by Philip Ferguson
On Saturday, August 4, two more New Zealand soldiers were killed and a further six injured in Afghanistan by the resistance movement against Western-led occupation of the country. Responses to the deaths in the mainstream media and among the main parliamentary parties reflect widespread illusions that there is something ‘different’ about Western intervention in Afghanistan to the intervention in Iraq. The father of a NZ soldier killed there in 2010, for instance, told the Dominion Post, Afghanistan, unlike Iraq, is probably a war that they’ve got to win.”
What is also striking is the consensus between National, Labour and the Greens on the issue of imperialist intervention and New Zealand’s role as part of it. Prime minister John Key spoke of “the danger faced daily by our forces as they work tirelessly to restore stability to the province. It is with enormous sadness that I acknowledge that these soldiers have paid the highest price.” Labour leader David Shearer, who played a direct (albeit civilian) part in imperialist interventions such as Afghanistan before being handpicked for a Labour Party career, declared, “We are very, very saddened to hear of the loss of two lives.” The NZ Herald noted, “The latest deaths did not make him reconsider whether New Zealand troops should remain in the country.” They also quoted Shearer as saying that the NZ forces were seen as a “model” and that “We have to acknowledge the great work that our personnel have done in Afghanistan, and in Bamiyan in particular.” Greens co-leader Metiria Turei described the deaths as a “terrible tragedy”. The NZ Herald cited her as saying that the Provincial Reconstruction Team was doing very well and supporting “the community” in Afghanistan.
The reality of NZ intervention is rather different from carefully-crafted popular images. The SAS has served there for more years than NZ troops were engaged in any combat anywhere in the world. They were involved in assassinations, targeted buildings with infra-red so the US could send in guided missiles and also kidnapped Afghanis for US interrogation sessions. On Christmas Eve 2010, NZ SAS soldiers shot dead two Afghan security guards when they were challenged by them in the carpark of the business which they worked for.
While the emphasis in much of the media here has been on the Provincial Reconstruction Team in Bamyan, this team largely freed up full copmbat soldiers from the West for action elsehwre and was part of the propaganda for this invasion and occupation being “the good war”. Moreover, as former Green MP Keith Locke noted, the PRT role itself has changed recently, as that “team” has been moved from Bamyan to a more combat-active area (Dominion Post, 6/8/2012). NZ Herald chief political commentator John Armstrong has pointed out, “The reality is New Zealand is now unwittingly molasses-deep in the stickiest military mess of all – a civil war fought by means of guerrilla warfare” (NZ Herald, 7/8/2012).
While the mass media has uncritically accepted the New Zealand Defence Force (sic) version of accounts, these have been challenged by more indpeendent-minded commentators. Paul Buchanan has stated, for instance, “I do not trust the government or NZDF brass to come clean on what really happened. They have spent too much time lying about the real security situation in Bamiyan and the real nature of what NZDF troops are doing there and elsewhere, such as during the SAS deployment.”
The lying, of course, began with the fifth Labour government which sent NZ forces to Afghanistan in 2001, backed up by a majority of the MPs from the left-wing Alliance Party, which was in coalition with Labour at the time (the decision to help invade Afghanistan subsequently split and largely destroyed the Alliance). After the September 11 attacks in the USA, Labour prime minister Helen Clark specifically supported the idea that the then Taliban government in Afghanistan should hand over Osama Bin Laden or share his fate. (See, for instance, her statement announcing the dispatch of NZ forces, October 8, 2001 at www.executive.govt.nz.)
Over and over again, stories have surfaced that this fate is not only for the Taliban and Al Qaeda but for innocent Afghani villagers too. In 2010, 440 Afghani civilians were killed by US forces and their Afghani underlings. In early 2011, dozens of civilians were killed in a US bombing raid and shortly afterwards in March 2011 nine Afghani boys collecting firewood were murdered. (See Killing people and pissing on their corpses – all in a day’s work for imperialism.) In March 2012, 16 villagers, nine of them children, were killed in their beds by US forces. Despite eye-witness accounts that a number of US soldiers were involved, US officials tried to blame it on one soldier going crazy. (See Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton – accessories to child murder.)
What the Western intervention has achieved has been well-summarised by an American Marxist group:
“This war has had horrifying human consequences in Afghanistan. The very conditions that made Afghanistan such an attractive target for the U.S. military – the fact that it is one of the poorest and most backward countries on earth and that it had already undergone two decades of war before the U.S. invaded – are what made the human catastrophe of the U.S. war so much greater. The U.S. military laid waste to what had not been already destroyed in the previous decades of war.
“The UN says that slightly less than 13,000 Afghans were killed from 2006 to 2011. Of course, this has to be a whitewash, limited to the number of those who have actually been counted. Unknown are how many people have not been counted. In a country at war, with almost no infrastructure, there have been no attempts to make a serious estimate.
“Certainly the war has brought immense dislocation. About one fifth of the population are today refugees who live in either Iran and Pakistan, with more than half considered ‘illegal’, which makes their existence even more precarious. Even in areas where the war has subsided in their home country, many Afghans have chosen not to return because of the sheer destruction and lack of services. The Afghan government admits it is not able to re-integrate many returning refugees. Added to that are the half a million internal refugees, those who lost their homes or land and have no place to go. According to the UN, ‘There is neither a legal framework nor appropriate mechanisms to respond to their protection and assistance needs.’
“Afghanistan is now one of the poorest countries on the planet. It takes its place among the most desperate, destitute nations like Burkina Faso and Somalia whenever any international organization bothers to measure. There are practically no jobs, except those provided by the occupation authorities or the warlords. And much of the population is starving. Approximately 45% of the population is now unable to purchase enough food to guarantee minimum health levels, according to the Brookings Institution.
“And despite claims by the U.S. government that it has spent 90 billion dollars since 2001 on “reconstruction,” the infrastructure in Afghanistan remains practically non-existent. Afghans’ access to electricity is among the lowest in the world, according to the World Bank. Only 13 percent of Afghans have access to safe drinking water; only 12 percent have access to adequate sanitation.
“Is it any surprise that life expectancy in Afghanistan is only 44 years, which is at least 20 years lower than neighboring countries and among the lowest in the world?” (See full, here.)
Workers in New Zealand have nothing to gain by supporting Western intervention in Afghanistan. We should make common cause with workers around the world against both Western capitalist governments and reactionary movements like the Taliban. Unfortunately, however, taking up the issue of Afghanistan is low on the left’s priorities. Attempts to rebuild the main anti-war group in Wellington last year, while meeting with a positive response on the streets, did not revive a sufficient unified activist base to carry on. The folks involved in Occupying some public places last year were not really interested either. The protests against “asset sales” tend to reinforce the idea that the New Zealand state is us – after all, why call Mighty River etc “ours” if the state that owns them isn’t? So illusions in the NZ state’s role in Afghanistan continue to be largely unchallenged.
Without a new upsurge in working class activity, consistent anti-imperialism will remain very marginal politically here. However, the issue is far too important to simply ignore. Unless and until workers here challenge the way our exploiters are involved in exploitation and oppression abroad we’ll never pose any serious threat to them. Even if at a very low level, we need to continue to hammer away on the nature of the New Zealand state and the fact that this country is an imperialist power, however junior a role that may amount to on the world stage. October 8 will be the 11th anniversary of NZ helping invade Afghanistan. A day of action across the country, even if it is just teach-ins and public leafleting, would at least be some small step to opposing what our rulers and exploiters want us to believe is “the good war”.