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Blog Link: National Cuts and Runs.

datePosted on 13:23, July 24th, 2010 by Pablo

Recent events strongly suggest that in spite of its supportive rhetoric, National is planning to withdraw the NZDF commitment to the International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) in Afghanistan as early as next year. Rather than just state why it has decided that the fight is no longer worth fighting, National is attempting to mask the decision by saying that it would “consider” continue the NZSAS deployment past March 2011 and that it might slow the NZDF withdrawal from the Bamiyan Provincial Reconstruction Team as part of the larger timetable for ISAF troop drawdowns that extends to 2014. But actions speak louder than words and National’s decision to not honour Australia’s request for 50 NZDF personnel to serve as police trainers in Oruzgan Province as replacements for departing Dutch troops is a clear indication that it believes the mission is a failure. So the writing is on the wall.

Whatever the merits of the Western involvement in Afghanistan, this decision sends some interesting signals to allies and disinterested parties alike. I explain my view of the subject in the July 24, 2010 issue of The Listener.

28 Responses to “Blog Link: National Cuts and Runs.”

  1. Dylan on July 24th, 2010 at 14:19

    Pablo, in tangential relation to NZDF, have you seen this brief clip?

  2. Pablo on July 24th, 2010 at 14:51


    Ha Ha, both clips were pretty good. Of course, the unspoken subtext of the adverts is that Australians are wanna-be neo-imperialists who do not like a fair fight.

  3. DaveW on July 24th, 2010 at 22:11

    Ha Ha, both clips were pretty good. Of course, the unspoken subtext of the adverts is that Australians are wanna-be neo-imperialists who do not like a fair fight.

    Yes that sounds about right. ;o)

  4. Quentin on July 25th, 2010 at 08:01

    Great article in the Listener.

    I am surprised at nothing this current government says or does in relation to foreign affairs and national security issues. I have often noted that there is a serious lack of mature thinking in Foreign Policy (FP) even military thinking. (prove me wrong -I am happy to learn otherwise) I am inclined towards our troops staying in Afghanistan for the very reason that we need to show we can assist in conflict areas. And I base this on the fact that we can no longer look through a short term window – but we need a longer view that will give NZ substantial credibility. Being in Afghanistan is just a start in that direction.

    You may be right too on two issues, Rugby World Cup and election year. the latter is more likely to be a factor weighing heavily on a second term in office.

  5. Hugh on July 25th, 2010 at 12:36

    To me, if National are pulling out of Afghanistan, no matter what the reason, they’re doing the Right Thing (TM). And I’m much happier with them doing the Right Thing clumsily than the Wrong Thing elegantly.

  6. Pablo on July 25th, 2010 at 12:57

    The irony is that in making the decision to withdraw, National is basically copying Labour’s position of the last two years (recall Labour’s opposition to the redeployment of the SAS to Afghanistan last year). That means that it is needlessly risking NZDF lives in order to keep up international appearances until the PRT and NZDF deployments are over next year, at which point it will bail from the fight. The question is whether National thought that the cause was lost when it made the decision to redeploy the SAS, and if not, what made it come around to Labour’s point of view? Either way, it has not been open and clear on how it sees the mission’s progression.

    As I said in the article, blanket withdawal from ISAF will have negative implications for NZ’s reputation as a international security partner, especially since a shift in the ISAF strategy away from nation-building to a more focused counter-insurgency strategy actually meshes very well with the SAS skill set.

  7. Tom Semmens on July 25th, 2010 at 14:44

    I supported routing Osama Bin Laden out of his Afghanistan hideout. As for the rest of them there and in places like Pakistan, they can stay happily mired in their miserable medieval barbarism until the end of time for all I care.

    What vital national interest are our troops serving in Afghanistan? What desperate threat to our home islands justifies our military presence in another land? To paraphrase Bismark, nation building in the whole of the Middle East isn’t worth the bones of a single New Zealand grenadier. The sooner our soldiers come home, the better.

