Posts Tagged ‘Afghanistan’
Journalist John Stephenson is a person of high integrity and a strong memory. He does not report anything until he is exactly certain he has the facts correct. Prime Minister John Key has a difficult relationship with the truth and suffers from memory loss well in advance of his age. He responds to unwanted or contrary facts and opinion with derision, distraction or insult.
John Key says that the SAS is in Bamiyan after the dual ambushes of NZDF troops to provide logistical and intelligence support. He initially said that only four SAS officers were dispatched but now admits there could be a couple of others in Bamiyan as well. John Stephenson reports that the SAS are actively engaged in the hunt for those who ambushed and killed NZDF personnel, and that their numbers exceed those offered by the PM.
Given their track records, if I had to take the word of one against the other, I would take the word of John Stephenson.
I also think that it is perfectly fine and natural for the SAS to deploy to Bamiyan after the ambushes. After all, the NZDF has been the lead ISAF force in that province since 2002 so has the best (albeit insufficient) knowledge of terrain, transit routes, local politics and the nature of the enemy. The SAS’s most basic role is long-range patrol, infiltration and surveillance. Thus they are a natural fit for the job of hunting down those responsible for the deadly attacks on NZ soldiers. The hunt for the killers involves but is not reducible to utu or revenge. It is about letting the Taliban know that attacks on the NZDF during the process of withdrawal from Bamiyan will not be tolerated. The Taliban understand utu. It is in fact part of their fighting culture. To not engage the SAS with the purpose of delivering a lethal response would be seen as a sign of weakness and encourage more attacks. Bringing the SAS into the equation reduces that possibility.
The Bamiyan PRT consists of approximately 4 platoons with an engineering and medical complement. The SAS officers deployed after the ambushes likely have assumed command of those platoons in order to sharpen the latter’s respective patrol skills. Although bad for the conventional officers who likely were relieved of their duties in the wake of the ambushes (one of them was seriously injured in the first attack), this is a smart thing to do given the worsening security situation in Bamiyan. It would also not be surprising if SAS enlisted personnel were sent to reinforce those platoons with their sharpened combat skills.
Since all of this is pretty well understood in military circles, the question begs as to why Mr. Key insists with a cover story that is patently bogus. Has his experience as a money trader made him believe that he can bluff, hedge and bluster his way out of every corner? If so, then his condition is pathological and undermines his mana. After all, what worked amongst the closed community of money traders does not always work in an open society with a critical press and a political opposition looking for cracks in his leadership facade. With John Stephenson as his main counter when it comes to what the NZDF is really doing in Afghanistan, Key is on a hiding to nothing when he persists with his obfuscation on military-security matters.
In the wake of the most recent NZDF deaths in Bamiyan Province, the Prime Minister has decided to accelerate the timetable for withdrawal of NZDF from the Bamiyan Provincial Reconstruction Team to April 2013. After that the PRT will remain in UN and local hands. The original withdrawal date, originally slated for 2014, had been moved up to late 2013 after discussions with the International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) partners, but the April date represents a six month advance on that deadline. Even so, the PM says that his government will not “cut and run” on its obligations to ISAF, NATO and the UN (and presumably the Hazara people who are the majority in Bamiyan but who are an oft-oppressed ethnic and religious (Shiia) minority in Pashtun Sunni-dominated Afghanistan). That means that for the next eight months the NZDF will continue its mission regardless of what comes its way in Bamiyan.
The Prime Minister has said that the NZDF troops have adequate equipment with which to defend themselves and that no major increases in troop numbers is needed to fulfill the PRT mission requirements. He and the Chief of Defense Forces have also said that they will increase patrols, including into neighboring Baghlan province, in order to prevent and interdict cross-border incursions by Taliban such as those that have resulted in the deaths of the NZ soldiers this month (I shall leave aside the snide critique by the PM of the Hungarian PRT in Baghlan since its rules of engagement (ROE) never involved long-range patrols and the Hungarian government has never succumbed to the pressure to do so (seeing it for what it is: “mission creep”). Other Hungarian forces as well as those of ISAF partners did and do conduct day and night patrols in Baghlan). The government has gone on to say that the NZDF have been successfully engaged in a “hearts and minds” campaign as part of their patrols in Bamiyan, which is what has prompted the increase in attacks by the Taliban.
There are several aspects to the account that I find interesting. When the original timetable for withdrawal was announced by ISAF, the Taliban commander Mullah Omar and several of his lieutenants publicly stated that they would increase attacks on all coalition members in order to push them out earlier. They well understood that with a timetable fixed and with the Taliban, as an indigenous armed political force, in Afghanistan to stay, an increased tempo of attacks might force some coalition partners to depart earlier than schedule rather than suffer mounting losses. Add in the fact that the democratic policy-making processes of many ISAF coalition members make them very susceptible to public opinion, then a wave of increased attacks leading to increased losses could well move the political calculation with regards to withdrawal towards earlier rather the later. Indeed, some junior coalition partners have already departed.
