Moral, diplomatic and strategic reasons to stay

The "ramp" ceremony at Christchurch Airport for the bodies of Lance Corporals Pralli Durrer and...
The "ramp" ceremony at Christchurch Airport for the bodies of Lance Corporals Pralli Durrer and Rory Malone, killed in Afghanistan. Photo by the NZ Defence Force.
Robert G. Patman explains why New Zealand should not cut and run in Afghanistan.

Foreign policy decision-making is often about the act of choosing from imperfect policy alternatives.

The recent news that three New Zealand soldiers - Lance-corporal Jacinda Baker, Private Richard Harris and Corporal Luke Tamatea - had been killed by a Taliban roadside bomb in Bamiyan was a deeply shocking blow to this country.

The latest deaths followed in the wake of a Taliban ambush two weeks ago which killed Lance-corporals Pralli Durrer and Rory Malone.

Not surprisingly, this tragic loss of life has raised very real questions about the future direction of New Zealand's policy in Afghanistan.

It should be recalled New Zealand deployed an SAS unit and 140-strong NZDF Provincial Reconstruction Team (PRT) to Afghanistan in 2001 and 2003 respectively.

The SAS unit was withdrawn from Kabul in March and Prime Minister John Key decided after the recent NZDF deaths to accelerate the timetable for withdrawal of the NZDF contingent from the Bamiyan PRT to April 2013.

By most accounts, the performance of NZ PRT has been highly effective. Its primary goal has been in the area of reconstruction and capacity-building.

Between 2004 and 2010, the NZ PRT implemented 70 projects at a total value of $NZ8.5 million.

These projects embraced areas such as infrastructure, health, governance, education, human rights and agriculture.

In addition, the NZ PRT has contributed to the security of Bamiyam by providing local security training, including the training of an indigenous rapid reaction force, police training, and community-based armed patrols.

It should be added all governments in Wellington during the past decade have believed New Zealand involvement in Afghanistan served the national interests of this country.

Like the United States and many other members of the international community, including Australia, New Zealand recognised the need after September 11 to counter al Qaeda and Taliban-supported terrorism, and contribute to conditions in a post-Taliban state that would strengthen the economy, facilitate democratic governance and extend human rights.

New Zealand's commitment in Afghanistan also raised New Zealand's diplomatic profile and seemed to be consistent with a view in Wellington New Zealand stood to gain if it was seen as a "good international citizen" prepared to shoulder its share of the burden of collective security.

But after the deadly attack on New Zealand forces last weekend, a number of observers have challenged the rationale for New Zealand involvement and demanded the immediate withdrawal of the NZ PRT from Bamiyan.

Among other things, it is said that the war in Afghanistan is unwinnable, the NZDF should not be fighting other people's wars and that we are only in Afghanistan to please the US, and that New Zealand has no business trying to protect a deeply corrupt government in Kabul led by Hamid Karzai.

These points warrant careful examination.

First, it is apparent, at least since 2009, that the US and Nato no longer seriously entertain the prospect of a comprehensive victory over the Taliban. The priority for the Obama administration has been to marginalise the al Qaeda leadership and to degrade the Taliban to a point where they cannot use military force to seize power again in Kabul and reverse the social and political changes that have been in train since their demise in 2001.

Second, the idea the Afghan conflict is none of New Zealand's business is debatable. The reality is we live in an interconnected world where security, economic and environmental problems do not respect the boundaries of sovereign states. And, as a small but active global trader, New Zealand has a huge stake in countering threats to international stability whether they are in Afghanistan or elsewhere.

Third, it would be wrong to assume New Zealand or other members of the international coalition are in Afghanistan simply to protect Mr Karzai's corrupt leadership. Yes, he is widely regarded by coalition members as self-interested and weak, but he is not expected to contest the 2014 election, and therefore the focus is on trying to consolidate a transitional political system that is resilient enough to outlast Karzai's departure and face down the fundamentalist challenge of the Taliban after 2014. It should not be forgotten in this context few Afghan citizens are nostalgic for the Taliban era.

Thus, while it is clear there are major challenges ahead for the NZDF PRT between now and 2013, there also are moral, diplomatic and strategic reasons why New Zealand should stick to its international commitment and contribute as best it can to an orderly transition in Bamiyan.

Robert G. Patman is professor of international relations in the department of politics at the University of Otago.


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