  8. Hugh on July 25th, 2010 at 14:56

    Maybe you’re right, Pablo, but ‘for the good of our international reputation’ has always been the cry mounted by those who want to convince the NZ armed forces to be used for what I consider to be immoral purposes. If the price of doing the Right Thing (TM) is that New Zealand is viewed unfavourably by other countries, then so be it. If the choice is between getting involved in an immoral and pointless conflict and being criticised for pulling out of the immoral and pointless conflict, so be it.

    I agree to an extent that it will be hard for Key, McCully and Mapp to mount an effective defense of the decision to withdraw that doesn’t call into question their decision to re-deploy – of course they could just say ‘we changed our minds’, or more prosaically ‘we can’t afford it anymore’. But I don’t really give a s**t about their credibility as politicians, whereas I do give a s**t about what’s happening in Afghanistan.

  9. dave brown on July 25th, 2010 at 21:06

    Whatever the merits of the Western involvement in Afghanistan, this decision sends some interesting signals to allies and disinterested parties alike. I explain my view of the subject in the July 24, 2010 issue of The Listener.

    Yeah “interesting signals” but to which “allies and interested parties”? China views Afghanistan as an independent and neutral territory while the US plans to build a permanent base in the north. NZ is not wanting to antagonise China so is hedging its bets in the great game for central Asia. Why is Australia different? Australia is a minor imperialist power and is aligned to the US in screwing every dollar out of China. But its allegiance is shaky too as China is now using Venezuela to break the iron ore cartel which must mean lower prices for Aussie miners. So expect to see Australia start grovelling to China before long too.

  10. Dylan on July 25th, 2010 at 21:38

    Pablo, I’d be interested to know whether you think that the ISAF have done any good in Afghanistan that would justify NZ’s continuing support? Likewise, what moral justification is there for NZ to continue to be a part of the conflict other than the vaguely logical motivation that is the commitment to international security.

    I’d like to believe the idea that NZ is declining to continue to be a part of effort in Afghanistan because we are a peaceful country. But it’s hard not to feel that the whole spectrum of international involvement in this shit fight relates to nothing more honorable than vying for natural resources and stategic partnerships in trade.

  11. Hugh on July 26th, 2010 at 07:54

    Dylan, Pablo is on record as feeling that the ISAF is fighting the good fight, if not always competently and long-sightedly.

  12. Dylan on July 26th, 2010 at 11:44

    Fair enough, I was unclear on that.

  13. Pablo on July 26th, 2010 at 13:04


    Sorry for being late with the reply–time difference and externalities precluded my doing so earlier.

    Hugh is correct. I outlined my thoughts in Scoop in January. You can access them here:

    I will say that the ISAF mission, as presently constructed, is failing precisely because it is trying to do too much at once and consequently succeeding at little. It went from a counter-terrorism to a counter-insurgency to a nation-building operation from 2001-2005, and is now all three. It is yet another case of “mission creep” gone wrong whatever its good intentions.

    The problem, as I now see things with the benefit of non-participant hindsight, is that the nation-building efforts aggravated endemic problems with corruption and complicated the military mission while doing so. I therefore believe that as of next year we will see a turn to a more stripped down counter-terrorism strategy (the so-called “drones and bones” approach I mentioned in the Listener article) with much less emphasis on nation-building. The geopolitical stakes are simply too high for a blanket withdrawal.

  14. Hugh on July 26th, 2010 at 16:46


    What would you say to the argument that, even if violence in order to establish a more democratic (if not actually democratic), more prosperous (ditto) Afghanistan is legitimate. the ISAF mission has now reached the point where it can no longer achieve this goal? The fact is that after nine years the pendulum of focus has swung back and forward between broad nation-building and narrow counter-insurgency several times, so that there’s a massive ammount of initiative fatigue surrounding almost everybody’s attitude to the whole enterprise.

    In other words, it seems to me there’s the argument that we (by which I mean the broader western world) were fighting the good fight, but for various reasons we failed, and it’s time to cut costs and pull out.

    This may or may not be the view of Key etc, although it’s definitely the view of some sectors of MFAT.

  15. Pablo on July 26th, 2010 at 17:25


    It does appear that the broader goals of ISAF–good governance, etc–are falling far short of the mark, which in turn has led the previously hopeful segments of the Aghan population to give up hope and look to traditional power brokers for guidance, favour, etc. Infusions of development money has just worsened corruption, so the nation-building efforts have often been thwarted.