In the past year, as the predicted attacks in Bamiyan increased, the nature of the PRT mission changed as well. From its primary objective of reconstruction and capacity-building it moved to force protection, indigenous security training and armed patrol. In recent months and in light of the anticipated withdrawal date, the latter functions–force protection, indigenous security training and armed patrol–have taken precedence over the reconstruction aspects of the mission (which are being handed over to civilian authority in any event).
In response, the last two PRT rotations (October 2011-April 2012, April 2012-present) have seen changes in force composition to more infantry troops and less engineers. Among other shifts, explosive ordinance disposal (EOD) specialists have been priority detailed to the mission. Infantry soldiers replaced engineers because the former are the means by which the hearts and minds, force protection and indigenous mentoring campaigns are undertaken, plus reconstruction work is already passing to civilian hands. Field medics are needed in equal or more numbers given their increasing combat requirement sharing space with the original public health orientation of the PRT.
The armed Hiluxs that were initially used for “light” patrols were replaced by “up-armored” Humvees and then later by the infamous Light Armored Vehicles (LAVs, or as the US prefers to call them “Strykers”). Although reinforced in theater, neither of these type of vehicle have the V shaped hulls that are the best defense against IED blasts. The LAVs also are not suitable for steep narrow tracks or water crossings, so their presence is most effective in and around the capital of Bamiyan (Bamiyan City). Once NZDF patrols pushed further afield the onus of safety fell on the foot soldiers involved, since dismounted tactics are the most effective tools against small dispersed groups of insurgents given the challenging terrain in which the NZDF is forced to operate.
This shift in troop specialization was reasonable given the increasing pace of attacks, which included IED as well as small arms ambushes in growing numbers (besides the ambush in which Lt. Tim O’Donnell was killed in 2010, there have been multiple IED and small arms attacks on NZDF convoys and patrols during the past 18 months). As independent observers have noted all along, the security situation in Bamiyan, as in the rest of Afghanistan, has deteriorated markedly since the withdrawal date was announced. It is therefore not surprising that the NZDF has come under increasing attack, and although sad, it is not surprising that it has suffered losses as a result. What is even more sad is that in spite of the worsening security situation, until very recently the NZ government insisted that the situation in Bamiyan was relatively stable and safe, perhaps because it feared what the public response would be if it told the truth.
Now confronted with the harsh reality of the situation, the government has announced its plan to extend NZDF patrols in Bamiyan and into Baghlan and to continue the hearts and minds approach to counter-insurgency. It also says that while doing so it will not significantly increase the combat force complement of the Bamiyan PRT nor raise overall troop numbers much above the 149 currently deployed. That seems odd.
The combination of extended patrols and hearts and minds is essentially the core of the inkblot counter-insurgency strategy that US generals David Petreus and Stanley McCrystal used in Iraq and Afghanistan. It involves stationing troops in villages or in forward outposts alongside local security forces, where they live and work amongst the local population. This gives them an extended armed presence that allows for better collection of local intelligence via the cultivation of personal ties with locals, and is seen as a way of incrementally denying the enemy control of territory in the measure that the various “dots” expand their areas of effective control and begin to merge jurisdictions. On the downside, it also makes the troops involved more vulnerable, particularly to so-called “green on blue” attacks in which local security personnel turn their arms on their foreign mentors (the Taliban have deliberately infiltrated both the Afghan National Army and National Police in order to engage this tactic, with remarkable success).
In order to undertake the inkblot counter-insurgency strategy, both Petreus and McCrystal argued that a “surge” in troops was necessary. That is, more armed “boots on the ground” were required in order to extend the range and scope of operations beyond the fixed bases and daily patrols that characterized the conventional approach to securing the countryside (which was premised on the attrition of enemy fighters resulting in a diminished level of armed conflict). Thus in Iraq and Afghanistan thousands of extra troops were deployed as part of the inkblot surge in order to push the enemy back and secure better conditions for both locals and foreign troops in the months ahead of the withdrawal date. The idea is to not only place the enemy on the defensive in order to give time and space to local forces to more effectively secure their own areas of responsibility, but also to set a more favorable stage for local authorities to negotiate the nature of the post-withdrawal regime. After all, it is better to negotiate from a position of strength than weakness. The inkblot surge is designed to provide the conditions for that to occur.
That is basically what the NZ government is arguing in favor of, but without the surge. In a place like Bamiyan, the stated intent to extend patrols as part of an upgraded hearts and minds campaign would appear to require more than the current number of soldiers. In fact, it would seem that an infantry company (around 130 soldiers) would be the basic minimum amount required to “surge.” The question is whether the NZDF has such a capability ready to deploy even if the government would like that to happen. And even if that is the case–that the government wants to undertake the surge and the NZDF can do so–the follow up question is whether that would be politically palatable to the NZ public. If the answer to any of these questions is no, then what exactly does the government think that the NZDF can do in Bamiyan to decrease the number of attacks on its troops?
At current levels the PRT cannot not cope with a rising wave of attacks. The IED on the NZDF medivac convoy was placed at night less than 15 kilometers from the PRT base in Bamiyan City.The placement of the IED appears to have been done after the medivac patrol headed out to retrieve the ill soldier from a forward post and in anticipation of its return. There were no LAVs on the medivac mission because they were too large and heavy for the dirt road leading to the post, so four Humvees were used.
