Circumstance, Context and Consequence of New Zealand’s first combat death in Afghanistan.*
Posted on 20:02, August 5th, 2010 by Pablo
Events in Afghanistan this week prompted me to write on them as well as their implications. This is the full version, which did not appear in the mainstream press.
Until this week the 140-troop NZDF mission in support of the Provincial Reconstruction team (PRT) in Afghanistan’s Bamiyan province was considered the “softer” of the two NZDF deployments in that country. Given their status as elite combat troops, the 2001-05 and post-2009 NZSAS missions in Afghanistan have received more attention as the presumably “hard” edge of New Zealand’s military contribution to the NATO-led International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) charged with bringing peace and stability to that failed state. The death of Lieutenant Timothy O’Donnell has changed that view.
Lieutenant O’Donnell was killed while on routine patrol northeast of the city of Bamiyan. NZDF patrols are undertaken daily as part of the PRT’s responsibilities, which are to provide security and undertake civil reconstruction and nation-building projects such as the construction of schools, roads, medical clinics (including the combat medics to staff them), water treatment facilities and other infrastructure required for local governance to operate efficiently. Although Bamiyan province is largely populated by the non-Pashtun ethnic Hazaras (a Shiia minority elsewhere in Afghanistan) who are generally friendly to ISAF forces because they were discriminated against under Taliban rule, the Taliban presence, although not as dominant as in Helmand or Kandahar provinces, has remained as an ever-present threat that has increased over the last two years. In fact, the ambush in which Lieutenant O’Donnell died was preceded by at least three similar attacks in the last 14 months, all using the same combination of improvised explosive devices (IEDs), Rocket Propelled Grenades (RPGs) and small arms fire.
Despite the previous attacks, the NZDF did not vary its operational routine and continued to use three or four vehicle convoys for its patrols along well-established routes. The vehicles in question were US-provided reinforced Toyota Hiluxes and armed “uparmoured” Humvees in which electronic counter-measures (ECM) were reportedly used to thwart electronic pulse-detonated IEDs (UPDATE: official details are sketchy as to whether the convoy was a mix of vehicles or all of one or the other, but non official reports suggest that Hiluxes have not been used on those patrols for 18 months and the vehicles in question were all “uparmoured” Humvees). Although state of the art, such ECMs cannot prevent a command wire or pressure plate detonated IED (especially at night), one of which was apparently used in this latest attack.
In previous instances the Hiluxes suffered minor damages in IED attacks, but this time the IED was much more powerful. No NZDF Light Armoured Vehicles (LAVIIs), out of an inventory of 106, were provided to the NZDF/Bamiyan PRT because their characteristics were deemed unsuitable for the Bamiyan AOR because most of it is single track dirt paths (even though the NZSAS has two available for operational duty in Kabul and the US has deployed ECM-equipped and reinforced armoured Stryker (the name it gives to the LAVs) units in the Afghan theater of operations). Although very agile in rough terrain (especially in its 6×6 version), the 321-strong NZDF Pinzgauer Military Utility Vehicle (MUV) fleet was not requisitioned in Bamiyan even though it fulfills the NZDF Light Operational Vehicle (LOV) role, most likely because even in its “uparmoured” version it remains vulnerable to combined small arms assaults and is underpowered when traversing steep terrain in its uparmoured version. Unlike in previous instances, air cover was not able to respond to the latest attack due to bad weather conditions in the area. The official line is that the patrol was able to find cover and establish a defensive position while returning fire, leading to a prolonged firefight before the assailants were repelled. In all likelihood given Taliban hit and run tactics, the actual firefight was quite short and most of the damage to men and machines was done by the IED rather than the ensuing exchange of small arms fire. Whatever the exact circumstances, this combination of contributing factors proved to be lethal for Lt. O’Donnell and injurious to his comrades.
