On the latest SAS death in Afghanistan

Somehow, the job that we’re doing in Afghanistan is so crucial that it is worth our SAS soldiers dying for – but only until 31st March 2012. Come the dawning of April 1st 2012 that sacrifice will somehow become no longer necessary. (At which point Prime Minister John Key will presumably be holding a press conference with a huge “Mission Accomplished” banner as a backdrop.) In reality, the announcement yesterday of the latest New Zealander SAS soldier to die in Afghanistan – and the utterly arbitrary time frame for our special forces involvement in that war – is another example of the lives of soldiers being wasted for the convenience of politicians.

Oh, Key has made the usual noises : “I don’t regret the decision that we made to commit the SAS to Afghanistan. I think they are playing their critical part to free the world from global terrorism.” Really? That linkage between the SAS effort and the fight against “global terrorism” is a case that Key has never made, and never explained to the New Zealand public. To repeat : is Key guaranteeing that the fight against global terrorism will be done and dusted on 31 March 2012? Or does he know that the fight against al Qaeda is over – and that this phantasm no longer exists as a global network, but only as a spectre to be conjured up whenever it suits Western politicians to put the frighteners on the public ?

The existing evidence is that al Qaeda has declined to where – at most – it is a franchise name tacked onto a series of local disputes dotted around the world. As a consequence, any residual threat posed by “global terrorism” to the West can be managed more economically and more effectively from outside the threat-emanating countries concerned and without putting coalition troops on the ground, where their presence tends to be counter-productive. This is the ‘bring the American troops home” position long advocated by US vice-president Joseph Biden.

Why then, are we still in Afghanistan ? Any co-operative links between al Qaeda and their reluctant and resentful hosts – the Taliban – were well and truly broken ten years ago. Instead of quelling international terrorism, are we really in Afghanistan for domestic reasons, in order to build a viable democracy in that country? If so, will that task also be completed by March 31st 2012? Hardly. History tells us that democracy would take decades, or centuries to achieve in Afghanistan. The reality is that we’re there purely for political reasons, for MFAT and MoD to curry favour with Washington – even though President Barack Obama too, has signalled that he wants to extract US troops as soon as is politically practical to do so. Which means that our two troops actually died for reasons of US domestic politics, in order to grease Obama’s exit strategy. What a waste.

Inevitably, the lack of any clear military or political goals for keeping our troops in Afghanistan conjures up images of an earlier doomed neo-colonial attempt of global containment, in Vietnam. As in Vietnam, US commanders keep talking about the military progress being made in Afghanistan, and the necessity for staying the course lest Afghanistan become you know, a failed state and a breeding ground for terrorism. (In reality, it is the presence of foreign troops in Afghanistan that perpetually undermines any claim to legitimacy of the Karzai government and thus ensures Afghanistan’s failed state status.)

There is no valid reason for keeping our troops on the ground in Afghanistan. In passing, the battleground arguments that the likes of General David Petraeus have been making seem very reminiscent of the famous exchange at the Vietnam- era peace talks between US envoy Colonel Harry G. Summers, Jr. and his North Vietnamese counterpart, Colonel Tu. During one of his liaison trips to Hanoi, Colonel Harry told Tu, “You know, you never beat us on the battlefield. ” To which Colonel Tu responded, “That may be so, but it is also irrelevant.” Exactly. What we are doing in Afghanistan – and what our troops are dying for – is just as irrelevant.


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