Friday, August 10, 2012

The real reasons for mission failure in Afghanistan

In a column published in the New Zealand Herald this week called 'Get Our Soldiers Out of Afghanistan' Brian Rudman expresses a common attitude to this country's longest-ever overseas military deployment.

Rudman argues that the two Kiwi soldiers killed last week in Bamiyan province were fighting for a hopeless cause. The decade-long American-led occupation of Afghanistan has brought, Rudman reckons, only 'misery and mayhem', because of the resistance it has provoked from locals. Rudman acknowledges that the Kiwis who were killed last weekend were engineers involved in humanitarian 'reconstruction' work, but he predicts that the fruits of such work - schools, roads, and so on - will be 'obliterated' by Afghanistan's ongoing war. The Herald's veteran columnist thinks that the Kiwi military does excellent humanitarian work in other parts of the world, but that it was bullied into the hopeless Afghanistan mission by an American government which had lost its reason in the aftermath of 9/11.

Like many opponents of the deployment to Afghanistan, Rudman contrasts the normal, supposedly healthy operations of the New Zealand army with the fatal and futile mission in Bamyan province. If only we could stick to doing good deeds in other, saner parts of the world, Rudman suggests, all would be well, and our soldiers wouldn't be coming home in bodybags.

It can be argued, though, that the Afghanistan deployment is not an aberration, but the continuation of a pattern in New Zealand's recent military history. The mission in Afghanistan can be considered the most high-profile and costly of a series of 'humanitarian military interventions' which began with the deployment of Kiwi troops to East Timor in 1999.

To understand the phenomenon of humanitarian military intervention we have to remember the long history of New Zealand military adventures overseas. Over the past one hundred and fifteen years New Zealand has repeatedly sent troops abroad to fight alongside its British, American and Australian allies. At first, these adventures were presented as crusades in defence of the British Empire, which was held to represent liberty and progress; later, they were justified as part of the struggle of the American-led 'Free World' to resist communism.

Popular enthusiasm for foreign military crusades collapsed in the 1970s and '80s, as tens of thousands of Kiwis took to the streets to protest the Vietnam War and visits by American nuclear-armed vessels. In the mid-'80s the Lange government responded to public pressure and made this country a nuclear-free zone, irritating its ally in Washington.

Many Kiwis saw their country's nuclear-free status as evidence of its neutrality. In reality, though, the Lange government and its successors maintained close military ties with America. Nuclear-armed ships no longer visited our ports, but an American air force base and spy base remained on our soil. In the 1990s, American and New Zealand troops resumed large-scale exercises, and Kiwi Prime Ministers made pilgrimages to the White House.

But New Zealand governments were loath, after the protests of the 1970s and '80s, to join in new American-led military crusades. In 1991, the Bolger government contributed only three aircraft and a medical team to the massive international force that reconquered Kuwait from Saddam Hussein. Even this meagre contribution prompted large protests on the streets of New Zealand's cities.

In 1999, though, a crisis in East Timor offered New Zealand's political and martial classes a way to defuse popular opposition to overseas military deployments.

With the support of America and Australia, Indonesia had invaded and annexed East Timor in 1975. The locals responded by launching a guerrilla war, and over the next quarter of a century a quarter of the Timorese population died. When their ally in Jakarta was overthrown in 1998, the Americans and Australians decided belatedly to support East Timorese independence, and forced the new Indonesian government to organise a referendum on the subject.

After East Timorese voted for independence in August 1999, Indonesian militia began to rampage through the Timorese capital of Dili, killing and burning indiscriminately. The leaders of Fretilin, East Timor's main nationalist movement, called for foreign intervention, and large demonstrations echoed their demand in Australian and New Zealand cities. In September 1999 Kiwi troops joined an Australian-led mission to East Timor. The peacekeepers broke up Indonesian militia, brought medical aid to Timorese victims of violence, kept law and order on the streets of Dili, and began to build roads, bridges, and other pieces of infrastructure.

