If not already, within the next few weeks NZ will be asked by the US and NATO to increase its NZDF contribution to the International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) mission in Afghanistan. NZDF are currently serving in their 13th rotation as a Provincial Reconstruction Team in Bamyan Province in Central Afghanistan (under US regional command). They also have officers deployed as liaison elements at Bagram Air Force Base, bringing the total to approximately 150. In its contribution to the ISAF mission NZ is comparable with other small states such as Estonia (130), Latvia (70), Albania (120) and Slovakia (130) and Macedonia (140), but falls short of most of the other members of the 41 nation ISAF coalition (Australia, for example, has. 1100 soldiers deployed in that theater). The questions are whether NZ should contribute more troops, in what role, and can it afford to do so both politically and economically? Most progressives would say no to all three. I beg to differ.
The answers should be yes, combat and combat support as well as PRT and yes. The reason is that rather than a (neo) imperialist intervention, the mission in Afghanistan is a multinational nation-building effort in the wake of state failure. That state failure was brought about by the medieval theocratic Taliban regime, whose record on human rights and support for external terrorism made it arguably the most oppressive regime of the late 20th century. Â Under the “responsibility to protect” doctrine elaborated by the UN in the wake of Rwandan and Serbian ethnic cleansing in the 1990s, the international community has a duty to protect populations from the depredations of their rulers as well as from others. As a supporter of the UN mandate, NZ subscribes to this philosophy. It is thus obligated to be involved in Afghanistan and the NZ progressive community should welcome its involvement.
But, due to command failures in theater, Pakistan’s reluctance to fully cooperate in the anti-Taliban efforts and the fighting prowess and determination of the Taliban themselves, ISAF finds itself increasingly on the defensive against a resurgent Taliban. The corruption of the UN-backed Karzai government in Kabul does not help the situation, nor does the fact that the Taliban have re-established ties with the flourishing opium industry in the southeastern parts of the country (an industry that of course feeds Western consumers). In other words, the Afghan security situation is getting worse rather than better. It is only a matter of time before NZDF personnel are killed or seriously wounded in a Taliban attack (they have been targeted already). The US has increased the number of its troops and has asked its coalition partners to do the same. NZ needs to make a decision on that request.
From a progressive perspective, the fight against the Taliban is just. Their retrograde perspective condemns those who live under their rule to primitive lives of limited opportunity and fear. Needless to say, the Taleban oppress wimin, but so do they ethnic minorities, non-Muslims, and males who exhibit “softness” of character (who are often the subjects of sexual predation). In sum: the Taliban are a human scourge. Allowing them to restore their presence in any part of Afghanistan will encourage them to do the same in the tribal homelands in Pakistan (as indeed is occurring at the moment). Destabilisation of Pakistan, now ongoing, will lead to larger regional conflict, not just with respect to India, but in a number of other Central Asian republics grappling with Islamicist irredentism. That can not be allowed to happen because the implications of a wider conflict are perilous for international stability. Thus, contrary to those who see the ISAF mission is an imperialist venture that suppresses the will of the Afghan people, it can better be seen as a make-or-break nation-building and international stabilisation effort against a formidable adversary hell-bent on returning those who live under its rule to the 15th century whether they want to or not. Thus even the pacifist Left needs to support the ISAF effort on “lesser evil” grounds. It may be uncomfortable for them and other elements of the anti-imperialist Left to do so, but it is the morally correct thing to do given the alternative.
In light of this, New Zealand has to start walking the walk. It can no longer simply engage in reconstruction roles while the bulk of combat duties are carried out by troops from other countries. It needs to complement the Bamyan PRT with a restored combat contingent able and willing to help take the fight back to the Taliban. It has the capability to do so. Failure to act makes NZ appear unwilling to fully commit to its international obligations in this UN-mandated, NATO mission, which raises questions about its political character and fighting spirit. The question is whether, given local political and economic conditions, can the NZDF step up its Afghan operations?
The answer is yes, in a limited capacity. If NZ commits to restoring its combat element in Afghanistan (The NZSAS were withdrawn in 2005), most of the logistics in getting them in theater will be picked up by other allies. One third of the NZSAS are on active-ready alert in any event, and can be deployed within 48 hours (if they have not covertly been already). Other Army units have the capacity to engage in effective combat support, if not frontline combat itself. The expenditures involved have already been budgeted or will only be a marginal increase over current operational costs (with the total GDP spent on national defense being less than 0.9%).
The real issue is whether the NZ public can stomach the possibility of Kiwi combat losses in such a far-away place. The tradition of foreign military service for Crown and traditional allies has been lost (one might say rightfully so), but so has the sense of responsibility and sacrifice in pursuit of a higher (and distant) good. The narcissism of recent generations–in large part pushed by the rise of market driven logics that justify individual self-gratification at the expense of self-limitation in pursuit of the commonweal–has also become a political trait, as evident in the most recent election. Hence, while Mr. Key’s inclination will be to reflexively accede to requests for more NZ troops in Afghanistan, the issue is whether the public cares enough, or is willing enough, to support what is, in my mind, a fight worth fighting.
For progressives the issue should be not so much as to whether to support the increase and expansion of the NZDF commitment to ISAF, but to demand clear and concise guidelines for the commitment of troops (to include delineation of rules of engagement, chains of command and time limits on deployments). Otherwise the National government could well agree to deployment terms and conditions that are inimical to the NZDF’s ethical and operational integrity. That is what needs to be debated.