OPINION: There’s nothing like the end of a war to make you feel old. Was it really twenty years ago when lifelong leftie Jim Anderton publicly spoke about New Zealand’s responsibilities, not to ordinary working people, but to our American allies in their war against terror?
Our initial commitment in Afghanistan was made soon after 9/11, while US troops were pursuing Osama bin Laden in caves on the Afghanistan/Pakistan border. He was never flushed out of those caves, although Jim Anderton was soon flushed out of the Alliance for cosying up to Uncle Sam too enthusiastically.
The Taliban government fell, and the Allies found themselves in a war in Afghanistan much like the unwinnable one that the Soviet Union had engaged in during the 1970s and 80s. Afghanistan, formerly described as the Soviet Union’s Vietnam, became Vietnam 2.0 for the US and its hapless allies.
When George W. Bush was replaced by Barack Obama, hopes that the Afghanistan situation would be resolved were soon dashed. Though Obama was highly critical of Bush’s actions in Iraq, the US remained in Afghanistan and the Democrat’s drone strikes for democracy continued. But it’s hard to win hearts and minds of locals when your drones are dismembering bodies of innocent civilians.
Obama’s golfing buddy John Key saw no reason to withdraw the troops that Helen Clark sent. In what was essentially a spin job by our Defence Force, we were told that what we were doing in Afghanistan was far more humanitarian than just fighting. “Provincial reconstruction” sounds good but if we really did reconstruct tangible, sustainable things in Bamiyan, why did we not hear much about it?
The “humanitarian” side of the mission turned out to be something of a mirage, although I suspect some in our Defence Force, genuinely, and naively, believed that they were helping the Afghan people. However, once our troops got into the field, they realised they were part of an often-nasty military operation against a near-invisible enemy.
Though we are publicly great mates with the US, many of our troops did not like the way the American troops conducted themselves and the way they treated the locals. When Kiwi journalists pointed out some uncomfortable truths about Afghanistan they were ridiculed by politicians and military personnel and in one case defamed by Defence Force staff.
Previous prime ministers and governors general have referred to Gallipoli and the spirit of Anzac when talking about Afghanistan. Sadly, there are parallels. Both were battles where we got involved largely at the behest of a large foreign power to fight “infidels”.
Another similarity between the two disasters was the woeful ignorance of New Zealanders about the country in which their troops were fighting. Can you name a province in Afghanistan besides Bamiyan? What were the names of the various political parties in Afghanistan’s precious democracy that we sent soldiers to defend? Most Kiwis’ knowledge of the country seems to come from the last few series of Homeland.
Fortunately, Afghanistan didn’t involve the magnitude of loss that Gallipoli did – although the deaths of 10 New Zealand soldiers were tragic and needless. We clearly haven’t learned from Gallipoli or Vietnam.
The US may have succeeded in 2001, in a fit of rage over 9/11, in removing the Taliban. But in the twenty long years since, they failed to win over the local population. As in Iraq, ordinary people were suspicious of their money-based methods and motives. That’s why the Afghanistan government collapsed soon after US troops left.
For New Zealand, the US is like that rich, obnoxious friend you had when you were a teenager. You are polite and friendly, but every time you go to a party with your friend, you find yourself running away, being pursued by irate guests.
So, what should New Zealand do about the new Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan? Sending troops is a tried and failed strategy. Even if an Allied force was successful in toppling the Taliban, as they did in 2001, they could be in for another long and ultimately unsuccessful two-decade war of attrition.
We could do what we did after losing in Vietnam. Sulk for a few years, and support regimes such as the Khmer Rouge who were far more murderous than any in Hanoi.
One thing we could do is consult with the Muslim community and see what they think. I suspect their response would be responsible and measured. Personally, I’m much more interested in hearing the opinions of enlightened people like Anjum Rahman and Ibrahim Omer than yet more Defence Force reckons from “experts” who’ve done the odd ballistics course at an Ivy League university and attended a Five Eyes meeting for some quick CIA indoctrination.
Even though we should never have been there, we were, so rescuing those now in danger thanks to us is the least we can do. And although it won’t fully make amends, I suspect accepting some additional refugees from Afghanistan, above our normal quota, would be an excellent humanitarian gesture.