The PM and CDF say that the IED had 20 kilos of explosives, so a LAV would not have survived the blast either. It is also possible that the triggering device did not act according to plan, resulting in a signal delay that transferred the IED blast from the first to the last Humvee (and which could well have made impossible a small arms attack once the convoy stopped). Both may be true, but the ability of insurgents to carry, place and detonate a 20 kilo IED close to the main Kiwi base in Bamiyan on a known route to and from an NZDF forward post without being detected should be a point of discussion in NZDF HQ. After all, mine sweeping is a requisite for mine defusing, and finding one after a fatal attack demonstrates that the NZDF EOD capability in Bamiyan is lagging behind that of the Taliban bomb-makers (one of whom is said to be the target of the previous fatal ambush and who is suspected of participating in the latest attack).
Since the NZDF cannot be everywhere at once, that means that the insurgents have at least partial control of the night very close to the PRT. Moreover, the IED appears to have been detonated by remote control rather than pressure plate, which means that the trigger man had a daylight line of sight on the convoy as it passed the blast zone. What that means, in sum, is that the Taliban operate very close to the PRT itself and can move with some impunity at night even when in close proximity to the very area in which the bulk of NZ troops are stationed. That is troubling.
The PM has given assurances that other country’s special forces will come to the aid of the NZDF if need be. I sure hope so, because the last time I looked other country’s special forces have their hands full in places like Kandahar and Helmand provinces. Be clear on this: the bulk of the fighting in Afghanistan is happening in the South and East, not in the Central Northwest where Bamiyan is located. That fighting occupies the full attention of the ISAF forces involved. Even if airborne reinforcements were sent from Kabul (which is about 100 kilometers away from Bamiyan), it may be too late for them to make the difference in any given confrontation.
Expanded combat patrols and increased forward basing mean more chances of contact with the enemy. More contact means more potential casualties. The best way to avoid losses is to have robust forces on the ground close to the point of contact(s) because air cover is not always available in real time, at the moment of engagement. That is why extended patrolling and variations of inkblot approaches to counter-insurgency require more ground troops in theater.
I find it unrealistic and dangerous for anyone to suggest that the NZDF will increase and expand its patrols in the months leading to the April 2013 withdrawal date without increasing the number of troops it will dedicate to that task. Perhaps there is something in the NZ government or NZDF game plan that I am not aware of that will do what even the US could not do, which is to embark on an inkblot counter-insurgency strategy without a troop surge in the six months before departure. That assumes that the NZ government and NZDF hierarchy are fully cognizant of what they are proposing to do, of what they are asking of their soldiers. I also hope that they will take full responsibility for whatever happens in the months ahead given the choices they have made.
In any event the NZDF soldiers in the next (and last) Bamiyan PRT rotation scheduled to begin in October are in for a very challenging six months. Let us hope that their training and resolve sees them through unscathed, and that they all return safely. However, while it is good to hope for the best, I also think that it is prudent for the NZ public to plan for the worst. There are trying days ahead.
It may seem insensitive to ask questions about the ambush that killed two and wounded six NZDF troops in Bamiyan, but I do not trust the government or NZDF brass to come clean on what really happened. They have spent too much time lying about the real security situation in Bamiyan and the real nature of what NZDF troops are doing there and elsewhere, such as during the SAS deployment.
The official story is that Afghan National Directorate of Security (NDS) personnel were ambushed in a village when they went to arrest a suspect, suffered losses, and called for reinforcement from the NZDF. The village is located in a narrow high mountain valley. Four NZDF patrols were in the area and at least two responded, although it took 2 hours for the convoy to slowly climb up to the village. The original story was that after laying down suppressing fire, an NZDF armored vehicle was hit by an “anti-tank rocket,” resulting in one NZDF death, and when the troops dismounted to secure the area another was killed and the others were wounded by a separate group of insurgents hiding in the surrounding terrain (it is unclear if some of the wounded were injured in the missile attack on the armored vehicle). A subsequent official version states that both soldiers were killed by rifle fire from a distance of 50-100 meters after they dismounted from the armored vehicle. A number of insurgents are claimed to have been killed, and 17 were seen withdrawing from the area carrying their dead and wounded. No enemy bodies were recovered although two insurgents were captured.
My questions are these:
Knowing that the valley was narrow with much high ground cover above the village in question, and given the time it took to reach the scene, why did the reinforcements not dismount, spread out and walk into the fire zone rather than drive all the way in? I say this because a standard guerrilla tactic, which has many variations, is the “sucker ploy” whereby a small ambush is staged on local forces so that the call for reinforcements is made. A second, larger ambush is staged using better cover and heavier weapons on the reinforcements, which in Afghanistan are inevitably foreign. The real target is the reinforcing forces, and faulty intelligence feeds are often used to lure the initial responders to the scene. The idea is to hit the reinforcements hard and disengage as rapidly as possible.
