Gordon Campbell on the haste and waste involved in us staying in Afghanistan

In the wake of the weekend’s deadly attack on New Zealand forces in Afghanistan, the interesting aspect of the political response has been the across-the-board acceptance (from the Greens as well) that this attack should not change the timetable for withdrawal. The mainstream media, like the Victorian Gentleman that it is, has not unduly questioned the wisdom of that consensus or the related clichés: heavy price to pay, Afghanistan is a dangerous place etc etc. Where is Keith Locke, now that we need him?

Meaning: is it all that wise to stay in a burning building just because – back in safer, less combustible times – we said that we would? Even in formerly safe provinces such as Bamiyan, the security situation is unravelling, and the local forces that we are expecting to safeguard the population are clearly not up to the task, even though in this case they were an elite squad from the National Directorate of Security Service, or NDS. (Reportedly, our troops were ambushed after being called in to provide assistance, once an attempted arrest by NDS forces had gone sour.) While the NDS has chalked up some successes against the Taliban’s Haqqani network in the last 12 months (including foiling an attack on the Italian Provincial Reconstruction Team in the western province of Herat last year) this is still finger in the dike stuff, given the scale of the insurgency. In Bamiyan, the NDS got in over their heads.

As Bamiyan becomes increasingly unsafe, the aid projects that our Provincial Reconstruction Team has laboured to build are almost certain to be swept away. Is this situation reversible? No. Yet our troops are being kept there for a while longer. Why? Because they have been a bargaining chip meant to sweeten our relationship with the White House, and the Key government has no stomach for annoying the Obama administration by ordering an early withdrawal. Thus, it will be crossing its fingers that more lives are not lost among our troops before we reach the current finishing line in 2013, no matter how totally arbitrary that deadline may be. (Why 2013 – why not now, or 2015? Or 2030?)

The harsh reality is that New Zealand troops in Bamiyan have become hostage to a political process that is delivering no visible benefits to New Zealand, and no sustainable benefits to the local Afghan population. For the next few days though, Key will get to put on his Serious Face and talk about shouldering the burden, bearing the cost, meeting the challenge and saluting our brave soldiers in uniform. Even as he mouths the expected, he appears to be giving no hard and fast commitment to a 2013 deadline for our eventual departure:

But in spite of threats in the northeast corner of Bamiyan province where New Zealand’s PRT is operating, Prime Minister John Key said yesterday that New Zealand troops “remain on track” to leave Afghanistan some time next year.

So we’re still on track to leave sometime next year, but management reserves the right to alter the timetable, or revise the costs involved. The illogic of the situation goes beyond the confusion of what we have been in Afghanistan to achieve, and what we would regard as success, sufficient to justify the sacrifice. We keep patting ourselves on the back about what good work we’ve been doing in Bamiyan, although the locals reportedly have mixed feelings on that score – and despite the fact that these PRT-provided gains are highly unlikely to endure, once the Taliban return to power in the province. Unfortunately, our PRT work in Bamiyan is written in sand.

Moreover, whenever he talks about Afghanistan, Key still invokes the spectre of global terrorism that we are allegedly over there to combat, even though there is now widespread agreement among even the US forces that the threat from al Qaeda in Afghanistan has been dispelled, and their leadership killed, captured or dispersed. Quite some time ago, the emphasis shifted to nation building, and to assist that process we have been helping to train and re-inforce the Afghan military, so that they can take over the responsibilities currently being met by the ISAF contingent, and allow for their withdrawal in 2013-2014. This nation building task however, is running on a very tight schedule. In that respect, the ISAF in Afghanistan is a bit like the White Rabbit in Alice in Wonderland: “I’m late! I’m late! For a very important date! No time to say hello, goodbye! I’m late! I’m late! I’m late!”

The trouble with all the haste and waste is that training the Afghan Army and the NDS is all very well – but even if the artificially swollen Afghan Army had the will and the ability to fight on (and the desertion rate at one end is all but equal to the recruits pouring in the other) it would be prohibitively expensive for foreign governments to keep them in the field. If and when New Zealand leaves, we will be asked to contribute to the costly and wasteful exercise of pouring more billions into the Karzai government and its armed forces.

Can we avoid doing so? Well yes we could, though we would annoy our powerful friends in Washington if we did pull out now. Yet this would not only save our troops from becoming casualties of a fruitless war during the coming months – we would also avoid having to help pick up the tab for Hamid Karzai, his corrupt cronies and his armed forces. Most of that donated money is very likely to be re-united with Karzai sometime in future when he arrives on the last plane out of Kabul and empties his Swiss bank account. Face it, we’re firmly on the losing side in Afghanistan. And sometimes when the going gets tough, the tough get going. That’s the real obligation we owe to our troops in the field.