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 Â 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 Â that the NZSAS was deployed in a “training and mentoring” role for the Afghan Army counter-terrorism Crisis Response Unit (CRU) based in Kabul, Â 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. Â 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. Â
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.