After 20 largely wasted years in Afghanistan, New Zealand needs to understand its failures so it can endeavour never to make the same mistakes again, writes Nicky Hager.
Two weeks ago, when it was clear that the Taliban had won the 20 year Afghanistan war, minister of defence Peeni Henare paid tribute to defence personnel who took part. “Ultimately when we reflect on it, it will have been considered a positive contribution,” he told a press conference. When a journalist asked the prime minister “Was it worth it?” she said it would be a “complete disservice” to defence personnel to rewrite history after they went there to “make life better for the people of Afghanistan”.
It is understandable that the ministers said this. They did not want to tell people who had faced risk and trauma after going to war for their government that their efforts had not been worth it and ended in historic defeat.
But this is not good enough. Yes, New Zealand defence personnel went to Afghanistan believing it was to make life better for the people of Afghanistan. But the whole mission was deeply flawed from the beginning – no fault of the rank and file soldiers – and increasingly doomed to fail. We owe it to everyone concerned to face up to it.
When the New Zealand parliament voted in support of military action in Afghanistan on 3 October 2001, the resolution was specific about the mandate: tracking down those responsible for the September 11 attacks and bringing Osama bin Laden to justice. Four days later the US invasion of Afghanistan began. But it didn’t just target people responsible for the September 11 attack. It was mostly targeted at the Taliban, who had nothing to do with September 11 but were slaughtered in their thousands by US precision-guided missiles. The US had teamed up with Northern Alliance warlords, who then dealt with Taliban prisoners by leaving them to die en masse in shipping containers.
Meanwhile, NZSAS troops first arrived in Afghanistan in mid-December 2001 – the day after Osama bin Laden had crossed into Pakistan, never to return to Afghanistan. A secret briefing for New Zealand ministers that day said “Afghanistan is no longer a safe haven for the Al Qaeda” and that “the Taliban has now ceased to exist as a governing entity in Afghanistan.”
This means the rationale for sending the NZSAS to Afghanistan had ceased to exist before they even touched the ground at their new Kandahar base. But the New Zealand defence force stayed for another 20 years.
And so, inevitably, New Zealand got involved in things that had nothing to do with September 11. The following year, for instance, New Zealanders were told that NZDF peacekeepers were being sent to Kabul to “demonstrate our commitment to help rebuild Afghanistan”. It was the start of the story about “positive contributions” to “make life better for the people of Afghanistan”.
The public was told the peacekeepers were unloading food and supplies as part of UN aid to Kabul residents. It took a leaked military report to find out that the “peacekeepers” had been working in a British air force unit that was “supporting OGA activity non-stop”. OGA meant CIA operations in Afghanistan.
At the same time, story after story started emerging of careless civilian casualties, torture of prisoners and special forces brutality, all glaring warnings that this was the wrong place for a country like New Zealand. A dirty war. The atrocities and careless mistakes increased local support for the Taliban.
Another secret military document from 2002 revealed confusion among military officers about what the US-led forces were supposed to be doing. New Zealand’s joint forces commander Martyn Dunne had visited the NZSAS in Afghanistan and talked to a wide range of military officers from different nations. His report on the trip stated the fundamental problem he had discovered. There was, he wrote, “no overarching operational campaign plan” and a “lack of coherent strategy or even clear commanders intent.”
New Zealand could have realised that things were going wrong and come home then, 19 years ago. But, as a former senior defence official said to me in 2011, “The chances are these concerns were withheld from the ministers so as not to compromise the opportunity to serve alongside the US forces.”
Every time an Afghanistan deployment came to an end the defence chiefs would tell the government that it was important to send more deployments, to show our commitment to our traditional military partners.
Viewing the results at the end of 20 years of those back-to-back deployments, we should consider what a disgraceful reason “showing commitment” was for being in the war. We should ask ourselves why a small South Pacific country had 20 years of deployments to central Asia. Indeed, the people who should be most annoyed about deployments promoted for petty diplomatic motives are the people who were sent. Very bad things happen in wars, as every war veteran knows. If you can avoid war that is nearly always the best option.
The deployment with the most New Zealand troops and the most troop rotations was the Provincial Reconstruction Team base in Bamiyan. NZDF took over the base in 2003 to free up its previous US staff for deployment to Iraq.
Viewed through the filter of the military press releases and supplied photos, this deployment was about aid and reconstruction. But Kiwi Base was a standard part of the US command and its function was counter-insurgency warfare; fighting the Taliban. It had units for road patrols, psychological operations, human intelligence (finding local informers), telephone eavesdropping and so on. The aid component was a small add-on to assist military goals.
For a while the New Zealand presence in Bamiyan did bring some security for the local people, who are traditional targets of Taliban repression. It was in this respect a positive contribution.
The problem was, there was no coherent goal. The US-installed government in Kabul (including those northern warlords) was chronically corrupt, the Taliban had got better and better at fighting in the stony mountains, and Western nations were getting tired of the endless war and talking about leaving. The strategy was to build up local forces to take over holding back the Taliban once the western forces had gone. We saw how long they lasted after the US-led forces left.
By 2010 a senior military officer said to me: “Who were we? As far as the Afghans are concerned you are an invader; you are an invader no different from the Soviets. It doesn’t matter what you do. Eventually I realised whatever we were doing, even in safe little Bamiyan, we were just wasting our time.”
And then came the worst part, which is that New Zealand did not stick with the people it had gone to Bamiyan to help. A former mid-level army officer described what happened next. The New Zealand troops had brought security while the threat was relatively low but then, when the Taliban grew stronger, they up and left. There were two fatal attacks on New Zealand patrols in 2012 and, the former officer said, the New Zealand force “cleared out when things got tough”.
He said normally troops arrived when a conflict is most intense and difficult: “You fight your way in, it settles down, then you leave with thanks. This time it was the opposite.” They had supposedly gone to protect the locals but instead the left when the locals were increasingly in peril. More incoherent strategy. A lot of the soldiers were “disillusioned with it all”, he said, and unusually high numbers from the final Bamiyan contingent decided to leave the military soon after.
The final part of the picture is what NZDF did for the local Afghan people who had helped the New Zealand forces in Bamiyan for 10 years. It was a war and in the eyes of the Taliban they were collaborators. Some other countries ran huge programmes of resettlement to help these people get away from the threat. But not NZDF. I still can’t understand why they didn’t seem to care.
Eventually a small number of ex-interpreters were resettled in New Zealand, but only because of pressure from journalists and human rights groups. NZDF resisted the efforts. Many other Bamiyan people had helped as well and alas the Taliban has remembered. In the last week the local Taliban have been going from door to door looking for them.
Yet right up until the government evacuation decisions two weeks ago it seems that NZDF had taken no steps at all to help these people who helped it. It’s yet to be discovered why NZDF took 10 days to manage only two or three evacuation flights from Kabul but it seems entirely consistent.
So let’s have sympathy for the feelings of the rank and file personnel at this depressing time, wondering what the stress and hardship was all for. But they more than most should care about being sent to a war that should never have happened and where, lacking a coherent plan, many bad things happened.
It is not a disservice to defence staff to face up to such facts. In fact, it’s vital. After all the death, brutality, waste and lies, the one good thing that can be done is to learn. Learn! Learn so that we don’t make the same mistake again and again; so that the next time NZDF wants to go to some faraway war to earn brownie points with western militaries, the public and government say no.
The lesson of the Afghanistan war, like the Vietnam war, and indeed the First World War – for the public and the soldiers – is that we should not have gone in the first place. Was it worth it? No. Should New Zealand have been part of the war? No. Should we have stayed for 20 years? No. Will we learn? That’s up to us.