Posted on 09:11, April 24th, 2012 by Pablo
It looks like the NZDF will pull out of Afghanistan next year, one year earlier than originally planned. According to the government the situation is so good in Bamiyan Province that responsibility for security has been turned over to local Afghan forces and the NZDF has downscaled its armed patrols as it concentrates on packing up. The Hazaris who populate Bamiyan are said to be happy with what the NZDF has done with the Provincial Reconstruction Team and will assist the UN and other international organizations in continuing the reconstruction work once the NZDF has left the theater. According to the NZDF and National government, the PRT experience in Bamiyan has been exemplary and is a model for such military-led reconstruction efforts in other future theaters.
But there appears to be wrinkle in this happy picture. Five Afghan translators who worked with the NZDF have unexpectedly approached Defense Minister Jonathan Coleman during a press junket to the PRT (which also saw MSM types like Garth Bray along for the photo op dressed nattily in body armor while posing in front of dusty military hardware and encampments). They did so to request political asylum. The translator’s approach was unexpected, which speaks to the NZDF not being aware of their intentions in advance of the Minister’s visit (which left him at loss for an answer since refugee issues are not part of his portfolio–not that such subtleties matter to Afghans). That suggests a failure in communication between the NZDF and the people it relies on to convey its message in Bamiyan, which is problematic because since one would assume that the relationship between the translators and their patrons would be close and trusting. That the translators kept their concerns a secret until the Minister arrived speaks to underlying differences between them and the NZDF command in Bamiyan.
The translators claim that they will be harmed or killed once the NZDF leaves Bamiyan. Eh? What happened to that much vaunted security situation? If the NZDF did such a good job and was well received by the locals, why would these men fear for their lives? More generally, did the NZ government give any thought to the post-withdrawal security concerns of its closest Afghan interlocutors? Did the NZDF command in Bamiyan flag any such concerns to the government? If the security situation for allied locals in Bamiyan is not as good as has been announced, did the NZDF or NZ government mislead the public as to the truth of the situation?
The translators want special consideration rather than wait for the UN refugee-granting process to take its years-long course (by which time, if their fears are true, they might well be dead). In other words, the translators want to jump the queue because of their extenuating circumstances. That puts the NZ government in a difficult position. If it denies their claim and tells them to get in line like everyone else, they might die as a direct and immediate result of their association with NZ troops. If they get favored treatment then it opens the government to accusations that it responds opportunistically and plays loose with the rules for granting political asylum.
The government has already caused itself a problem. Minister Coleman, caught off-guard by the request on what was supposed to be an easy Anzac Day-related “meet and greet” with the troops, said that NZ has a responsibility to the translators because of their service to the NZDF. That opens a can of worms, because if NZ grants the translators refugee status on special grounds, that sets a precedent for anyone else in Afghanistan who worked with the ISAF coalition to make similar claims based upon fears for their post-withdrawal security. Cooks, cleaners, drivers, translators, lovers–the list of people who could claim persecuted status based on their association with ISAF is bound to be long. NZ offering asylum to these men consequently becomes a thorny diplomatic issue not only with its ISAF coalition partners (who face the possibility of being inundated with similar requests), but also with the Afghan National Government that is supposed to be capable of guaranteeing security once ISAF is gone.
Whatever the decision on the translator’s request, the episode has raised more questions about conditions in Bamiyan than the NZDF appears willing to answer. One thing is certain. No matter what the outcome someone is bound to be left in the lurch, and that includes the NZ MSM types who failed to realize the full significance of what they witnessed when the translators were introduced to Mr. Coleman.