The Anzac deployment in East Timor was hugely popular, because it seemed so different from the old crusades New Zealand had fought under British and American flags. Instead of going into a country against the will of its inhabitants to quell an uprising or knock out an enemy army, Kiwi troops were being deployed at the request of East Timorese, and acting as guarantors of peace and stability.

Since 1999, New Zealand's defence forces have made one 'humanitarian military intervention' after another. In 2001 they shipped out to Afghanistan; in 2003 they went to Iraq and the Solomons as peacekeepers; in 2006 they were sent on a fresh mission to East Timor and assigned duties in Tonga. Both the Clark and Key governments have cited New Zealand's involvement in places like Afghanistan and East Timor whenever they have attempted to win economic favours from Australia and America.

From the beginning, though, New Zealand's 'humanitarian military interventions' have been troubled by a contradiction. No matter how many uniformed doctors and engineers they bring with them, and no matter how noble the intentions of their rank and file soldiers, the Kiwis have been part of much larger occupation forces controlled by America or by America's close ally Australia.

Neither America or Australia has had any hesitation in using the occupation forces they control to further their economic and political interests. In Dili and Honiara as well as in Afghanistan, humanitarian intervention has become an instrument of imperialism. As local peoples have resisted this imperialism, New Zealanders have been amongst their targets.

The 1999 intervention in East Timor succeeded in guaranteeing that country's independence by defeating the murderous Indonesian militia, but thereafter ran into trouble. The Fretilin leadership's call for an intervention had been opposed by some of their members, who believed that the Indonesians could be defeated without outside help. These dissidents set up a new umbrella organisation called Council in Defence of the Democratic Republic of East Timor-Real Fretilin (CPD-RDTL/F), and began a campaign of protest. In response, the Fretilin leadership, which had become East Timor's government, used Australian and New Zealand troops to hunt down and arrest dissidents. Fretilin's establishment justified the persecution of the CPD-RDTL by claiming that the group was funded by Indonesia and opposed to Timorese independence.
Although Anzac troops supported the official Fretilin leadership against its opponents, there was little love lost between Mari Alkatiri, the first Prime Minister of independent East Timor, and his Australian counterpart John Howard. The two men argued angrily and repeatedly about the rights to the rich oil and gas deposits under the sea between Timor and northwest Australia. Alkatiri further angered the Australian government by refusing to implement neo-liberal 'reforms' to the East Timorese economy. He put restrictions on foreign investment in his new country, and refused to borrow any money at all overseas.

By 2006, John Howard and his ally in the White House had had enough of Mari Alkatiri. They joined with Alkatiri's jealous rivals Xanana Gusmao and Jose Ramos-Horta and the Catholic church and launched a campaign to bring down his government. Alkatiri's authoritarian style had made him many enemies, and soon rioters were setting Dili on fire. Using the pretext of restoring order, Anzac troops returned to East Timor in the middle of 2006. Alkatiri was made to resign at the point of an Australian gun, and Ramos-Horta took his place in what John Pilger described as 'the coup the world missed'.

As Australian and New Zealand troops struggled in late 2006 and 2007 to prop up Ramos-Horta's new government, their clashes with Alkatiri's supporters and other dissident groups became increasingly violent. In February 2007 Australian troops led by a tank attacked a refugee camp on the edge of Dili, killing two of its residents. In August 2007 anti-Anzac riots broke out in Dili and Bacau, East Timor's second largest city, after Ramos-Horta ignored an election result which gave a plurality of votes to Fretilin. New Zealand army trucks were burned, and Kiwi troops were stoned.
In the Solomons as well as East Timor, the imperialist strategy which underwrote humanitarian intervention led to conflict with locals, and saw Kiwis come under attack.

The Australian-led Regional Assistance Mission to the Solomon Islands (RAMSI) arrived in the Solomons in 2003, after fighting had broken out between rival ethnic groups on the capital island of Guadalcanal. RAMSI proclaimed its independence from the laws of the Solomons, and set up its own police force and judicial system.