One way of preventing losses to such a sucker ploy is to have infantry dismount away from the point of contact and walk in from a range of 300-500 meters in a spread formation so as to minimize the risk of mass casualties and to provide better coverage of the tactical battle space. This is especially true for theaters in which the enemy uses remotely triggered IEDs as a tactical weapon against armored columns. Such a counter-move is taught as a basic defensive measure in most infantry courses.
One alternative that conventional armies rely on is to have an armored column carrying infantry move in tight on the enemy position, although this is usually an urban rather than rural tactic given tight space constraints and the limited lines of sight involved. It also assumes that the armor in question can withstand small arms fire, to include RPGs, at relatively close range. My question is therefore two-fold: why did the NZDF troops move in so close before dismounting, and what was the “armored” vehicle that was hit (and in fact, was any vehicle hit by “rocket” fire)? If one of the convoy vehicles was hit, what was it? An armored Humvee? An up-armoured Hilux? A LAV? If it was the latter (and I have seen video of NZDF LAVs being used in Bamiyan), what was the nature of the “anti-tank” munition used against it? Or was it hit by an RPG? I say this because one of the biggest flaws of the LAV, should it not be up-armored, is a relatively thin skin which is vulnerable to both RPGs and 50 caliber rounds. That flaw was the focus of much criticism during the debates about the LAV purchase, but the government and NZDF have consistently discounted the apparent vulnerabilities of the platform. Both the Humvee and Hilux, even if armored, are vulnerable to RPGs and large caliber rounds, to say nothing of IEDs.
>>Update: The NZDF have now reported that LAVs were involved and that one soldier was shot while sitting in the roof well position. The other was shot on the ground. There is no updated reports on whether the LAV took incoming small arms or RPG fire. Sanctuary and I discuss the issue of LAV vulnerability to such fire in the first two comments below.<<
Another question is about the report that 17 insurgents were seen leaving the scene, moving towards an area “not under the control of coalition forces” carrying their dead and wounded. First of all, the Taliban do not carry their dead, as that would be suicidal given that it would slow them down and make them vulnerable to pursuing forces or air strikes. Although they do at times carry their wounded, that also slows them down and makes them vulnerable to hot pursuit, particularly if they are climbing away from the battle zone. So why the claim that Taliban dead and wounded were being carried away and why no pursuit? What does “area not under control of coalition forces” mean? Given that the fire fight was supposedly over in 2-3 minutes according to the NZDF, how were the enemy forces able to escape in full sight of the patrol? Were they fired upon while retreating?
Why was no air cover called in before or after the initial ambush? Since the dead and wounded were evacuated by chopper in a relatively short period of time once the call for help went out, that means that air assets were in the vicinity (there is an airfield at the Bamiyan PRT). Were they otherwise occupied?
From what I gather in the press, this looks like a classic sucker ploy double ambush in which the NZDF was specifically targeted. That no enemy bodies or wounded were recovered, and that no pursuit of the fleeing insurgents was undertaken, suggests that this was a significant tactical victory for the “bad guys” (I presume that no pursuit was launched because the priority was to stabilize the wounded and secure a landing zone for the rescue choppers). It also suggests that there may be some issues with the patrol and response tactics used by the NZDF, particularly if these had been used before and established a pattern of behavior that the Taliban/insurgents could observe and learn from. The patrol in question was in its third month of deployment (the 19th PRT rotation), so questions of experience and local familiarity on the part of the troops involved are fair to raise.
I do not mean to question the actions or valor of the NZDF troops, nor do I claim any superior military expertise. I certainly do not have all of the facts on the ground. I can only speculate on what has been reported by the mainstream press so far. However, I do know a little about irregular warfare and about the tactical nature of that warfare in the Afghan theater. It is for that reason that I ask these questions, which I hope someone in the mainstream press will be courageous enough to ask of the government and NZDF. After all, there is still at least another year to go before the NZDF withdraws from Bamiyan, and whoever conducted this attack is clearly signaling what is in store in the months ahead.
Postscript: In his latest press conference held today Gen. Rhys-Jones stated that the NZDF troops were not specifically targeted, but were fired upon by insurgents protecting a valuable bomb-maker who was the object of the initial NSD search. He claimed that both soldiers killed as well as those that were wounded were dismounted when struck by small arms fire, and that the insurgents engaged in a fighting retreat before air strikes were called in. He asserted that the insurgents “took a battering” even though no bodies are found. This raises more questions even as it answers some of those outlined above. I shall leave it for readers to decide whether to take the General at his good word.
Timing is everything, so they say. The Taliban attack on the Intercontinental Hotel in Kabul was a masterpiece of symbolic defiance. Apparently modeled on the Mumbai attacks of 2008 (which suggests the possibility of links to the Lashkar-e-Taiba (LET) Islamicists that carried out that attack and which are reported to have links with the Pakistani Intelligence Service ISI), the assault comes on the very week that overall security responsibility for Kabul was being transferred from International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) to Afghan hands. It comes in wake of the announcement of the US withdrawal plan, which sees 33,000 US troops headed home between July 2011 and September 2012, and the bulk of the remaining 70,000 withdrawn by late 2014. It occurred during a conference held at the hotel between Afghanistan, Iran and Pakistan on the subject of “anti-terrorism,” considered against the backdrop of an overall ISAF reduction in presence along with the US military draw down.
