Now that our SAS troops are heading back into combat in Afghanistan the key question becomes – who are they going to replace? The answer to that would say a lot about what the SAS will be doing and where, inside the country. Apparently, there will be 70 SAS troops sent in each of three rotations over the next 18 months. From the vantage point of their ISAF commanders, who will these Kiwi special forces replace or augment? The Dutch, or the Canadians?
The bald numbers suggest our SAS will be replacing the Dutch special forces in Uruzgan province. The Netherlands have 76 special forces in Uruzgan, where they work with a special forces unit of 300 Australians. Earlier this year, the Netherlands government announced it would be pulling Dutch forces out of Afghanistan in 2010. The numbers involved – their 76 special forces out, our 70 SAS in – are almost identical, and the 18 month deployment that John Key announced yesterday would not only overlap conveniently as the Dutch ready themselves to withdraw, but the SAS mission would finally come to an end just as the Canadians are due to pull out their entire forces in 2011. In Uruzgan, we would also be working alongside the Australians.
You may be wondering what the Dutch special forces been up to lately. Unlike the hush hush situation in New Zealand, the media in the Netherlands are given details of the activities of its special forces. Only ten days ago, according to this report in the Dutch media their special forces took part in an Australian-led action against the Taliban in the Mirabad area, east of the provincial capital Tarin Kowt in Uruzgan province. The detainees captured were handed over to Afghan authorities. Both the Dutch and Australian special forces units are under the immediate command of the ISAF regional headquarters in Kandahar. Whether they serve in Uruzgan with the Australians and the Dutch units, or with the Canadian special forces operating to the west of Kandahar, the SAS will be under the same regional ISAF command that is based in Afghanistan’s second biggest city, and former Taliban stronghold.
This report indicates what special forces units have been up to in Uruzgan – primarily, their focus has been on targeting those responsible for the deadly roadside bomb attacks. All told, the large Netherlands deployment of nearly 2,000 troops has suffered only 19 fatalities since 2006. The Canadians, who currently have 2,500 to 2,830 troops in Afghanistan have lost 127 killed since 2002. There is no breakdown of how many – if any – of the Canadians killed were from among the Canadian JTF2 special forces unit, but the vast bulk of those killed have been regular Canadian troops.
On the very same day that New Zealand lined up for a combat role once again, the US commander in Afghanistan General Stanley McChrystal was telling the Wall Street Journal that the Taliban are winning the war. The related NZ decision – to wind down the provincial reconstruction work we have been doing in Bamiyan – was also coming under fire. In the current issue of the Scoop publication Werewolf published last week, US military academic and adviser Professor Thomas Johnson slammed the decision by New Zealand to downsize its PRT presence in Bamiyan and to re-deploy the SAS. On Morning Report today, Johnson repeated and expanded that critique. Replacing the PRT commitment with an SAS contingent, Johnson maintained, “was not a wise strategic decision at this point…and exactly the wrong thing to do.”
What is needed, in Johnson’s view are more PRTs – but operating at district level, not provincial level. Given the deteriorating security situation, this would be a high risk strategy in most regions beyond the relatively peaceful confines of Bamiyan but it may well be, as Johnson says, the only credible way to win this war. As things stand, any fatalities suffered by the SAS will be in the service of a failing strategy, and in a nation-building cause that already seems to have been lost. The main beneficiary of the New Zealand decision to become more deeply involved in the Afghan war will be the Obama White House, in its dealings with its fractious allies who are heading for the exit.
If not the Dutch, the other alternative is that the SAS are in there to give the Canadians some breathing space. Around Kandahar and to the west, the Canadians have been in the thick of the fiercest fighting and have suffered a level of fatalities that has become politically unsustainable for the Harper government. During Key’s press conference yesterday, I asked Key if he had discussed the SAS deployment with the Canadian government. He hadn’t personally, he replied – but added that some of our Defence and MFAT officials may well have.
The Strategic Context
Combatting the threat of global terrorism and bringing stability to the Afghan government are John Key’s current soundbite rationales for sending in the SAS. Since we have given the SAS only 18 months to achieve these worthy outcomes, this seems a fairly tall order. Especially given that in the past fortnight, the British have been talking about a 30-40 year commitment being necessary in Afghanistan. Yesterday, the Dawn newspaper in Pakistan reported that US expert and Congressional estimates have acknowledged a ten year commitment or more to Afghanistan, will be necessary. In that light, the success in 18 months model that we are proposing seems ludicrous.
Logically, an SAS commitment for such a strictly limited period just doesn’t stack up on any level. It is hard to see what achievable goal would constitute Mission Accomplished for this SAS deployment. Moreover, if we truly are sending in our SAS for the reason that Key continues to cite – to halt the country’s slide into becoming a seedbed of terrorism – a strict timeframe makes no sense. No one thinks the Taliban can be defeated, or successfully reined in by newly trained Afghan army or police forces during that time.
Therefore, since our stated goals of combatting terrorism and nation building plainly can’t be achieved inside 18 months, won’t this require – as I asked Key yesterday – the SAS to be re-deployed again at the end of 18 months, to ensure that these allegedly crucial tasks are finally completed? No, Key replied yesterday at his press conference, the SAS will not be deployed beyond 2011. “I’m more optimistic than that.” More optimistic than anyone else, it seems. Let’s hope that no New Zealand troops end up paying with their lives for Key’s sunny outlook, and vague sense of mission.