Late last week, a major bi-partisan American organization released its report on the policy options facing the US and NATO forces in Afghanistan. This was no left wing think tank. The Economist praised the report by the Afghanistan Study Group in this article and I’ll go into the magazine’s reasons for doing so in a moment. For a New Zealander, the interesting thing about the report is the way it flatly contradicts the reasoning that Prime Minister John Key has been giving for putting and keeping New Zealand troops at risk in Afghanistan. As a reminder, let’s revisit Key’s reasons again:
Mr Key said the world could not ignore the threat of Al Qaeda and letting Afghanistan fail would give them back a base to plan international terrorist acts and re-install a Taleban regime.
“The enemy is al Qaeda really. The Taleban is a domestic focus, they may be a very torrid and horrid regime but in terms of the real enemy that’s al Qaeda and it’s al Qaeda’s capability to plot the equivalent of 9/11 or the London bombings or the Bali bombings.
In essence, Key has been saying that we have to stay in Afghanistan and fight the Taliban because otherwise they would provide Al Qaeda with a base from which to commit terrorist acts abroad. The Study Group Report not only disagrees with Key – it lists that rationale among its myths about the Afghan combat. For example :
“Myth #6 : If we leave Afghanistan, the Taliban will take over, Al Qaeda will re-establish itself there, and new and deadly attacks on America will be more likely.
Reality: The Taliban are unpopular in much of Afghanistan and unlikely to take over the country. They might regain power in some areas, but Al Qaeda cannot recreate its former haven because—unlike before 9/11—the United States can easily detect and destroy bases and training sites with air power or special forces. Further, our large-scale military presence there may actually be increasing the overall danger that we face back home..
Furthermore, the report also notes :
And even if the Taliban were to regain power in some of Afghanistan, it would likely not invite Al Qaeda to re-establish a significant presence there. The Taliban may be reluctant to risk renewed U.S. attacks by welcoming Al Qaeda onto Afghan soil. Bin Laden and his associates may well prefer to remain in Pakistan, which is both safer and a better base from which to operate than isolated and land-locked Afghanistan.
Nor have the Afghan Study Group (and Scoop) been the only organizations saying this :
The authors of the annual Strategic Survey published this week by the London-based International Institute for Strategic Studies point out that NATO’s original limited goal in Afghanistan was to defeat al-Qaeda and prevent its return, a goal that has “ballooned into a comprehensive strategy to develop and modernise the country and its government”. The IISS concludes that it may become necessary, and is probably advisable, to move to a more modest “containment and deterrence policy” designed mainly to prevent international terrorist attacks originating from the region. And so—Joe Biden may have been right all along, and by the winter of 2011 this may very well be the direction the West is heading in.
This amounts to a debunking of John Key’s rationale for having New Zealand forces in harm’s way right now, within Afghanistan, as part of an occupying force. Containment, if needed, could arguably involve our special forces later – but not now. (Even in future, it would be hard to argue that we would be essential to the task of containment.) For over a year, Scoop has been arguing for New Zealand to formulate an Afghan policy able to distinguish between the negligible to non-existent threat posed to us by the Taliban, and the threat [formerly] posed by Al Qaeda. Not only has Al Qaeda been neutralized – the leadership remnants of the network have not been based in Afghanistan for over eight years.
Nor can it be assumed that the Taliban would allow Al Qaeda to return and set up shop again, given how much suffering these Al Qaeda ‘guests’ caused the Taliban the last time they were there. The Afghan Study Group confirm that analysis. It is essentially the same approach, as the Economist indicated, that has been promoted for a long time within the US administration by vice-president Joseph Biden.
The Economist article picks up that basic theme :
The authors argue that America should push for a power-sharing agreement between the government and the Taliban, reduce its troop presence, concentrate military operations on hitting al-Qaeda and enlist the help of neigbouring states that share a common interest in preventing Afghanistan from exporting its instability. The nub of [their] argument:
‘Even with significantly reduced troop levels, we can build a credible defense against a Taliban takeover through support for local security forces, strategic use of airpower, and deployment in key cities without committing ourselves to a costly and counterproductive COIN (counterinsurgency) campaign in the south. And if power-sharing and political inclusion is negotiated, the relevance of the Taliban as an alternative to Kabul is likely to decline.
Admittedly, there are some big ‘ifs” involved there. The Taliban seem unwilling to negotiate a compromise to end a war that they feel they are winning. Afghanistan though, doesn’t have a national identity – except one forged temporarily against its series of foreign occupiers. Given the cultural, religious and ethnic differences within Afghanistan – re-inforced by its harsh geography – it is unlikely the Taliban Deobandi extremists from the south could impose their will on the Hazara, Tajik (and Shia) communities for long. In the unlikely event that any subsequent threat to the outside world did emerge, this could be countered more efficiently and less expensively (in terms of blood and economic cost) from outside the country – rather than by a nation-building exercise conducted from within, by foreign occupiers. In the end, even if Hamid Karzai and his corrupt government should fall, there would be less political cost if the West were not still standing behind him when he does.