    But the geostrategic risks of a Taliban victory and possible return of AQ to Central Asia require ongoing military operations against them regardless as to whether the nation-building efforts stop. The wikileaks documents just published show that the big problem is the Pakistani ISI support for Taliban and AQ in the tribal homelands and Aghan borderlands, which it uses as a form of leverage against both the US and India. So the real military problem is in Pakistan, which until resolved in the West’s favour means that all efforts to stabilise Afghanistan will be costly and largely unsuccessful. The ISAF coalition has to come to grips with that basic fact if it is to succeed.

  16. Phil Sage on July 26th, 2010 at 23:40

    Hugh – The argument is as pathetic now as it was when used by Chamberlain in the nineteen thirties. Appeasement will not work. There was no provocation in Sep 2001. AQ and militant islamism must be stopped now or it will be harder later, even if it takes decades. The cold war took decades and the only way to win the clash of civilisations is to assist with an Islamist enlightenment.

  17. Dylan on July 27th, 2010 at 00:10

    Excuse the lack of cohesion:

    The cold war took decades and the only way to win the clash of civilisations is to assist with an Islamist enlightenment.

    Phil, correct me if I’m wrong but nobody really did win the cold war did they?

    AQ and militant islamism must be stopped now or it will be harder later, even if it takes decades.

    It’s funny, after reading Pablo’s recent comments and some follow-up commentary in The Washington Post, pointed to by
    The New Yorker, I can’t help but think that the same war which is paying for the salaries (and holiday homes…) of so many in the security and intelligence industry, might be the greatest factor driving many young muslims to AQ. I don’t think it’s- TWoT- a battle that can ever be completely won.

    I haven’t picked up on it anywhere else, but is there any historical or otherwise rational reason to think that either the Taleban or AQ can ever be completely defeated in Afghanistan. Funnily enough, wasn’t the ending to the cold war we just mentioned, contributed to by the last major outing in Afghanistan?

    I supported routing Osama Bin Laden out of his Afghanistan hideout.

    Wouldn’t a great victory for AQ, and the greatest victory for OBL, be to never get caught? In that case wouldn’t the martyr have burnt himself beyond any molecular forensic detection long ago?

  18. Hugh on July 27th, 2010 at 09:24

    Phil: You really feel that the Hitler-Bin Laden analogy is the missing element from my analysis?

    Pablo: It’s interesting that you talk about the ‘possible return of AQ to Central Asia’ because, as you say, they’re there already, in Pakistan.

    I feel that AQ’s possession of a secure territorial base doesn’t necessarily provide them with any greater capacity to launch terrorist attacks (the various Northern Irish groups had no such haven and managed just fine). But even if it did, I think that they can only be expelled from Pakistan by non-military means – a significant rise in the living standards of people in the Afghan-Pakistan borders, and a solution to the Kashmir issue, are the only way that the area will stop being hospitable to AQ. Both extremely big asks, obviously, but more realistic than a military solution.

  19. Pablo on July 27th, 2010 at 14:06


    I think that it is safe to say that the West “won” the Cold War (or at least capitalism did).

    AQ has dispersed into decentralised, autonomous operational units acting independently but informed by a common Islamicist cause. Although bin-Laden is not required for command purposes, his episodic audio and video appearances are proof to the jihadis and larger Muslim community that the hunt for him is an exercise in futility. That can help steel their resolve.

    Of course, you may be right and he is long dead, with the audios merely being spliced snippets of past speeches pasted together to address more contemporary issues. But I have a feeling that he is still alive even if the walls (or more precisely, drones) are closing in on him. Otherwise his martyrdom would have been announced a while ago, both by his supporters as well as by the West.