The first areas to be handed over to Afghan control are Kabul and Bamiyan Province. NZ troops are stationed in both places, with the SAS company located in Kabul while the majority of the other NZDF personnel serve with the PRT in Bamiyan. If the Taliban logic holds true, they will accelerate the pace of attacks on remaining ISAF forces in areas that are handed over to Afghan security control. It is therefore plausible to think that NZDF troops will be the subject of targeted hostilities in both theaters, with the timing and intensity of Taliban attacks increasing. As the symbolic centre of the foreign occupation, Kabul is a target rich environment for urban guerrillas. In Bamiyan the local ethnic Hazari population, long victims of Taliban discrimination, now must ponder a post-PRT future in which the Taliban will be a major player. That advises them to look to negotiate with the Taliban on post-PRT terms and to consequently distance themselves from the PRT. That will have an impact on tactical intelligence gathering as well local logistics, to say nothing of the security of the NZDF personnel stationed there. PRT force protection, rather than combat patrols, could well be the objective of the day once Afghan security forces assume control in Bamiyan.
In terms of the assault itself, the Intercontinental Hotel operation demonstrated sophistication and professionalism. The combined grenade, IED and small arms fire tactic involved a mix of attackers, apparently disguised as guests and Afghan police. It is speculated that some may have checked into the hotel days before the assault, while other reports have the 9-man assault squad launching the attack from the hill that the hotel backs on to. The five rings of road block blast barriers on the road leading to the hotel were ineffectual against the assault. Afghan security forces at and around the hotel are said to have run rather than engage the attackers from the onset, which allowed them to move beyond the lobby and pool areas and into the floors above. While the bulk of the guerrillas fought floor to floor and room to room with the eventual responders, a few made the roof and used it to engage sniper fire on reinforcements (thereby demonstrating knowledge of standard counter-terrorism tactics using troops rappelling from helicopters onto rooftops). The fact that the battle lasted 5 hours indicates the planning and tenacity of the Taliban fighters, with the last one killing himself at 7AM (the attack began at 10PM).
That is where mentoring comes in. “Mentoring” in the context of the NZSAS relationship with the Afghan anti-terrorist force known as the Crisis Response Unit means training and combat support. The SAS trains the CRU and follows them into battle in incidents precisely like the hotel siege. That is what they train for, in a variety of scenarios. Should the CRU vacillate or prove ineffectual, then the SAS mentors assume leadership roles and coordinate the counter-attack. The involves them at the initial point of contact with the enemy–at the pointy end, if you will. The two wounded troopers were engaged in such roles, which along with the duration of the battle suggests that the initial CRU response was less than optimal.
If reports are true that SAS snipers platformed on a NATO Blackhawk hovering near the hotel killed the rooftop snipers (at night), it will have brought valuable and highly specialised combat experience to to the unit. Re-taking the hotel will have given the rest of the SAS team (reported as “around a dozen”) equally important live fire exposure (and at least two scars). Should this scenario be true, from an SAS standpoint the engagement was a mixed bag, with the CRU not holding its own without help against a determined and prepared enemy, but where SAS troops combat tested a range of tactics and skills.
The bigger issue is what does this attack mean for ISAF and the NZDF. Let me suggest this: it means that whatever the technical skills and material improvements imparted by NZDF forces in reconstruction, nation-building and “mentoring” roles, the balance of forces vis a vis the Taliban indicates that their efforts have not prospered as hoped, and their security is increasingly compromised as a result.
News that the NZSAS conducted a raid against those responsible for the death of Lt. Timothy O’Donnell last August should come as no surprise. Although Wayne Mapp once again dissembled in public about the purpose of the raid, which resulted in the deaths of nine Taliban and reportedly eight civilians due to stray fire from close air support (not the NZSAS), the point of the exercise was threefold: to exact utu on those who killed a NZ soldier; to provide a deterrent for other such directed attacks against NZDF personnel in Bamiyan province; and to send the message to the Taliban in neighbouring Baghlan province (from where the attack on Lt. O’Donnell’s patrol was organised and carried out) that Bamiyan is off-limits. The raid was personal: it let NZ troops in theater as well as adversaries know that the NZDF takes very seriously fatal attacks on its personnel, and will respond accordingly (that is, symmetrically if not overwhelmingly).
This is, quite frankly, an axiom of combat that serves good tactical purpose. After all, the Taliban are a fighting and revenge-minded culture, so failure to reply in kind and in timely fashion to the IED and small arms fire ambush of Lt. O’Donnell’s patrol would have been perceived as a sign of weakness and invited more and larger attacks. However, the question remains as to whether the SAS utu raid serves the larger strategic interests of the ISAF coalition of which the NZDF contribution is part. The answer, unfortunately, is in the negative.
