Doco demands full inquiry into NZ’s role in Afghanistan

Paula Penfold and Eugene Bingham’s documentary The Valley provides yet further evidence that nothing less than a full and independent inquiry into New Zealand’s role in Afghanistan will do. With this and other work, the media’s failure to challenge the silence surrounding New Zealand’s decade-long engagement in the so-called war on terror is at last beginning to be addressed.

While many questions have been asked about New Zealand’s Special Air Services (SAS) activities, and are yet to be answered, the concept and role of special forces is generally understood. The role of the Provincial Reconstruction Team (PRT), on the other hand, is less well understood, but warrants equal attention. Comprised primarily of military with a few civilian advisors, PRTs were a US innovation intended to ‘win hearts and minds’ and, in the process, extend the authority of the Afghan government. They were the US alternative to expanding UN Security Council-mandated International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) outside of Kabul to address rising insecurity.  But little is known about the details of the New Zealand PRT’s day-to-day activities, let alone its effect.

From the beginning, the PRT was characterised as peacekeeping-like, despite being deployed under Operation Enduring Freedom (OEF), a US combat operation. Back in 2003, then Prime Minister Helen Clark said, a PRT was not a combat unit but rather provides ‘a strengthened military observer capacity’. Given the PRT mandate to support the government of Afghanistan to extend its authority beyond Kabul and facilitate development, it was hardly what most New Zealanders would understand as peacekeeping based on impartiality, consent of all parties to the conflict and use-of-force only in self-defence.

The UN-mandated ISAF was similarly characterised as a peacekeeping force, despite being mandated as a peace enforcement mission under Chapter VII of the United Nations Charter. Official reporting did nothing to dissuade the public from concluding that the New Zealand PRT’s involvement in ‘hearts and minds’ and ‘peacekeeping’ was in support of ISAF’s ‘peacekeeping’.

New Zealand was not alone in emphasising peacekeeping over peace enforcement. Several NATO member states similarly characterised ISAF as ‘peacekeeping’ to avoid public opposition to deploying combat troops. One of these, Norway, has been brave enough to launch an independent inquiry and publish the findings. Of the three objectives Norway set in joining the ‘war on terror’ only one was achieved and that was to demonstrate that it could be a worthy NATO partner.  Hopefully, New Zealand’s commitment was about human betterment and values rather than the consolidation of a strategic alliance.

When the New Zealand PRT first deployed in 2003, it took over an established US PRT in Bamyan, high in the Hindu Kush where there was little chance of casualties. Less remarked on was the fact that Bamyan lay within a US area of operations focused on combat operations along the Pakistan-Afghanistan border. While the NZ PRT was clearly not deployed for combat, it is somewhat disingenuous to claim that these troops were somehow separate from, and not guided by, the coalition’s counterinsurgency campaign to eliminate Al Qaeda operatives, overthrow the Taleban and support consolidation of peace and reconstruction of state institutions.

Overlooking the valley. Photo: Eugene Bingham

Moreover, New Zealand’s involvement beyond ‘hearts and minds’ was made clear in The Valley when the former Chief of Defence Rhys Jones acknowledged that the NZ PRT was engaged in collecting biometric data of both living and dead military-aged males across the province. Why was this information collected and who was it shared with? Was it used to target insurgents? Jones claims the information was passed to the NATO-led ISAF, but given New Zealand was not part of this force until November 2006, it would have been passed to the US government’s Operation Enduring Freedom. How has this information sharing impacted on those named? These are just some of the many questions that need to be answered by a full and independent inquiry.

Political elites have long hidden behind a veil of secrecy necessary, it is argued, to protect New Zealand’s SAS. While this is debateable, and should urgently be debated, what is not debateable is the extension of this veil to other deployments. When asked in Parliament in 2001 what steps the government would take to ensure that all parties in the house would be kept informed of the nature of New Zealand forces’ deployment, Prime Minister Clark responded that there had always been support for peacekeeping and humanitarian aid and once the work was well underway she would be able to ‘give leaders a good briefing’. Such an attitude was hardly worthy of a Prime Minister then, and nor is continued government resistance to public demand to know what the military did in its name in Afghanistan.

Ten New Zealanders gave their lives in Afghanistan and it is important the public know what they died for. To what extent was the New Zealand military really ‘making a difference’ and for whom? The current situation in Afghanistan is hardly an unmitigated success for the PRT counterinsurgency model. Did we simply ignore the lessons of Vietnam? How can New Zealanders be certain lessons of 13 years have been learned, especially before more people and resources are committed? That the public know so little about what was the longest, and hence most expensive, deployment in New Zealand’s history should be of concern to all and any further contributions should be put on hold until that gap is rectified.

Suzanne Loughlin managed the New Zealand government’s aid programme to Afghanistan between 2005 and 2009 and then held the position of Regional Development Coordination Officer in the United Nations Assistance Mission in Afghanistan (UNAMA), first in Kandahar, and then Bamyan until late 2012. Her interest in the convergence of security and development in peace operations arose from those experiences. In 2012 she was awarded the New Zealand Government Overseas Medal (Afghanistan) and New Zealand Government Service Medal (Afghanistan).

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