By Robert Patman & Ryan Webb

New Zealand can take some pride from the largely positive contribution it has made in nation-building and advancing human rights in Afghanistan, says Robert Patman and Ryan Webb. 

Following the attacks of September 11, 2001, few observers could have predicted that New Zealand’s support for the subsequent US-led ‘war on terror’ would lead to a 20-year military involvement in a conflict which has cost 10 Kiwi lives.

Like the United States and many other members of the international community, including Australia, New Zealand recognised the need after 9/11 to counter al Qaeda and Taliban-supported terrorism, and contribute to conditions in a post-Taliban state that would strengthen the economy, facilitate democratic governance and extend human rights in Afghanistan.

New Zealand’s commitment to Afghanistan – a proud country historically known as the graveyard for expansionist powers like Britain and the Soviet Union – raised Wellington’s diplomatic profile and seemed to be consistent with a view shared by various governments since 2001 that New Zealand stood to gain if it was seen as a ‘good international citizen’ prepared to shoulder its burden of collective security in the era of transnational terrorism.

Almost immediately after 9/11, New Zealand deployed an elite Special Air Service (SAS) unit to Afghanistan and then in 2003 dispatched a 140-strong New Zealand Defence Force (NZDF) Provincial Reconstruction Team (PRT) to the Bamiyan province in central part of the country. The SAS unit was withdrawn from Kabul in 2012 and the NZDF contingent was withdrawn from the Bamiyan PRT in 2013.

The deployment currently comprises just six NZDF personnel – three at the Afghanistan National Army Office Academy and three at the NATO Resolute Support Mission Headquarters in Kabul. But these NZDF personnel will be withdrawn at the end of May to conclude what has been one of the longest running military deployments in this country’s history.

In the course of 20 years, 3,500 New Zealand troops and officials have been involved in a conflict which has largely defied international efforts to resolve it.

According to many accounts, the performance of New Zealand’s PRT was highly effective. Its primary success was to combine security and development. In a country blighted by intense intra-state conflict, Kiwi military personnel assumed the role of armed humanitarians rather than war fighters per se in Bamiyan.

Between 2003 and 2013, the NZ PRT implemented more than 70 projects at a total value of NZ$8.5 million. These projects embraced areas such as infrastructure, health, governance, education, human rights and agriculture.

At the same time, the NZ PRT’s bottom-up approach to security succeeded in making Bamiyan one of the most stable regions of Afghanistan. The NZDF provided local security training, including the training of an indigenous rapid reaction force, police training and regular-community based armed patrols, which served as a form of local reassurance and a source of intelligence on Taliban or other terrorist actors.

However, the gains made in Bamiyan diminished after the departure of the NZ PRT in 2013 as the province became more susceptible to the violent turmoil that affected much of the rest of Afghanistan.

Furthermore, participation in armed conflicts always comes at a cost in both human and financial terms. The NZ PRT suffered its first casualty when Lieutenant Tim O’Donnell of the Royal New Infantry Regiment was killed while on patrol in August 2010.  9 other members of the NZDF would subsequently die during combat related incidents.

The New Zealand role in the ‘war on terror’ in Afghanistan was also dogged by some political controversy. From an early stage, the Bush administration publicly defined captured terror suspects as “unlawful combatants” and that meant the Geneva Conventions – which provide explicit legal protections for prisoners of war – did not apply to detainees from the Afghanistan conflict.

Despite this, New Zealand’s SAS continued to transfer detained terror suspects in Afghanistan to US custody and possible indefinite detention at Guantanamo Bay. In effect, the SAS appeared to be inadvertently or deliberately complicit in American conduct deemed illegal under international law.

In March 2017, information was published in a book called Hit and Run: The New Zealand SAS in Afghanistan and the Meaning of Honour by Nicky Hager and Jon Stephenson indicating the SAS had led a raid in 2010 on two villages in Baghlan province that resulted in six civilians being killed and 15 wounded.

This incident highlighted the challenges associated with the ‘fog of war’ in which insurgents do not wear uniforms and launch operations in areas with significant civilian populations. For all of the new technologies, advancements in weapons capability and training in war, the task of distinguishing friend from foe in complex intra-state conflicts remains as difficult as ever and operational mistakes can have disastrous consequences.

Not surprisingly, the NZDF’s 20-year commitment to Afghanistan, costing an estimated NZ$300 million, has raised questions about the direction and impact of this policy.

Amongst other things, critics have charged that the conflict in Afghanistan is unwinnable, the NZDF should not be fighting other people’s wars, and that New Zealand only participated to please the US, a key partner in the intelligence sharing arrangement known as the Five Eyes Alliance.

But foreign policy decision-making is often about the act of choosing from imperfect policy options. First, it is evident, at least since 2009, that the US and NATO no longer seriously entertain the prospect of a comprehensive victory over the Taliban.

Carl von Clausewitz famously theorised that three objectives have to be met for a war to be fully successful. These include the defeat of an enemy’s army, the occupation of an enemy’s country to prevent it from strengthening its forces, and also breaking the will of an enemy to continue the war.

Even if the first two conditions were partially fulfilled, which arguably has been the case of the US-led coalition in Afghanistan, it is clear that a war can still be lost if an enemy like the Taliban refuses to give up and continues to use violence to achieve its political aims.

The focus therefore for the Obama administration and to a lesser degree the Trump administration has been to marginalise al Qaeda elements in Afghanistan and to degrade the military position of the Taliban to a point where they cannot use military force alone to seize power again in Kabul.

In particular, the US wants to ensure, in Clausewitzian terms, that the fundamentalist Taliban forces continue to face sources of ‘friction’ in Afghanistan occasioned by the international presence since 2001. These ‘friction’ points include social changes which have radically increased access to education for girls and generally empowered women and political reforms that have pushed Afghanistan in the direction of democratic governance. The New Zealand contribution to Bamiyan was significant in both areas.

While the Taliban remains a major threat, it should not be forgotten Afghanistan is a very different country today from the one that was ruled by the Taliban up to 2001. Few Afghan citizens are nostalgic for the appalling human rights abuses of the Taliban era.

Second, the idea the Afghan conflict is none of New Zealand’s business is extremely debatable. The reality is that New Zealand is located in an interconnected world where security, economic and environmental problems do not respect the boundaries of sovereign states. And, as the Christchurch terror atrocity made so clear in March 2019, New Zealand has a huge stake in countering threats to international stability whether they are from Islamist or White Supremacist terrorists

Thus, while it is unclear whether the new Biden administration will fully withdraw American troops from Afghanistan by 1 May, a deadline negotiated by the Trump administration, New Zealand has had moral, diplomatic and strategic reasons for sustaining a 20-year military deployment in Afghanistan.

New Zealand can also take some pride from the largely positive contribution it has made in nation-building and advancing human rights and democracy in a country where the Afghan government and representatives of the Taliban are now looking to the intra-Afghan peace process to resolve a decades-long conflict.


Robert Patman is a Professor of Politics at the University of Otago. He is an expert in international relations and global security. 

Ryan Webb is a Ph.D. candidate at the University of Otago.

Disclaimer: The views expressed in this article reflect the author(s) opinion and not necessarily the views of The Big Q. 

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