Gordon Campbell on how New Zealand is punching below its weight in Afghanistan

239e33ed8dffb09210b6First Vietnam, now Afghanistan. For the second time in living memory, the West has been defeated by the guerrilla forces of a small Third World country, while leaving its local allies in mortal danger for their sins of collaboration. Since the pull-out of NATO/American forces began in earnest, the Kabul government has been collapsing like a house of cards. The southwestern city of Zaranj was the Taliban’s first victory in their recent offensive, and it has been quickly followed by the fall of the northern cities of Sheberghan, Sar-e-Pul, Taloqan and Aybak.

In their most significant victory to date, the Taliban has over-run the large northern city of Kunduz (population 270,000) a strategic smuggling point in the heroin and opium trade. In fact, all of the country’s economically important border crossing points to Iran, Pakistan, Uzbekistan and Tajikistan are now in Taliban hands amid accusations that the Taliban have begun committing “revenge murders of civilians” in the town of Spin Boldak, on the Pakistan border. Heavy fighting has been reported in Pul-e-Khumri and in Mazar-e-Sharif, a trading hub on the border with Uzbekistan.

In short, the regime in Kabul that we helped to prop up – at a cost that included $300 million, and the lives of 10 NZ soldiers – is now disintegrating. Yet are we doing anything at all to save the local interpreters, contractors, journalists and officials who worked alongside us? Not this time. In the past, we have recognised that some moral obligations are involved here. As the NZ Herald recently pointed out:

In 2012-13, the New Zealand Government offered a resettlement option for Afghan interpreters who worked in Bamiyan, resulting into 44 former employees and 96 immediate family members being resettled in New Zealand.

But that was then. Now, not so much. Recently, a group of Afghani civilians in danger for offering assistance to our Provincial Reconstruction Team in Bamiyan had their appeal for clemency turned down (in a one page letter) by Immigration Minister Kris Faafoi:

“New Zealand is not seeking to extend that assistance package,” Faafoi told the desperate group. Faafoi… told the Weekend Herald that there are “no plans, at this time” to repatriate any existing Afghan nationals, but added: “Immigration, along with other agencies, is monitoring the situation.”

Good grief. Given their track record, if the Immigration Service is merely at the stage of “monitoring the situation” the Afghanis haven’t a hope of receiving meaningful support from New Zealand in time to save their own lives, or the lives of family members. Their only chance will be if US President Joseph Biden gets on the phone and asks New Zealand point blank to step up. Belatedly, the Americans themselves are making some moves to help:

The Biden administration hatched an eleventh-hour plan, known as Operation Allies Refuge, to evacuate thousands of Afghan interpreters as well as other employees of the US government or allied forces, and their families. An initial group of about 2,500 started arriving at Fort Lee in northern Virginia on July 30.

Rather than try to force the Afghans at risk into existing migrant categories, or expect them to produce in the midst of a civil war the usual application paperwork – monthly power bills as proof of residence etc – the Americans have been forging on regardless:

They’re coming to the US on a Special Immigrant Visa (SIV), more than 73,000 of which have already been issued to Afghans in the last 13 years. The House recently voted on an overwhelmingly bipartisan basis to make 8,000 more of those visas available, and to make it easier to apply for the program.

What we could do

As mentioned, we have that earlier 2013 precedent that we could re-visit, provided we felt willing on compassionate grounds to do so. We could also expand the former criteria for inclusion. Currently, Faafoi is refusing to embrace those options. But here’s a point that may become relevant to any Afghanis currently in danger because of their past links, formal and informal, to the New Zealand military. As the Vox News report linked to above also says : “

The Biden administration is also pursuing agreements with other countries to allow eligible Afghans to re-locate to safety while the US finishes processing their applications.

If that is correct… Then all that New Zealand would be being required to do would be to temporarily provide a safe harbour for the Afghans, until such time as the US have done the paperwork to accept them for re-settlement in the United States. Has Bien asked that of us already – and if he hasn’t, what is stopping PM Jacinda Ardern from calling Biden and offering to do so? Surely after all the words of caring and sharing uttered in the wake of the Christchurch mosque shootings, that’s the least we/she could do. Some of the mosque members in Christchurch have relatives now at risk back home. Faafoi is aware of their plight. Yet the government is choosing to do nothing to help them.

Footnote One. As mentioned above, the US has taken in 73,000 Afghani refugees in the past 13 years under the Special Immigrant Visa(SIV) category. A further 2,500 have just begun arriving under the same visa, and there is bi-partisan Congressional support for a further 8,000 Afghani migrants. Earlier this month, the US has reportedly set up an additional pathway open to those Afghanis who cannot meet the narrow conditions of the SIV category.. Some will even be enabled to qualify for inclusion within the wider US refugee programme. (Will we do the same?) All up, as many as 50,000 Afghanis may eventually qualify for re-settlement in the US :

Reuters [has]reported… The plans to set up the “Priority Two” refugee program, covering Afghans who worked for U.S.-funded projects and for U.S.-based non-government bodies and media outlets. The program, which the State Department said could help “many thousands” of Afghanis…The program applies to Afghans who do not qualify for the Special Immigration Visa (SIV) program that covers interpreters and others who worked for the U.S. government, and their families.

