadists worldwide and will promote instability throughout Central Asia (where
there are Taliban-style insurgencies in countries such as Uzbekistan and Kyrgyzstan, and a growing Islamicist presence
amongst ethnic Uyghers in China’s Xinjiang autonomous region). It will hasten the centrifugal deterioration of Pakistan,
which in turn will draw India and China’s immediate military attention given Pakistan’s status as a nuclear-armed state.
At that point the US and other major actors such as Russia will feel compelled to get involved. Under such circumstances
the possibility of escalation into major inter-state conflict cannot be dismissed. For its part, al-Qaeda will find
renewed motivation and sanctuary should the Taliban regain control of Afghanistan, compounding the threat not only to
neighbouring countries but to the rest of the world as well. Put succinctly: the repercussions of a Taliban victory will
seriously threaten the prospects for a peaceful and stable world order.
That is the New Zealand stake in the conflict. New Zealand is fighting in Afghanistan not because it is confronted with
an immediate threat to its national survival, but because an ISAF defeat has globally negative implications.
Counter-insurgency and nation-building operations go hand-in-hand in the ISAF mission, as one provides the security
conditions conducive to the success of the other. New Zealand is involved in both.
Which leads to the second point, having to do with New Zealand’s role as a global citizen. New Zealand is one of the
most vocal supporters of the United Nations and multilateral military-led peacekeeping and nation-building operations.
As it developed its post Cold War military strategy, it has committed NZDF forces and personnel to “blue helmet”
missions in East Timor, the Solomons and further afield in places like Bosnia-Herzegovina, Kosovo and Lebanon. Refusing
to commit troops to the ISAF mission would be seen as shirking its international obligations as a global citizen and
undermine diplomatic endeavours in other fields. It would be seen as a case of all talk and no action on New Zealand’s
part. As for the apparent reapprochment of the Key government with the US, even if the bilateral security relationship
has improved since 2001, the mission in Afghanistan is not simply a matter of New Zealand abandoning principle in order
to cozy up to the US in pursuit of a free trade agreement. There is much more at stake than that, and it is for that
reason that New Zealand has volunteered its troops.
That is why critics of the NZDF deployment in Afghanistan are mistaken. The ISAF mission is a just cause based on
humanitarian and security concerns that is internationally sanctioned and multi-nationally staffed as a broad
civil-military national reconstruction and counter-insurgency effort. The nature of the threat, the stakes involved and
New Zealand’s international reputation provide a mix of factors that compel it to play a role in that mission. To do
otherwise would undermine it’s standing in the community of nations.
Paul G. Buchanan studies issues of comparative and international politics, and consults on matters of political risk and
market intelligence. His latest book project is titled “Security Politics in Peripheral Democracies: Chile, New Zealand
and Portugal.” He is a member of the www.kiwipolitico.com
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