Some of the peoples of the Solomons welcomed the intervention, but others, like the Kwaio people of Malaita, protested against the outsiders. The Kwaio are a pagan people with a long history of resisting European missionaries, slavers, and administrators. In 1927 the Kwaio killed an Australian official working for the British colonial administrators of the Solomons; in response, a collection of Britons and Australians organised a punitive expedition which slaughtered scores of Kwaio. The role of Australians in the 1927 massacre helped ensure Kwaio hostility to RAMSI's mission.

In April 2006 Solomon Islanders' anxieties about foreign influence over their country were expressed in a riot that levelled much of downtown Honiara. RAMSI forces were one of the first targets of the rioters, and New Zealand police came under attack outside the Solomons parliament.
In the aftermath of the riot, Manasseh Sogavare was elected Prime Minister by the Solomons parliament, and made efforts to restore the autonomy of his country. Sogavarae expelled Australia's local High Commissioner, on the grounds that the official was interfering in Solomons politics. In response, RAMSI raided Sogavare's office. In 2007, after intense Australian pressure, the Solomons parliament passed a vote of no confidence in Sogavare. In September 2011 diplomatic cables published by wikileaks revealed that the campaign to unseat Sogavare was run jointly by Canberra and Washington. The cables also reported that RAMSI forces had protected the property of some foreign businessmen during the April 2006 riot while letting other businesses burn.

In Afghanistan, New Zealand soldiers have been enmeshed in the same contradictions as their comrades in East Timor and the Solomons. After the conquest of Afghanistan in late 2001 and early 2002, New Zealand troops were despatched to Bamiyan province, where it was announced that they would be doing humanitarian 'reconstruction' work. Because Bamiyan is home to the Hazara, a Persian-speaking, Shia Muslim people which had been persecuted by the Pashtun-speaking, Sunni Muslim Taliban, New Zealand's presence has had considerable local support. But any credit which Kiwis have won by building schools and bridges in Bamiyan has been lost elsewhere in Afghanistan.

America has tried to run Afghanistan through Hamid Karzai, a leader with strong links to the warlords and drug traffickers who dominated the country in the years between the departure of the Soviet Union at the end of the 1980s and the victory of the Taliban in 1997. Karzai has been accused of electoral fraud, drug running, and the assassination of political opponents. During his rule, thousands of civilians have been killed by American bombing. Although Karzai is a Pashtun, his government is made up almost entirely of Afghanistan's non-Pashtun groups. According to Matthew Hoh, a former top American official in Afghanistan turned critic of the occupation, the growing membership of the Taliban in recent years has come mainly from Pashtuns who feel they have no choice but to fight with their own people in what has become an ethnic war.

By backing Karzai's corrupt, anti-Pashtun government, America has made all of the occupying forces in Afghanistan, including New Zealand's humble reconstruction team in Bamiyan, into targets for angry Pashtuns. As war intensifies in the rest of Afghanistan, New Zealand troops face more and more attacks from Pashtuni infiltrators into Bamiyan. Pashtun bands cross the mountainous borders of the province with mortars and heavy machine guns, and take potshots at Kiwi bases or ambush their convoys. The engineers who came to Bamiyan with building on their minds are spending much of their time wielding guns. Like the New Zealand soldiers and police who were attacked by East Timorese and Solomon Islanders during the riots of 2006 and 2007, the Kiwi soldiers team in Bamyan have become, for many Afghans, a symbol of oppression.

Over the past decade, New Zealand's political leaders have enlisted this country's armed forces in a series of old-fashioned imperialist adventures, using humanitarian rhetoric as a smokescreen. The failure of New Zealand's mission in Afghanistan is not, as Brian Rudman imagines, some aberration which can be attributed to the unique conditions inside that country. The deployment in Bamyan has failed for the same reasons that the earlier deployments to East Timor and the Solomons failed. It is not possible to balance humanitarian deeds with imperialism.