Footnote Two. New Zealand’s shirking of its moral responsibilities looks particularly bad when compared to how our traditional allies have been responding. Given our post 9/11 involvement in Afghanistan, New Zealan ‘s dismal effort – 140 in total of former employees and family members several years ago, and nothing since – is in stark contrast to Canada’s efforts. Canada re-settled about 800 vulnerable Afghani interpreters, embassy officials etc a decade ago, back when Canada’s military effort in Afghanistan formally ceased. However, a few days ago, the first wave of an extra intake of what Canada has said will be “several thousand” Afghanis at risk of Taliban reprisals began to arrive in Canada. “Canada is here to support those who supported us,” said Immigration Minister Marco Mendicino.

Footnote Three: Australia’s effort to save the” locally engaged employees” (LEES) that it left behind in Afghanistan is being criticised as “ slow” and” cumbersome.” Even so, the Aussies also pust us to shame. Australia has re-settled 1,400 Afghani LEES and their family members since 2013, and between April and June it reportedly issued visas to a further 186 Afghanis, from among about 1,000 applicants. Some applicants have already been killed or forced into hiding. Retired senior Australian diplomats are now joining in formal calls to the federal government in Canberra to fast-track visa assistance to those Afghans whose prior assistance to Australia now puts the lives of them and their families at risk. Yet to date, our own retired senior military officers and diplomats have been noticeably silent on this issue.

Footnote Four: In the UK, five former heads of the armed forces, including two former heads of the British army, have just signed an open letter to the British government calling on Britain to further broaden the wider criteria for re-settlement of Afghans that it announced in May.

[The letter] revealed that the applications of anyone who had been sacked from their job as an interpreter – a process that the former military chiefs said happened “without any due process or ability to appeal” – were being rejected. Some 35% of all former interpreters and other employees who worked for the British operation in Afghanistan were dismissed. However, many still face death threats from the Taliban, which views anyone who worked for the British or other NATO forces as a traitor. “The policy is not being conducted with the necessary spirit of generosity required to protect our former colleagues from an indiscriminate and resurgent Taliban,” the letter said.

Footnote Five. New Zealand’s abdication of moral responsibility in Afghanistan also seems pretty repellent, given that our so called “provincial reconstruction” efforts were located in Bamiyan province. The Bamiyan population are very largely Hazara Shia, who have long been a target (as apostates) for Taliban and Islamic State persecution. Clearly, the Taliban/IS hostility to the Hazara has not diminished:

Hazaras have long faced discrimination and persecution in Afghanistan, and a renewed fear grips {the] increasingly victimized and beleaguered community.Hazaras constitute the country’s third-largest ethnic group and largest religious minority community due to their Shia Muslim faith in this Sunni majority country. Their different beliefs and Asiatic features have made them easy targets. The Taliban was their persecutor during their rule. Now the local Islamic State franchise, known as ISIL-Khorasan (ISIL-K), murders.  In early June, for example, terrorists struck a de-mining charity, but their assault carried a gruesome twist: they methodically killed Hazara Shia. Halo Trust CEO James Cowan told the BBC that ISIS “sought out members of the Hazara community, and then murdered them.” The attack comes just weeks after the May 8th bombing of a Hazara girls school in Kabul, where more than 85 Hazara children died and 150 wounded.

Our response to the Hazara pleas for help? Thanks, but no thanks.

Footnote Six: With hindsight, our abandonment of the Afghanis is predictable. The West invaded Afghanistan 20 years ago to find and kill the perpetrators of 9/11, and to degrade the Taliban’s ability to harbour terrorist groups that posed a threat to the wider global community. Since then, and at immense cost in blood and funds – the US alone is variously estimated to have spent between $776 billion and $2 trillion on its Afghanistan deployment – al Qaeda has been defeated and Osama Bin Laden has been killed. If George W. Bush had not chosen to divert the US effort into invading Iraq in 2003, the US might have been more successful at defeating the Taliban, whose leadership and many of its forces re-located to Pakistan until the US finally ran out of steam.

The Taliban are now returning to power, while showing no sign of renouncing violence or changing their core ideology. The difference now is that the West thinks it can manage from afar any subsequent risks to the international community or to the US homeland, even if this means leaving the Afghani people to their fate. For all the fine talk about reconstruction and nation-building, the wellbeing of Afghans themselves has never been the West’s prime concern. So we shouldn’t be all that surprised – merely disgusted – that New Zealand is now washing its hands of them.

Berlin, re- imagined

The British electronic duo who call themselves Public Service Broadcasting have become well known for integrating old public service film clips and dated corporate videos into their music. Tracks like “Spitfire,” “Everest” and “Gagarin” have been brilliant examples – and they’ve used the same methods to satirise the advent of stereo (“New Dimensions in Sound”) and the 1950s fashion industry ( “The Now Generation”).

However, they’ve now moved on. No more ironic/poignant voiceovers or old clips. On their new album they’re focussed on Berlin, although he first single does have a fascination with at least one of the icons of the city’s past. “ Blue Heaven” evokes Marlene Dietrich, but the video doesn’t try to simply look like her. It tackles the much harder job of summoning her spirit.