Most New Zealand troops will leave Afghanistan this month – 10 years, 10 kiwi soldier deaths and $300 million after then Prime Minister Helen Clark joined us to the US-led invasion.
It’s our longest ever overseas troop deployment and almost the farthest at 13,000km distance.
We should never have joined this imperial adventure. At the time we were told Afghanistan had become a terrorist haven harbouring Osama bin Laden and the whole world was under threat after the attack on the twin towers in New York.
This was largely a fabrication. Yes Osama bin Laden was there but evidence of his involvement in the 9/11 attacks was speculative at best and in any case Afghanistan’s Taleban regime had offered to give up Bin Laden for trial in a third country. The US ignored the offer. Like a playground bully with a bloody nose they wanted violent revenge and their leaders chose Afghanistan’s Taleban regime as the focus for bloodletting.
A more authentic target would have been Saudi Arabia which the 9/11 attackers called home and from where Osama Bin Laden also hailed.
It would have taken courage for the Labour government to say no to the US over Afghanistan but it would have been the right thing to do – particularly in the face of George Bush’s childlike blackmail where he declared we would have to choose to support the US or the terrorists.
So we joined the invasion and helped destroy the country – “bombing it back to the stone age” was apparently the military objective. It was never a popular war in New Zealand and Helen Clark downplayed our involvement. After the initial invasion New Zealand’s focus became setting up a PRT (Provincial Reconstruction Team) in Bamiyan province. This was largely a public relations exercise because the PRT was just a front for active military support for the occupation. Our troops were effectively under US direction as detailed in Nicky Hagar’s book Other People’s Wars.
If reconstruction had been the objective our $300 million would have gone much further if it had been channelled through non-governmental organisations to build schools and hospitals. Afghanistan has always had enough skilled builders, plumbers and electricians to do the job – they only lacked the funding and $300 million would have gone a long way. Instead we sent New Zealand troops 13,000km to do the job and our modest projects are likely to be the most expensive buildings in Afghanistan.
Being seen as a loyal follower of the US was more important than building schools and hospitals for the people.
While the PRT were the public front our SAS troops were arresting Taleban suspects and handing them over to the US or Afghani authorities both of which used torture as routine. As one SAS soldier put it “we sort of knew what would happen – Americans being Americans” – effectively an admission our troops breached the Geneva Convention as a matter of course. Our Governor General Gerry Mateparae was in charge of the New Zealand Defence Force at the time and has always refused to comment on the raft of damning allegations about our role in the torture of Afghani combatants. A shameful lack of courage on the part of our military commanders and “don’t want to know” by our leading politicians has left this issue to fester. It’s a pity New Zealand journalists didn’t challenge Mateparae on this when he was in Afghanistan last week for the lowering of the New Zealand flag as the PRT prepares to leave.
So what do we bequeath the people of Afghanistan? A corrupt regime of woman-hating drug barons and warlords and a President who fraudulently “won” the last election.
Afghanistan before the invasion was a brutal place under Taleban rule. It’s now a brutal place under chief fraudster Hamid Karzai. The country is no more stable and we will blame the Afghanis when the inevitable happens following foreign troop withdrawal.
If Afghanistan were left alone then civil society groups would gradually find their feet and the extremists would be side-lined. Instead, repeated invasions and occupations strengthen the religious fundamentalists, the drug barons, the racketeers and the warlords. That’s the legacy we leave.
History will look on the New Zealand involvement in Afghanistan as an imperial adventure on behalf of the US Empire – similar to the First World War when we travelled to the other side of the world to support the British Empire’s interests.
In each case young New Zealand men died for no good reason while our military chiefs and our politicians suffered not so much as a scratch.