[Posted by Maps/Scott]


Anonymous Anonymous said...

Australian bias in last month's East Timor elections:
Despite the violence and repression, the US and Australia praised the elections, reflecting their satisfaction with the outcome. The US State Department declared the vote “a significant step forward in the consolidation of peace and security in Timor-Leste’s young democracy.” Australian Foreign Minister Bob Carr said the elections were “a strong step forward for this new democratic state.”
In reality, the election campaign was marked by widespread corruption by the CNRT. Since coming to office, Gusmao has stepped up government spending on infrastructure and other projects, developing a network of corporate patronage and cultivating a new wealthy business layer. Those awarded government contracts were expected to return the favour at election time, financing the CNRT’s campaigns. Gusmao also issued various cash handouts to targeted constituencies, including to anti-Indonesian resistance veterans and old age pensioners.
A Timorese expatriate who was in the country during the election campaign told the World Socialist Web Site: “People voted for CNRT because of money. The timing of the veterans’ handouts before the election was critical. We see these people lined up in the banks for days to receive their handouts, and around 80 percent of them were wearing CNRT t-shirts. I was also surprised to see the ability of CNRT to feed thousands of people during the election campaign. The party had a large number of 4-wheel drives and trucks used by members to mobilise the population during the election campaign... In Batugede, a town close to the Indonesian border, during the election campaigns they had a horse racing event and in some other districts motocross racing events. I am wondering in a poor country like East Timor where they got the money to do all of these things.”
Fretilin was unable to capitalise on the widespread hostility towards the CNRT-led government and the mounting frustration, especially among young people, over continued poverty and mass unemployment. Its vote was almost the same as in 2007; the CNRT boosted its vote not by winning Fretilin supporters, but by consolidating the anti-Fretilin vote that was previously spread across several parties.

1:05 pm  
Anonymous Anonymous said...


You have got some basic facts wrong here. Like, REALLY wrong. I have spent a bit of time in the Solomon Islands, so will only speak to that.

- The Kwaio incident happened in 1927, RAMSI personnel hardly ever go to Malaita (you are going to have to look at a map, here, sorry.) When they do go there, they don't go anywhare near where the Kwaio live. I doubt if a member of RAMSI has ever met a Kwaio person. I don't think the majority of Kwaio would even know what RAMSI is, or that they are in the Solomon Islands. Your point is totally irrelevant, an historical incident in a far-removed locale, with no bearing on the current situation. Put Kwaio into wikipedia, you never know what you might learn.

- The April 2006 riot was targeted at perceived ex-pat Chinese interference in local politics. Not RAMSI. Again, all this information is pretty available on the net. A bit of basic research, eh?

- RAMSI weren't the first targeted. They weren't targeted at all. They were just standing in between the rioters and innocent citizens and private property. That is their job in the absence of an effective local police force. Incidentally, RAMSI mentoring of the local police force on that day, and many other days since, really improved their capability. (They are not quite up to speed yet, that is why RAMSI is still needed there.)

- I was there during the vote of no confidence. They happen about every 9 months over there. There was no Australian pressure - the sitting MPs just wanted rid of him (google his name for a few clues why) and to replace him with Derek Sikua (who was removed by a VONC, see the pattern?). The AFP raided those offices in relation to an underage-sex criminal investigation (google it).

- Those wikileak cables reflect assessment and reports of what was happening at the time, not a conspiracy, plan or actions taken.

- I have no idea if what you have written about east Timor and Afghanistan is correct, but your points on the Solomon Islands are waaay off. A million miles.

Lukim yu

5:13 pm  
Anonymous Scott said...

Your comments show that living in a place does not always give one much knowledge about it, anon.

RAMSI officials have indeed spent a good deal of time on Malaita and encountered resistance there from Kwaio, as Matthew Allen shows in his 2009 essay for Oceania 'Resisting Ramsi'.

