Paul Buchanan: Death makes it clear Bamiyan not 'soft' option

New Zealand Defence personnel in the Bamiyan province. Photo / NZDF
New Zealand Defence personnel in the Bamiyan province. Photo / NZDF

Until this week the 140-troop Defence Force mission in support of the provincial reconstruction team (PRT) in the Afghan province of Bamiyan was considered the "softer" of the two New Zealand deployments in that country.

Given their status as elite combat troops, the 2003-05 and post-2009 SAS missions in Afghanistan have received more attention as the presumably "hard" edge of New Zealand's military contribution to the Nato-led force charged with bringing peace and stability to that failed state.

The death of Lieutenant Timothy O'Donnell has changed that view.

Lieutenant O'Donnell was killed while on routine patrol northeast of the city of Bamiyan. New Zealand patrols are undertaken daily as part of the PRT's responsibilities, which are to provide security and undertake civil reconstruction and nation-building projects such as the construction of schools, roads, medical clinics (including the combat medics to staff them), water treatment facilities and other infrastructure required for local governance to operate efficiently.

Although Bamiyan province is largely populated by the non-Pashtun ethnic Hazaras (a Shiite minority elsewhere in Afghanistan) who are generally friendly to international forces because they were discriminated against under Taleban rule, the Taleban presence has remained as an ever-present threat that has risen over the past two years.

In fact, the ambush in which Lieutenant O'Donnell died was preceded by at least three similar attacks in the past 14 months, all using the same combination of improvised explosive devices, rocket-propelled grenades and small arms fire.

The Nato-led forces' strategy in Afghanistan is a macrocosmic reflection of what the PRT mission is in Bamiyan. It conducts counter-insurgency operations against Taleban and al Qaeda forces in order to physically secure the country and prevent the re-establishment of both Taleban rule and al Qaeda safe havens and training camps within it.

In parallel, it attempts to train Afghan security forces and provide the infrastructural conditions to consolidate the control of the Western-backed Karzai regime in Kabul.

As with the Bamiyan PRT, success in the first task is deemed necessary for success with the latter two.

In many ways the death of a Kiwi soldier was inevitable given the balance of the conflict.

The international force has not succeeded in routing the Taleban even if it has denied them and their al Qaeda allies territory and space for manoeuvre. Its nation-building efforts have been thwarted by endemic corruption by the Karzai regime and an assortment of tribal warlords and drug barons. Pakistan remains a suspect ally, if not a covert adversary in the conflict. Given the timetable for the international forces' withdrawal beginning next July, the Taleban have increased their attacks in order to raise the costs to the foreigners, undermine public support for their mission and hasten the inevitable.

The National Government has reaffirmed its commitment to the Nato-led mission through to September next year, but the possibility of further fatalities now haunts its decision.

The larger question is whether the New Zealand public has the stomach to support continuing participation in the Afghan conflict in the face of increased casualties. That will be a critical juncture in New Zealand foreign relations, because public support is essential to maintain the political will to continue fighting.

It behoves New Zealand's political leadership to make a clear and strong case as to why Kiwi lives are worth sacrificing in such a far off place.

Paul G. Buchanan is the founding principal of Buchanan Strategic Advisors, a political risk, market intelligence and strategic analysis consulting firm.

- NZ Herald

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