Not only can the US and it’s allies counter far more readily from outside any terrorist threat posed by the Taliban mujahideen – who incidentally, did not pursue such attacks against the Soviets, once they withdrew – but it could rely on support from most of the regional powers.
Russia for instance, regards the Taliban as an enemy, and supported the Northern Alliance against it, for fear that Taliban extremism would infect Russia’s own Muslim minorities. India opposes a Pakistan-dominated Taliban, for obvious reasons. Shi’ite Iran has no love for Taliban Sunni extremism, either. The Taliban killed a group of its diplomats a few years ago, and Iran would resume its hostility to the Taliban once the mujahideen had ceased to serve their currently useful purpose of tying down the Americans. Conclusion : the sooner that the US and NATO forces leave Afghanistan, the sooner these positive internal and regional balances can be brought to bear.
Afghan prisoners and the Geneva Convention.
In 2002, New Zealand troops handed over some 50-70 prisoners to Afghan forces, who tortured them. Since then, the issue has remained a live one, of how New Zealand is (or isn’t ) meeting its responsibilities under the Geneva Convention not to hand prisoners over to risk of torture
In Canada, during the last week, this issue has been played out before a Military Police Complaints Commission, in a compliant being brought by Amnesty International and the British Columbia Civil Liberties Association:
Commission hearings are set to resume… into whether military police knew, or should have known — and if need be, investigated — any risk of torture of detainees transferred to Afghan authorities by Canadian Forces…..
The two human rights organizations that brought the complaint to the commission allege the military police failed in their duty to investigate the transfers to the custody of the Afghan police or National Directorate of Security.
For New Zealanders, an interesting aspect of this process – which will precede a case being brought in Canadian federal courts on this same issue – is that Canada and the Karzai government signed a high profile agreement in 2007 on how prisoner transfers would be managed, a pact that enabled the fate of detainees to be tracked. Similarly, the British courts have recently banned British troops from handing over prisoners to the notorious National Directorate of Security (NDS) in Kabul, because of the risk of torture.
In other words, New Zealand could either be seeking a formal agreement with the Karzai regime on the handling of prisoners – as Canada has done – or it could ban such handovers in the meantime, as the British courts have demanded. So far, we have done neither. Seven years down the track from the first clear evidence of torture of detainees that we handed over, we are still ‘investigating” the issue.
As the Canadian hearings have disclosed, torture is still occurring:
A member of Afghanistan’s notorious intelligence service boasted to Canadian military officers in the spring of last year that his organization was able to “torture” or “beat” prisoners during the course of its investigations, federal documents say.
The startling declaration, believed to be the first to come directly from a serving National Directorate of Security officer, sent officials in Ottawa reeling and left Canadian diplomats and correctional officers in Kandahar scrambling to verify the statement, according to briefing notes obtained by The Canadian Press.
It was made during a May 9, 2009, meeting in Kandahar involving Canadian ground commanders, and critics say it’s further proof Ottawa should not allow transfers to Afghan authorities.
Other reports of prisoner abuse emerged in documentation tabled during the British court hearings in July. Those documents revealed that the NDS exonerated itself after it had conducted an internal inquiry into the torture allegations about its activities.
What a surprise. Clearly, New Zealand needs to honour our Geneva Convention obligations. The Key government needs to direct our SAS contingent not to hand prisoners over to the NDS, until such time as New Zealand had signed a similar agreement with the Karzai government to the one that Canada has had in place for the past three years, governing the treatment of captives.
The Drinks Are On Vincent Gallo
You may recall a few months ago, the actor’s union [New Zealand Equity] raised a ruckus about American actor Vincent Gallo being granted a work visa to make a beer commercial down in Queenstown, even though other B-list American actors (Harvey Keitel, Willem Dafoe) had been used by Steinlager on similar shoots.
According to union president Jennifer Ward-Lealand Gallo didn’t fit the criterion of ‘international distinction’ that allows an overseas actor to work in New Zealand. At the time, the furor served to suggest that Ward-Lealand should get out of the house more often. Gallo wrote, starred in and directed Buffalo 66, one of the most successful indie films of the 1990s. Now, Gallo has certainly had the last laugh.
On the weekend, Gallo took out the Best Actor award at the Venice Film Festival for his role in the Jerzy Skolimowski’s film Essential Killing, about an American Taliban rendered to Poland for torture. So the guy alleged to be such a nonentity that he shouldn’t be allowed to work in New Zealand has just won the top acting award at the oldest major film festival in Europe. For once. Immigration New Zealand made the right call.