Russel Norman, and our SAS in Afghanistan

russell norman

So David Shearer is to be the Labour candidate in Mt Albert. The claims by Greens Co-Leader Russel Norman on Morning Report that this leaves Norman as the only progressive candidate on offer in the Mt Albert by-election were singularly depressing, as an index of how the Greens plan to fight this campaign. To reach that conclusion, Norman has willingly bought into the distortion of Shearer’s views on mercenaries in extreme Third World hot spots. He has also resurrected the bogey of the right wing leadership of the Labour Party, and claimed Shearer to be the creature of that faction and thus discredited as a ‘progressive’ candidate.

Is it hard to see anything progressive in this array of smear tactics. For one thing, Shearer has spent a good deal of his professional life in humanitarian work in the Third World, some of it while Norman was kicking back safely on Waiheke Island. Secondly, Shearer’s views on private armies have been wildly distorted. In one paper, written 12 years ago, he had been saying that in Sierra Leone the private army involved had helped to end a hideously brutal civil war. Subsequently, Shearer’s position has been that such private armies are a fait accompli that has to be regulated – which would mean that the likes of Blackwater could no longer enjoy legal immunity for their actions inside Iraq. That, I would have thought, was a progressive position that Norman himself would endorse.

To further argue that Shearer’s merit as a candidate is discredited because he was, allegedly the preferred choice of Phil Goff the ‘right wing’ leader of the Labour Party also does Norman little credit. It may have escaped Norman’s attention, but the current government is centre right, and is enacting policies that are not progressive. As a self described progressive, perhaps Norman could focus on what the government is doing to the people of Mt Albert.

Finally, Norman is hardly in a position to throw stones at the right wing of the Labour Party. As an advocate of the home insulation deal with National, Norman could be just as (in)validly be depicted as the candidate of the right wing faction of the Green Party.

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Our SAS in Afghanistan

Now that Australia has decided to send another 450 troops to Afghanistan, it is inconceivable that New Zealand won’t quickly follow suit, and Prime Minister John Key may well announce a decision later today, to commit our special forces troops. In Washington a few weeks ago, US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton lodged a formal request with Foreign Minister Murray McCully for New Zealand to commit an SAS unit to the Afghan war, and as the Military World website said at the time, it would be unusual for the US to lodge an official request without having received informal indications from us that it would be accepted. The time has now arrived for us to put our cards openly on the table.

Australia has 1,100 troops in Afghanistan – already the biggest contingent aside from NATO – so this latest increase will push its contribution to 1,550. Ten Australian troops have been killed since 2001 in Afghanistan, four of them since last November. New Zealand currently a handful of desk officers serving with NATO forces and 129 troops providing a Provincial Reconstruction Team reconstruction effort in Bamiyan province. The year long deployment of the current PRT soldiers in Bamiyan is due to expire in September. As Military World also noted last month, there are suggestions the PRT troops could be brought home sooner – in something of a quid pro quo for us sending the SAS unit.

The SAS have served in Afghanistan three times before, in two deployments of six months and one of 12 months, The last SAS deployment in Afghanistan ended in late 2005. So far, the most interesting part of this slow motion dance towards their re-commitment has been Key’s insistence on the US providing him with a clear exit strategy for the conflict. “If we were to do something [in Afghanistan] “ Key said in April, “it would be part of a long term exit strategy.”

If Key is now willing to put SAS troops back in the frontlines of the Afghan conflict, it must mean that he – at least – is now clear in his own mind on just what the US exit strategy actually is. That’s a breakthrough. Because so far, not many US analysts can sense a clear purpose in the current US ‘surge’ to which Anzac forces are now contributing – much less what could be taken as a clinching sign of success that would allow foreign troops to exit, with Mission Accomplished.

For instance : is the purpose of the current US military surge to (a) shore up the current regime in Kabul and help transform it into a credible government or ( b) render the remnants of al Qaeda incapable of attacks outside Afghanistan or (c) neutralize the Taliban as a viable political alternative in the Pakistan tribal regions and Afghanistan or (d) all of the above ? In other words, are we staging an offensive action to pinpoint, disrupt and dismantle the terrorism potential of al Qaeda, or are we waging a defensive action to stabilise the Afghan government and thus frustrate the political aspirations of the Taliban ? The first goal is achievable : the second one isn’t, and can only delay the inevitable.

So if, as Key says, it is a pre-requisite that there be an exit strategy, what will he be treating as a sign that victory having been achieved, it will be time for our SAS forces to come home ?

Given the secrecy under which SAS deployments operate, can Key still issue a pledge that New Zealand forces will respect the territorial integrity of Pakistan, and not operate without permission, on its sovereign territory ? Rather than suggesting the existence of a clear exit strategy from this mess, the current Pakistan military offensive against Taliban forces in the Buner region adjoining the Swat valley indicates a striking lack of clarity in the US strategy for this conflict.

Exit strategy ?

Pakistan for instance, has been attacked by Hillary Clinton and others in the Obama administration for doing deals with the Taliban over the governance of the Swat valley in Pakistan, in return for military concessions by them. Reportedly, the local people had welcomed the ceasefire, with some communities treating governance by the Taliban as the lesser evil compared to further military battles in their midst, and compared to further rule by the allegedly corrupt local Pakistani judges appointed from Peshawar.

This Swat valley trade-off was exactly the sort of deal the US struck with the Awakening Councils in Iraq. Essentially, the idea is to co-opt moderate militants, and set them against the hardliners. It is a model the US has mooted for Afghanistan as well – but the moment the Pakistan Army put this policy into action, it was denounced as appeasement by the Americans. The resultant Pakistan military operation has now totally undermined and enraged the moderate Taliban leaders involved, such as Sufi Maulana Mohammed – who had entered the Swat valley deal in February in apparent good faith.

A huge outpouring of refugees has now resulted from the breakdown of this process, and the renewed fighting. Apparently, what the US regard as good strategy within Afghanistan, they regard as bad strategy in the tribal regions of Pakistan, just at a time when they are also treating the battleground as being one and the same. Key apparently, looks at this US strategy and see a clear and credible end game. Perhaps he should try explaining it to the Americans.

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