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.