I shall leave aside the fact that John Key said in 2009 that the NZSAS was deployed in a “training and mentoring” role for the Afghan Army counter-terrorism Crisis Response Unit (CRU) based in Kabul, and that it would not be engaged in combat operations. I shall also leave aside the fact that Mr. Key has continued to say that the SAS would not lead any raids but instead, as part of its mentoring role, “accompany” Afghan troops into battle when needed. Yet the raid against Lt. O’Donnell’s killers was led by the SAS in concert with US troops and air cover, with only a supporting role delegated to Afghan Army units.
Perhaps the fiction of the NZSAS non-combat role is needed for domestic political cover, although it seems to me that Mr. Key and Mr. Mapp are either deluded or have contempt for the public’s understanding of what the SAS does for a living. But the real issue is whether employing the SAS outside of its publicly acknowledged remit serves the strategic objectives of the ISAF coalition. There again, the answer is less comforting than the tactical success of the utu raid.
The fact that in the aftermath of Lt. O’Donnell’s death and the utu raid the NZDF has deployed a half dozen Light Armoured Vehicles (LAVs) to Bamiyan as reinforcements for the Humvees and armoured Hiluxes that the NZDF use when on patrol suggests that the raid did not necessarily improve the security of those patrols. That in turn means that the strategic situation, at least as it mircrocosmically plays out in Bamiyan, has not improved as a result. Moreover, because the LAVs are up-armoured (i.e. reinforced) and wheeled, they cannot be used on the narrow goat tracks and other pathways crisscrossing the mountains of northeast Bamiyan where Lt. O’Donnell was killed (along the border with Baghlan), so they are designed for use in flatter districts closer to the PRT headquarters. This means that after eight years of doing reconstruction work in Bamiyan, the security situation has gotten worse not better, and that is not entirely due to Taliban cross-border raids emanating from Baghlan.
In sum, the SAS search-and-destroy mission against Lt. O’Donnell’s killers was an efficient, calculated and deliberate act of utu that serves as a morale-booster for NZDF troops on the ground as well as those who in the future will deploy to hostile theaters. It gives the tactical enemy some food for thought and a measure of pause before it commits resources to attacks on the NZDF. But it does not, and cannot improve the strategic balance between the Taliban and ISAF. That is only important because in a conflict between irregulars fighting on home soil against a modern conventional military coalition, a military stalemate favours the irregulars. If the military stalemate continues without political resolution, then the odds increase that the irregulars will prevail. Tactical success in a strategic quagmire, in other words, means little in terms of the long-term picture. Since ISAF is committed to withdrawing the bulk of its troops by 2014, all the Taliban have to do to ensure their long-term goals is harass ISAF forces as they prepare to depart while cementing the Taliban position as alternative sovereigns-in-waiting.
All of which means that, utu reprisals notwithstanding, there is a distinct possibility of more NZDF casualties so long at the strategic balance in Afghanistan remains deadlocked or favourable to the Taliban.
Mr. Key and Mr. Mapp would do well to ponder this fact, and to be more honest in their public pronouncements about the SAS mission.
That was published in the Washington Post, and syndicated to the front page of the international news section of today’s Dominion Post. Read the whole thing, it’s worth your time.
Then try to re-imagine this story if the protagonist was an uneducated working-class youth from the Palestinian Occupied Territories, rural Afghanistan or the Iran-Iraq borderlands.
Posted on 19:05, August 4th, 2010 by Pablo
The death of Lt. Timothy O’Donnell in an ambush while on patrol in Bayiman province is a tragic but inevitable consequence of the NZDF participation in the ISAF mission in Afghanistan. His death, the first in ten years since the killing of Private Leonard Manning in an ambush by Indonesian militias in East Timor, is a sad reminder of the bottom line when soldiers are sent into conflict zones. But that is a cost worth paying when the soldiers are volunteers, understand their orders and the risks involved, deploy willingly and enjoy the support of politicians and public back home. The latter depends on how the public perceives the conflict in question, which usually reduces to perceptions of immediate or proximate threat weighed against the costs and benefits presumably involved.
The costs of the NZDF deployment to Afghanistan are now clear and are likely to mount in the months ahead as Taliban sharpen their attacks in the build-up to ISAF withdrawal as of July 2011. The question for NZ is now not so much military as it is diplomatic and political: will the NZ public continue to support the deployment if casualties continue to mount, and will the National government have the political will to continue in the fight in the event of growing public opposition and the intangible diplomatic benefits to be accrued from ongoing participation?
Although it is a bit dated, I have explained why I believe the mission is worth continuing here. I have also explained why I believe that the ISAF mission is bound to change once the July 2011 withdrawal commencement date begins. As a follow up, I have written a short piece that will appear in a mainstream media outlet tomorrow on Lt. O’Donnell’s death in the context of a Taliban resurgence and switch to a “balloon” guerrilla strategy in which the Taliban retreats from large kinetic confrontations in Halmand and Kandahar provinces and regroups in areas such as Bayiman where the ISAF presence on the ground is thinner (i.e. when they get squeezed they pop up elsewhere rather than fight a superior force at the point of massed contact).