    Hugh: AQ is in Central Asia but does not have the range of motion, mass base or training facilities it had when the Taliban were in power. It has had to disperse into smaller units to avoid detection and death, and its training faciities, also downscaled, have had to move to Yemen, Somalia and of course the tribal areas of Western Pakistan. This is why nation-building in Afghanistan is a secondary concern and nation-building in Pakistan is a point of contention. So long as the West can keep AQ from regrouping into larger fronts and re-establish large safe havens and training in Pakistan, then kinetic operations alone can keep them from destabilizing the entire region. And so long as the various Taliban have no expansionist pretensions, that may be the best that we can hope for.

    Phil: I do not believe that we are in the midst of a clash of civilisations. Rather, Islam is undergoing an existential crisis in which extremists and fundamentalists are trying hard to make the West a foil for propagation of their beliefs. And in some measure they are succeeding because of the Western response (abu Ghraib, Guantanamo and Gaza being cases in point).

  20. Hugh on July 27th, 2010 at 16:21

    Pablo, I’m confused. Earlier you wrote about the need to suppress Al Qaeda in Central Asia in order to prevent further attacks on the West. Now you’re writing about the need to suppress them to prevent them from ‘destabilising the entire area’. Leaving aside whether ‘stability’ is the thing that people in the area most desire, I think it’s quite arguable that the area isn’t already about as destabilised as it can be, or that the operations aimed at suppressing AQ aren’t produce a net effect of greater destabilisation. In other words, ‘kinetic operations’ may not be capable of providing regional stability.

    You accuse the ISAF of trying to do too much, but casting its goal as preventing destabilisation in Central Asia seems to me to be about as maximal as it could be – in the long term, no region so broad knows anything that can be approximated as ‘stability’.

  21. Pablo on July 27th, 2010 at 16:30

    Hugh: Both the Listener article and last month’s Scoop article on “The Two Sides of the Afghan COIN” detail the alternative to the nation-building approach. The point is that a scaled back ISAF or ISAF-type force (since its AOR would not be confined to Afghanistan) can focus on countering AQ targets in the region without engaging in the larger nation-building efforts. These are needed to prevent incipient AQ branches from emerging in places like Uzbekistan (most of the ” ‘Stans” now have embryonic AQ cells that are being ignored while the bigger fight in Afghanistan is ongoing), which can lead to broader regional destabilisation, as well as to prevent the re-establishment of larger training facilities and safe havens from which AQ can project force in the West.

    I believe that nation-building efforts in places like Waziristan will suffer the same fate as its Afghan counterpart, for many of the same reasons. So better to keep things kinetic, focused and discreet.

  22. Hugh on July 27th, 2010 at 16:52

    Pablo, perhaps you’re right, but just off the top of my head, such a force would need to have a remit to run into Pakistan, Iran and Xinjiang in order to be effective. And that concept makes my yearning for poverty reduction in Pakistan and a permanent solution to the Kashmir dispute look positively Burkean in its hard-headed pragmatism.

  23. Stuart Mackey on July 28th, 2010 at 19:46

    With hindsight I think the campaign in Afghanistan was lost the moment the US decided to go into Iraq. The resources and high level attention to detail that could have won in Afghanistan, or at least removed the AQ Taliban presence and influence, simply wasn’t there and this is the result. You cannot fight on two fronts with one hand tied behind your back, as we are politically, and expect to win.

    Political opinion in western nations will not support long drawn out wars with no perceived end in sight and that, in this case, is lack of longterm thinking and poor understanding of how the world works.

  24. Pablo on July 28th, 2010 at 20:01


    I agree with you completely regarding Iraq as the beginning of the end, as well as your comment about public support for drawn out irregular wars. Of course at the time of the Iraq invasion the US was still operating under its “2.5 major regional wars” battle plan (now abandoned), so the blunder had basis in the extant war fighting strategy. I also think that adding nation-building to kinetic operations is fraught when you are in pre-modern heterogeneous tribal societies in which even central government and state control is under challenge like in Afghanistan, and the resultant mission creep betrays an arrogance born out of hubris and ignorance that makes certain that tactical, much less strategic objectives will never be achieved, or at least incompletely achieved. Add to that the mix of counterpoised geopolitical interests at play in Afghanistan (NATO, Pakistan, India, Iran and China for starters, Russia looking in from afar) and you get a recipie for failure.

