Time for NZ to exit Afghanistan

Immediate withdrawal from Afghanistan is New Zealand's only reasonable option, Richard Jackson writes.

A week after Corporal Luke Tamatea, Lance-corporal Jacinda Baker and Private Richard Harris were tragically killed by a roadside bomb in Afghanistan comes the news the Taliban has warned other New Zealand soldiers will be targeted unless they withdraw immediately.

While some commentators such as Robert Patman have suggested (ODT, 24.8.12) there are moral and political reasons for New Zealand to stick to the original timetable rather than bringing the date forward, the reality is there is almost nothing to be gained by staying even one day longer in Afghanistan.

Immediate withdrawal is the only reasonable option.

As I predicted earlier on these pages, when United States forces first invaded Afghanistan in October 2001 after the September 11 attacks, the Western coalition was always bound to lose this war. No matter how superior a military is to local fighters, foreign invaders, no matter how well-intentioned, can never win if the national population believes it is struggling to protect its homes and families.

It has long been the case that 80% of Taliban fighters killed in Afghanistan have died within a few kilometres of their own homes. As the US found out in Vietnam, you cannot defeat an enemy that is fighting for kith and kin and is willing to fight against overwhelming odds for decades if necessary. In other words, no military victory is possible in this war. Only a political solution can bring the widespread violence to an end.

While several military officials have publicly accepted this fact, politicians have so far failed to face up to it. What this means is continuing to fight serves no strategic purpose, and the loss of more young lives will serve no purpose.

Added to this, the unpalatable truth is the Afghan mission has lost its original raison d'etre. The Karzai regime is deeply corrupt and is failing in its duty to uphold human rights and the democratic process, and to bring about improvements in health, education and development.

Of the billions poured into Afghanistan, the vast majority has gone towards (failed) security measures, been lost to massive corruption, or wasted on projects that never had a chance of succeeding. This means New Zealand personnel, and all the other coalition troops, are risking their lives in an unwinnable war for a mission that long ago lost its legitimacy.

Of course, this was not always the case; the original goal of defeating al Qaeda, creating security and rebuilding the country was well-intentioned.

However, as happened many times during the Cold War, when communism rather than terrorism was the primary enemy, the overriding priority of opposing al Qaeda and the Taliban has since resulted in numerous compromises and alliances with actors who have since undermined the moral purpose of the mission.

The hardest truth about the Afghan mission, however, is it long ago lost its deeper moral purpose and has completely and utterly failed to "win hearts and minds" of the people it is there to help. From one perspective, this is easy to understand. The mission has been compromised by the large numbers of civilians who continue to be killed by coalition forces in accidental bombings and nearly daily drone strikes.

On top of this, the public revelations of torture, rendition, killer squads who murdered Afghan farmers for sport, videos of US troops urinating on Taliban corpses, the massacre of 16 civilians by Staff Sgt Robert Bales, and other such atrocities, have completely undermined the reputation of the coalition as an army of liberation rather than occupation. If one adds the complete failure of coalition forces to respect the local Islamic culture, as seen in numerous incidents involving the abuse of the Koran, then it is fair to say the mission has been fatally compromised. No amount of investment in measures aimed at "winning hearts and minds" can overcome the negative perceptions caused by the history of violence and atrocity by coalition forces against ordinary Afghans.

In the end, it is difficult to see how continuing to support this pointless, morally dubious mission equates to being a "good international citizen". The only possible benefit that could come from New Zealand's decision to remain on course in Afghanistan is the diplomatic capital that comes from pleasing the world's remaining superpower.

Whether this currency is really worth endangering the lives of New Zealand soldiers is a question only the Government can answer, although I am sure the New Zealand public would also like to know exactly how it calculates these sums.

Perhaps more importantly, withdrawal by coalition forces does not necessarily mean chaos and collapse for Afghanistan.

There are more options than either staying in a pointless war or leaving the country to the Taliban. Ending the war in Afghanistan will require serious diplomatic efforts and a regional solution that includes countries such as Pakistan, Iran and India, as well as many of the different Taliban and tribal groups.

The coalition will have to put aside its reluctance and talk to the Iranians, the Taliban and other groups it at present disapproves of. There's no other realistic option, but the risks are worth it for the sake of bringing lasting peace to that troubled country. Once a political solution is under way, peacekeepers - armed or unarmed, but from countries other than the present coalition - can be redeployed, if necessary. Until then, immediate withdrawal is the only reasonable option.

Dr Jackson is the deputy director of the National Centre for Peace and Conflict Studies, University of Otago.



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