The Alliance conference in 2001 marked the beginning of the end for that fine movement. As with all political parties, there were many rifts and struggles and arguments over ideas, but also lots of core agreement in terms of direction. But the September 2001 (9/11) attacks on US cities using passenger aircraft as flying missiles changed so many things and wrecked the Alliance.
At the time we were in government with Labour, and within a few weeks of 9/11 the US government was calling on its allies to support a war in Afghanistan to rout out the Taliban and capture and kill Osama Bin Laden.
For some reason that is still not clear, the Alliance leader, Jim Anderton, was set on sending New Zealand troops to Afghanistan. Perhaps it was because he had been Acting Prime Minister at the time of the attacks (and famously uncontactable due to the vagaries of the Vogel House telephone system).
The arguments for invading Afghanistan, in the Alliance forum at least, did not hinge on following the USA into hell, but on the need to eliminate the Taliban itself. There were certainly plenty of arguments for the elimination of this military and political regime, a brutal fundamentalist group that had a particular penchant for the oppression of women and children and for archaic and bloodthirsty punishments.
But Afghanistan has been at war for well over a thousand years with one group or another (many of the longest wars in history were fought at least partially on its territory; it being, of course, a cobbled together mishmash of cultures, religions and regions).
Most recently, the USSR spent a decade trying to embed a socialist state in the region, which completely failed. In the resulting hiatus, the Taliban built its based and emerged, occupying much of the country by 2000.
The United Nations did not sanction international action in Afghanistan. Not only was the 2001 action dubious, it was also illegal.
During the debate, one of Jim’s staff came and told me I was to speak, presumably in support of sending troops over there. The trouble was, I was completely opposed to this. Laila, quite rightly, refused to speak and I should have done the same. You can’t equivocate over something like this. Actually, the only time I ever got in trouble in Parliament was when I went against my own instincts or beliefs. You have to stand up for what you believe in.
The resulting speech rambled on for a couple of minutes about how bad the Taliban were and how awful was watching the 9/11 attacks. I supposed that it would be good to get rid of this force, but felt it likely that this action would become the Vietnam of the next generation, which we did not want. I wandered off the stage, completely unimpressive and a bit self-loathing.
Not a moment of great glory in my life. I hope you can all forgive me now.
Anyway it didn’t exactly become the next Vietnam because Labour decided not to send troops. An SAS team would be sent to hunt out ‘insurgents’, and later a group called the Provincial Reconstruction Team was sent in. We also committed to training the Afghan Army.
Inevitably we got sucked into the vicious and illegal actions of the US troops. The war in Afghanistan became infamous for the torture of prisoners, extreme rendition, use of methods such as waterboarding and who knows how many civilian deaths.
New Zealand handed people over to the USA so they could be tortured. They engaged in Operation Burnham, which led to civilian deaths, and a cover-up associated with this, our worst for generations. It appears that this operation was in retaliation for the killing of one of our troops, which is very worrying. I mean, what did they expect?
It was only in May this year that our last troops were withdrawn from Afghanistan. If our goal was to rebuild the country and train Afghan troops, then it must be said to have been an abject failure. The Taliban have risen up again and now control the whole country, with, as I write, a few days left for the last remaining American troops to withdraw.
It is going to be terrible there. Terrible for women and children, for the poor living in little villages, for the many ethnic minorities, for nearly everyone. It is not a productive country. Despite having many rivers, large parts of the country are very dry. It is landlocked. Economic development is limited to farming and mining. Thirty million people with little to look forward to.
It was wrong of New Zealand to involve itself, however minimally, in that country in 2001. It was bad enough already and we helped make it worse. Twenty years on, there appears to be no starting point for healing. I cannot imagine the pain and suffering that the people are facing now.
I reckon that we badly need a national review of our armed forces, including all their actions under the Cold War banner and subsequently. They are just sitting there waiting for the next ally to have a bad idea to invade a country far away. History tells us this will, as always, end badly. There must be a better way.
Dr Liz Gordon is a researcher and a barrister, with interests in destroying neo-liberalism in all its forms and moving towards a socially just society. She usually blogs on justice, social welfare and education topics.