The real reasons for mission failure in Afghanistan
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.
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.
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.
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.
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]