    I could be wrong, but had the mission in Afghanistan been limited to routing the Taliban and eliminating AQ’s presence, and if the US had not diverted its forces into Iraq, I believe that the situation today would be non-democratic, primitive but in all likelihood more peaceful and stable.

  25. Stuart Mackey on July 28th, 2010 at 22:12


    Couldnt agree more with you there.
    I did like this comment “2.5 major regional wars” battle plan (now abandoned)” One would have though they remembered that old Clausewitzian saw about no plan and first contact with the enemy.

  26. Phil Sage on July 29th, 2010 at 03:21

    Your thinking is flawed. Either the US pulled out of Afghanistan immediately in which case the Taliban would rule now or Afghanistan would be the primary front of AQ and they would be undefeated in Afghan as they would still have the safe haven of the FTA

    AQ lost in Iraq because they split their forces. If all of those militants had gone to Afghanistan casualties there would have been much higher for NATO forces.

    The US might have been less effective split but their enemies even less effective

  27. Hugh on July 29th, 2010 at 10:39

    A good indicator of the effect Iraq had on the Afghan war:,2135/

  28. Pablo on July 29th, 2010 at 13:20


    On this one you have things backwards and confused. Neither Stuart or I spoke about immediately pulling out of Afghanistan and explicitly noted that dismantling the Taliban and denying AQ an Afghan safe haven was a core part of the original mission. That alone would have taken years, but without the burden of Iraq was quite achievable.

    Displaced by the original Afghan campaign, AQ militants showed up in Iraq after the invasion as they saw the propaganda, recruitment and combat learning curve potential of engaging US forces on another patch of Muslim soil. The lessons learned there, such as the very effective use of IEDs against armoured columns, was then transferred back to Afghanistan and the Taliban, where they are now the weapon of choice.

    The transfer was made as part of the AQ withdrawal from Iraq once the local Sunni population turned on them, which was the major success of the Petreus “inkblot” strategy employed as of early 2008. But the surge involved in implementing the inkblot strategy in Iraq drew assets away from Afghanistan, which left the US contribution to ISAF thin on the ground at a time when other ISAF partners were either withdrawing or maintaining their contributions. Given that the ISAF strategy in Afghanistan by 2008 was a mishmash of nation-building and conventional seize and hold efforts, it gave AQ an opportunity to re-establish its (admittedly reduced) presence along the Afghan-Pakistani border, mainly in the role of trainers since they knew that the Taliban were quick learners and would take up the fight for them in exchange for providing some leadership elements sanctuary in the FTA.

    The US initially claimed that it was using a “honeypot” strategy in Iraq, that is, it was deliberately luring AQ to that theater because the battle space was more conducive to successful kinetic operations using the military asymmetries available to the US (flat terrain versus mountains, etc.). But the turn to the surge and inkblot approach clearly demonstrated that the original idea, even if it was in fact a strategy all along, failed because it did not account for the enemy’s astute use of urban combat zones given its support by the local population and the initial anti-occupation coalition ties forged by Sunni nationalists with AQ internationalists at a time when Shiia militias (especially the Mahdi Army) had established a second front in areas under Shiia control. That negated US technological superiority and prevented it from massing force in the way it preferred to do under the 2.5 MRC scenario.

    Now the US is repeating the surge/inkblot strategy in Afghanistan as it draws down from an Iraq that is less stable and more susceptible to Iranian influence than when Saddam was in power. AQ may have lost cadres in Iraq, but if we take a look at the larger strategic picture from a realist perspective, the costs involved in pursuing the Iraq diversion clearly outweigh the gains made. What is left for the US is finding a way of bowing out gracefully while claiming victory in Iraq and Afghanistan, both outcomes that will be messy and inconclusive even if achieved.

    The bottom line, again from a realist perspective, is the following: what vital US national interests were at stake that would justify the invasion and long-term occupation of Iraq? If there were no vital interests at stake, why was the war launched? What are the vital national interests at stake in Afghanistan? If there are no vital national interests at stake in Afghanistan what is the purpose in remaining?

    I can summon up a justification for the Afghan campaign on national (and global) interest grounds, but find it impossible to do so in the case of Iraq.

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