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Afghanistan: will Key dance to Obama’s tune?


US President Barack Obama is putting Afghanistan front and centre in his strategy to fight the so-called ‘war on terrorism’. Military planners are backing his strategy and calling for the deployment of an additional 30,000 troops to fighting the growing Taleban resistance. The United States now has 34,000 troops in the country, including 2,200 Marines. The question here in Aotearoa New Zealand is will NZDF combat troops be part of a renewed push in Afghanistan? The answer will almost certainly be yes.

In September last year, we learned about New Zealanders training with US military for the first time in decades from the perennial war cheerleader the Dominion Post when it ran a story directly reprinted from Stars and Stripes, the US military propaganda organ. The paper wrote a further piece with comment from Minister of Defence Phil Goff who confirmed, “Co-operative Spirit 08, involving 1800 troops, focused on counter-insurgency operations in an Afghanistan scenario.” The story noted that the 172-strong contingent from the 2/1st Infantry Battalion would return to New Zealand after a month of training with forces from Australia, Britain, Canada and the US.

More revealing, however, was Goff’s comment that “The defence relationship with the United States has undergone a major shift over the past nine years. While the US presidential directive on defence interaction between our forces remains in force, our relationship is no longer defined by it.”

In Goff’s statement, there is much that is unsaid about the US-NZ military relationship. In fact, the Labour government walked a very fine line after 9/11: at home, it sought distance from Bush’s war on Iraq, the renditions and the mass imprisonments of so-called ‘terror suspects’. But for anyone paying attention, New Zealand simultaneously sought to ingratiate itself with the US: it adopted US anti-terror laws immediately after 9/11, it sent the SAS to three tours in Afghanistan while the frigates patrolled the Gulf of Oman, and officers currently serve at US Central Command and at Bagram Air Force Base in Kabul. And let us not forget, the Provincial Reconstruction Team (PRT) has been in Afghanistan for 5 years.

Now, the training in Germany has brought New Zealand back into the fold with join US troop training.

The Labour Government would have had to resist calls by the US for combat troops to Afghanistan while Bush was in office. The issue was far too sensitive given the disaster that is Iraq, and the on-going situation with Guantanamo. Now, however, Obama’s has immediately sought to put distance between his administration and Bush’s. He wants to reframe the ‘war on terrrorism’ and get out of Iraq. The new push on Afghanistan will require additional support from the US’s allies and friends in the ‘war on terrorism’.

Here is where New Zealand combat troops and the SAS come back into the picture. John Key’s government is evaluating the commitment of the PRT and will make a decision about the future of that deployment before September 2009. In the meantime, it seems highly likely that the NZ government will receive requests from the new US administration for a greater commitment (if in fact it hasn’t already done so) – one perhaps that replaces the PRTs with combat soldiers in the south of Afghanistan where there is widespread fighting with Taleban forces.

Will we find out if combat soldiers are going to Afghanistan? Perhaps. If the SAS is deployed, it seems highly unlikely that we will hear anything about it. If however, regular army soldiers (such as those training with the US military in Germany) are deployed it would be likely that the government will attempt to whip up public support through a concerted propaganda campaign. It is worth noting along those lines, that on 17 November, just a week after the NZ and US elections, the Dominion Post published a column by Hamid Karzai, president of Afghanistan which was a thinly-veiled request for more support for the war effort. He notes that ‘in less than 45 days in 2001, we Afghans were freed from the menace of terrorism’. Needless to say, he does not go on to mention the terrorism that the Afghani people have been subject to by the US military and its allies in aerial bombing campaigns, summary executions and torture.

Amidst the great hopes for change in US foreign policy, there are deeply flawed assumptions. Foremost is the assumption that the West can sort out Afghanistan. It has not and can not ever do that. It may impose its will for a time, but that will evaporate as soon as the last soldiers step off the ground. The ‘war on terrorism’ is a never ending war because the US State uses terrorism as its primary tactic. Its use of terror is the single biggest recruiter for its enemies. Afghanistan must be freed from foreign occupation if anything approaching peace is to be established.

There is a widespread belief that the closure of Guantanamo represents a genuine change of direction for the new US administration. In reality, other detention facilities such as Bagram Air Force Base in Afghanistan are being significantly expanded to accommodate new prisoners. This base has been the site of documented prisoner torture – and is not incidentally, home to at least 2 New Zealand Defence Force staff officers.

When the government sits down to reconsider the deployment of the PRTs or any other commitment to Afghanistan this year, it will take concerted action and voices of opposition to dissuade it from helping out Obama. Unfortunately, that opposition certainly will not be from Phil Goff and his Labour mates who got New Zealand involved in the first place.


Re: Afghanistan: will Key dance to Obama’s tune?

"The Labour Government would have had to resist calls by the US for combat troops to Afghanistan while Bush was in office."

Why? The never did while they were in office. What are three tours of the SAS? Kindergarten teachers? Labour bought th war on terror in Afghanistan. National will have no problem beefing up the troops.

Re: Afghanistan: will Key dance to Obama’s tune?

The Labour Government received a number of requests for combat troops (as opposed to SAS and the PRTs) which they turned down, citing operational limitations and stretched deployments. While this was and continues to be a factor for the NZDF, my belief is that Clark and Goff both realised that a deployment of combat troops which could not be cloaked in the secrecy of the SAS, nor in the rhetoric of 'peacekeepers' would have been a significantly harder public sell.

Do not mistake my comment for praise of the Labour party - rather, I believe that they coldly calculated just exactly how far they could go to construct an image of 'neutrality' while fully engaged in the war.

There was significant anti-war sentiment in 2001 immediately after the so-called 'war on terrorism' was declared. That anti-war activism gave the government a clear indication of the public perception they needed to create in order not to galvanise mass public opposition.

The very same is true of NZ's involvement in Iraq. Three months after Bush said the war was over, NZ sent a detachment of engineers who served with the British in Basra. That deployment was subject to significant public relations management and by and large convinced the NZ public that NZ was not involved in the occupation, while skillfully ensuring new contracts for milk were guaranteed.

Similarly with Willie Apiata, the SAS member who was awarded the VC, we have subsequently learned that the NZDF spent some $35,000 to create a 'war hero' and to deflect criticism through a carefully managed public relations campaign.