All indications are that the security situation in Afghanistan will get worse rather than better, if it ever does. ISAF commander General David Petraeus and US Joint Chief of Staff Chairman Admiral Mike Millan have said as much. John Key has committed the NZDF to the Bayiman PRT until September 2011 and is considering extending the NZSAS deployment past its schedule end date of March 2011. But now that the costs of the mission are etched in blood, does he have the nerve, resolve and most importantly public support to keep that promise should things get worse in the months to come? Given that 2011 is an election year, will polls rather than principle drive his decision? One thing I believe will be certain. More Kiwi blood will flow in that forsaken land.
Controversy about the publication of SAS soldiers in action in Kabul last week, and the identification of one of them, has morphed into debate about the reasons why the NZDF is in Afghanistan. I have already outlined my views on the matter in previous posts here at KP, but the furore forced me to reflect again on the issue. That reflection was precipitated by the fact that criticism of the mission comes from both the political Left and the political Right. Some on the Left think that the venture is a US-led occupation driven by neo-imperialist ambition and corporate greed that violates the Afghans right to self-determination, and that the NZ involvement is a form of sucking up to the US in pursuit of a free trade agreement. Some on the Right believe that NZ has no strategic stake in the conflict and should leave the (enter derogatory term here) alone to sort out their own fate while NZ concentrates on issues closer to home. I believe that both sides have misread the situation.
To that end I have offered my summary views on the matter as this month’s Word from Afar column over at Scoop.
News of the NZSAS’s imminent departure to Afghanistan, on its fourth deployment since 2001 but first since 2005, has occasioned a fair bit of commentary in the media. A Herald poll shows public opinion evenly divided on the issue. A broad swathe of Right and Left wing isolationists and pacifists oppose the move. Many believe it is just a sop thrown to US imperialism in order to curry favour. Others think it is about gas pipelines and Halliburton profits. The rationale for sending troops to Afghanistan has become muddled by American pronouncements that NZ should do so as a type of insurance in the event it is attacked, or as a down payment on an eventual bilateral FTA. John Key has not helped matters by stating that he does not want the SAS to undertake so-called “mentoring” roles for the Afghan Army because it is too dangerous (as if what they otherwise would be doing is not), and that he would like to withdraw the NZDF Provincial Reconstruction Team (PRT) in Bamiyan province because it costs too much to maintain (this in spite of its widely recognised success as a “hearts and minds” operation that is the essence of international peace-keeping and nation-building missions such as the ISAF mission in Afghanistan). He further clouds the issue by invoking the Jakarta and Mumbai bombings as reasons for the NZSAS deployment, even if the bombings had zero connection to events on the ground in Afghanistan (although I admit the possibility that some of those involved in the bombings may have attended Taleban protected al-Qaeda training camps in Afghanistan or the Pakistani tribal regions in the last decade or so). In making these utterances Mr. Key displays an apparent lack of understanding of what is really at stake in this dangerous game.
I have already posted here on the subject (see the Archive, especially here and here), and in recent days have tried to explicate further in the dedicated comments threads in places like Tumeke and Kiwiblog. Yet the rationale for why I believe that sending the NZSAS to and keeping the PRT in Afghanistan is justified appears to be lost in the general discussion. So let me phrase things in a different way, for purposes of clarification: what is going on in Afghanistan is a two-level game.
One one level there is the original ISAF mission. That mission was and is to deny al-Qaeda cadres and militant Taleban safe havens inside Afghanistan so that they do not pose a threat to the local population and cannot use Afghan territory to stage cross-border assaults on Pakistan and other neighbouring Central Asian republics. The concern with the militant Taleban, as opposed to their more “moderate” counterparts (read: nationalist or tribal), is that they have greater ambitions than re-gaining political control of Afghanistan. Instead, the militant Taleban and their al-Qaeda allies seeks to establish a Caliphate throughout Central Asia and beyond. They particularly want to gain control of nuclear-armed Pakistan, but even that is just a short-to-medium term goal. They have, in other words, imperialist ambitions of their own. These ambitions are not only opposed by the US, UN, and NATO. They are opposed by China, Russia, India and all Asian states that see the ripple effect extending towards them. In fact, they are opposed by virtually all of the international community with the exception of failed states such as Somailia and the Sudan (which have now become the new locus of al-Qaeda activity).
Worried about the repercussive effects that a Taleban victory in Afghanistan would have throughout Central Asia, the NATO-led, UN sanctioned ISAF mission has been successful at eliminating al-Qaeda as a military threat in the country, and is essentially now engaged in a grand scale pincer movement along with the Pakistani military that is designed to push Taleban on both sides of the common border into geographically defined kill zones from which they cannot escape. In parallel, ISAF and UN-led civilian assistance groups are attempting to engage moderate Taleban elements in order to establish a durable cease-fire that will permit the second level of the game to be played.