The ISAF strategy in Afghanistan is a macrocosmic reflection of what the PRT mission is in Bamiyan. It conducts counter-insurgency operations against Taliban and al-Qaeda forces in order to physically secure the country and prevent the re-establishment of both Taliban rule and al-Qaeda safe havens and training camps within it. In parallel, it attempts to train Afghan security forces and provide the infrastructural conditions so as to consolidate the control of the Western-backed Karzai regime centred in Kabul. As with the Bamiyan PRT, success in the first task is deemed necessary for success with the latter two.
In many ways the death of a Kiwi soldier was inevitable given the balance of the conflict. ISAF has not succeeded in routing the Taliban even if it has denied them and their al-Qaeda allies much territory and space for maneuver. Its nation-building efforts have been thwarted by endemic corruption by the Karzai regime and a motley assortment of tribal warlords and drug barons. For all its rhetorical commitment to supporting the ISAF mission from its side of the border, Pakistan remains a suspect ally, if not a covert adversary in the conflict. Given the announced timetable for a US troop drawdown and ISAF withdrawal beginning in July 2011, the Taliban have increased their attacks in order to raise the costs to ISAF, undermine public support for the mission amongst coalition partners (such as the Dutch, who have just exited the theater), and thereby hasten the inevitable. In fact, both ISAF commander General David Petraeus as well as US Joint Chiefs of Staff Chairman Admiral Michael Millan have said that ISAF casualties will increase over the next months as coalition forces push into Taliban strongholds in a final effort to degrade its ability to mount effective guerrilla operations against Afghanistan police, Army and ISAF targets.
However, true to form, the Taliban have responded with a classic guerrilla tactic when confronted with superior military forces: they employ a “balloon” strategy whereby they retreat from areas in which they are being squeezed by superior ISAF forces and regroup in areas in which the ISAF presence is relatively thin on the ground. The key to their success is to respond to mass with maneuver, avoiding the friction of large conventional forces via fluidity of movement towards areas in which the odds are in their favour. In other words, the Taliban like to” hit ’em where they ain’t.”
One such area is Bamiyan, which means that there is nothing soft about the NZDF/PRT role there. The hazards are not just military. Given the Taliban resurgence and the inevitable withdrawal of ISAF forces, it is prudent and rational for the Hazaras (as much as all other tribal groups throughout the country) to begin to look the other way when it comes to Taliban movements in Bamiyan, if not cooperate with or simply accommodate the insurgents. After all, the Taliban will be a armed and political presence long after the ISAF forces are scaled back or gone. That makes the NZDF position in the Bamiyan PRT harder to maintain the closer it approaches to the announced ISAF withdrawal date. In plain terms, without reinforcement the NZDF/PRT position becomes more tenuous given the shift in local loyalties as the withdrawal deadline approaches, and tenuous in military terms means a high probability of increased casualties as the adversary grows in confidence and receives more support or acquiescence from the local population.
The National government has reaffirmed its commitment to the Bamiyan PRT mission through September 2011 and is considering extending thr NZSAS deployment past its scheduled March 2011 end date. But the possibility of further fatalities now haunts its commitment. The larger question is whether the New Zealand public has the stomach to support continuing NZDF participation in the Afghan conflict in the face of increased casualties. That will be a critical juncture in New Zealand foreign relations, because public support is essential to maintaining the political will to continue fighting—and dying—in support of broadly defined foreign policy objectives. Since the measure of a military commitment is ultimately taken in blood, it behooves New Zealand’s political leadership to make a strong case as to why Kiwi lives are worth sacrificing in a seemingly futile conflict in far off place that appears, on the face of things, to have little strategic value to core New Zealand interests. It is also incumbent upon the opponents of the NZDF deployment to Afghanistan to make an equally convincing case as to why Kiwi lives should not be risked in Afghanistan in pursuit of vanity, favour, treasure or ephereal benefit.
Out of that debate a true public consensus can be formed that gives clear direction to the government’s approach to the ISAF commitment in the year leading up to general elections.
*A short version of this essay was published in the New Zealand Herald on August 5, 2010 under the title “Death makes it clear Bamiyan not “soft” option.”