And as Roger Keesing shows in his well-known studies of the Kwaio, the group has exported thousands of young members to Honiara, where they have often become involved in the criminal underworld. Urban Kwaio were heavily involved in the 2006 riots.

The sex crime supposedly committed by the Attorney-General of the Solomons, which was used as a pretext for the raid on Sogavare's offices, have been exposed as a politically motivated beat-up in the Pacific media.

As for the notion that there was no US-Oz campaign to oust Sogavare, and the idea that RAMSI played a neutral role in the 2006 riot - go and take a look the document wikileaks published last year, which I linked to in my post.

7:14 pm  
Blogger Richard said...

Yes the is "humanitarian aid is Orwellian for intervention and oppression. NZ has always trailed around after the British (e.g. in Malaya), the US ("volunteers" went to Vietnam) and their lackeys the Australians. They should keep right out and they wont get shot.

7:45 pm  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

this article has been recommended by the herald

lol do they have marxists working for them.

7:51 pm  
Anonymous Scott said...

I had thought that Matthew Allen's article was behind a firewall, but here it is online:,+identity+and+symbolism+in+Solomon...-a0197926852


Notwithstanding the anti-Australia and anti-RAMSI rhetoric of the second Sogavare government (April 2006-November 2007), expressions of opposition to RAMSI have mostly emanated from Malaitan quarters. (2) Indeed, though not a Malaitan, Sogavare's political rhetoric nevertheless reflected Malaitan interests...

It is tempting to interpret Malaitan expressions of opposition to RAMSI primarily in terms of the mission's challenge to the coercive power of former members and associates of the MEF, and the opportunities for pecuniary gain and patronage which that power afforded. However, Malaitan opposition to RAMSI must also be located in a much deeper tradition of Malaitan resistance to the imposition of alien and centralised authority. The invocation by Malaitans of kastom, and of kastom law in particular, as a challenge to RAMSI, especially its policing operations, represents a strong continuity with the past...

8:26 pm  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Anonymous defender of imperialism wrote -

'RAMSI personnel hardly ever go to Malaita'

Expert wrote -

'In my discussions with people on Malaita, including ex-militants, kastom was frequently evoked as a challenge to the mission, particularly its policing activities. They point to incidents such as trespassing on tribal lands, breaking into houses without permission and general cultural insensitivity in the way in which RAMSI police, especially Australian police, have conducted their operations on Malaita. Many people with whom I spoke on Malaita regard the use of large numbers of armed soldiers and police in a number of failed attempts to capture fugitive Edmond Sae as excessive and tantamount to an invasion of Malaita.'

hmmm who's right???

11:13 pm  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

interesting column on john key's choice not to attend soldiers' funerals

9:29 am  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

"But any credit which Kiwis have won by building schools and bridges in Bamiyan has been lost elsewhere in Afghanistan. "

While politicians make much of the humanitarian efforts in Afghanistan, the Defence Force has pointed out that the troops are, first and foremost, there to provide security. Humanitarian work was the third mission priotity last I looked. A friend of mine interviewed locals in Bamiyan and got a fairly consistent view that people were OK about the troops as people and considered their security work to be well done, but were scathing about their humanitarian efforts.


Sam Buchanan

9:25 pm  
Blogger Richard said...

And if you could get the Afghani people to say what they THOUGHT it would be:

"We wish to fuck all you foreign bastards would all piss off and let us alone so we can live our lives. We'll deal with our civil wars and we will determine our own history. We hate you, and the more you do for us (as if we were children), and the more you die over here like dogs, the more we hate you. So fuck off you foreign bastards!"

11:34 pm  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Richard's Right !!!!.

6:14 pm  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Yea - Americans try to fix everything, with out being invited.
and New Zealand continues to fuck the yanks at every turn like good boy scouts. Afghanistan is none of the USA's business you fucking arrogant fuckers.

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