The second level game is oriented towards establishing a moderate Islamic regime with centralised authority over Afghanistan, one that will balance secular rights with religious freedoms and traditional privileges in accordance with the Universal Declaration on Human Rights. This a minimalist construction of the game; that is, it pretends to go no further than what is stated. It does not imply that the objective is to establish a secular democracy in the country. It does not pretend that centralised authority will mean central government monopoly of organised violence in the tribal hinterlands. It does not propose the blanket elimination of traditional forms of authority or social mores. Instead, it merely seeks to create the structural and political conditions for the establishment of peace, a peace that in turn will deny Islamic extremists the fertile territory for recruitment and sanctuary. It involves promoting electoral forms of political contestation, but more importantly, it pursues infrastructural development, to include educational, health and nutritional programs as well as the civil-military engineering projects required for their implementation and expansion.
To be sure, endemic corruption, the Karzai regime’s limited legitimacy outside of Kabul, the persistence of the opium trade, the ongoing presence of warlord-dominated fiefdoms, and the abject primitivism of many parts of the country make the second game seemingly impossible to achieve, and greatly complicate the achievement of the first game. Yet just because other foreign incursions have been defeated does not necessarily mean that this one is inevitably doomed to fail. For one thing, this is an international effort, not the expansionist project of a single imperial state. For another, because of its developmental and humanitarian focus, it does have a fair bit of internal support as well as that of neighbouring countries, factors that did not obtain in previous instances of occupation.
These two games are now being played out simultaneously, in overlapped fashion. The first is needed for the second to be successful (i.e., the combat work of such as the NZSAS is needed for PRTs to be successful). Yet the second is needed for the first to advance sufficiently so that an “exit strategy” is feasible. That will take a long time, at a minimum at least another five years and probably more. Any upgrade or renewal of the NZDF commitment to Afghanistan must take account of this fact.
Thus, when considering the “why” of NZ’s deployment of troops to Afghanistan, the debate should focus on the two levels of the ISAF “game,” and whether NZ has a stake in either. I have already stated that I believe that there are moral and practical reasons why NZ should, as an international citizen, contribute to the ISAF mission on both levels. Others disagree on either or both counts. The main point, however, is that Mr. Key and his advisors in the MoD and MFAT develop a clear and comprehensible rationale for why NZ should put its soldiers at risk in Afghanistan, which in turn is as much a function of informed public interest as it is of diplomatic necessity.
News that the National government has in principle accepted the US request to deploy the NZSAS in Afghanistan once again raises questions as to whether NZ has a dog in that fight, and if so, why it got there. I am already on record in this forum and elsewhere as believing that the NZDF presence in Afghanistan is just on both moral and practical grounds. But many others disagree. That brings up the larger point, which is what, exactly, is (or should be) NZ’s international role? The paradigm shifts and dislocations that followed the Cold War stripped NZ of many of its traditional foreign policy referents, some of which were already being eroded prior to 1990 by the nuclear-free declaration and embrace of market-driven macroeconomic principles. As Lew mentioned in a previous post, trade now appears to be the basis for most contemporary NZ foreign policy, particularly under National governments. I have argued at various times that NZ foreign policy is a mixture of principle and pragmatism, but as of late I am not so sure that the former obtains in any significant measure.
Thus the questions begs: in a fluid international environment such as that which exists today, in which traditional alliance structures and security partnerships have been replaced or overlapped by new trade networks and the emergence of a raft of non-traditional security concerns and policy issues, what role does NZ play? Does it remain a committed multilateral institutionalist? Or is more of a junior partner to a variety of larger countries on a range of selected issues? Should it take the lead in pursuing matters of international principle like the pursuit of non-intervention, disarmanent, non-proliferation, climate change and human rights, or should it wise up and curry favour by getting with the bigger player’s projects, be they Chinese, American or Australian? Does realism or idealism drive NZ foreign policy, and if it is a mixture of the two perspectives, which should dominate given current and near future conditions?
There is a strong isolationist streak in NZ that spans the spectrum from Left to Right, one that sees nonintervention in foreign affairs to be the preferred standard when approaching the international community. In contrast, the trade liberalizers in both major parties and the foreign party bureaucracy speak of trade openings as the end-all, be-all of NZ growth and thus a reason for ongoing and deeper engagement with a multitude of partners. But what happened to principle in all of this, particularly the notion that as a good international citizen NZ has a duty and obligation to support with its active involvement actions that are sanctioned by the UN and other international agencies (the principle that I just happen to believe in when it comes to the foreign policy behaviour of small democratic states)? The ISAF mission in Afghanistan is just one such action, but there are a multitude of others that are seldom mentioned, much less discussed by the NZ political elite or public.
Given the hard economic times of the moment and the folly of recent great power interventions in international affairs, what exactly is or should be NZ’s response to recent international trends, and thus its role in the international environment? Should it lead, follow, be neutral, selective or withdraw when considering its potential range of international commitments? What should be the criteria for foreign engagement, and to what extent or degree? Should certain existing international commitments be dropped and new ones adopted? Should the traditional pro-Western foreign policy perspective shift to a more Eastern view?
I post this simply as a general reminder that the role of NZ as an international actor gets far too little play in the public discourse, yet is one that it absolutely crucial not only to its international reputation and stature, but also to its continued well-being as a small, vulnerable and dependent nation-state. The question must therefore be repeated: what role should that preferably be?