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Debate: Did Kiwi troops in Afghanistan die in vain?

By Alexander Gillespie, Richard Jackson

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With our troops pulling out of Afghanistan next year, one big question remains on whether the mission was worth it. Terrorism expert Richard Jackson and professor of law Alexander Gillespie debate the issue. You can scroll down to the bottom of the page and vote 'Yes' or 'No' and also leave a comment.

Digital image / P.K. Stowers
Digital image / P.K. Stowers

Yes: Forces dying for war that can't be won - Richard Jackson

The suggestion that Kiwi soldiers in Afghanistan have died in vain is no reflection on the way they have performed their duties and the deep gratitude owed to them by the nation for their ultimate sacrifice. By all accounts, Kiwi troops have served in Afghanistan with honour and professionalism.

Rather, it is to acknowledge that a sober assessment of the Afghan mission shows it has been a failure from start to finish.

Even the modest original aim of disrupting al-Qaeda has been only partially achieved. While al-Qaeda's core leadership was disrupted at the start of Operation Enduring Freedom, today there are al-Qaeda branches in Iraq, Pakistan, Yemen, Somalia, Mali and elsewhere.

The main effect of the Afghan invasion has arguably been to proliferate al-Qaeda groups into new regions.

In its more ambitious aims, the mission cannot be viewed as anything but a total failure. After widely disputed elections, the Karzai Government is mired in corruption and inefficiency, and most state institutions remain undeveloped and inherently fragile.

Projects aimed at stimulating the economy, providing welfare to the people, and protecting human rights fail more often than they succeed. Of the countless billions of dollars poured into the country, most of it is lost to security provision, graft and corruption, or poured into poorly conceived and badly managed projects.

The aim of creating an economically stable, democratic state in Afghanistan is now little more than a forlorn hope.

In terms of security, the country remains entrenched in a brutal insurgency where even the capital city is subject to regular attack. Every security gain in one district is quickly lost in another, and most of the country remains highly dangerous.

The war is already lost in strategic terms. As Vietnam showed, no amount of firepower or change in tactics can defeat people who feel they are fighting for kith and kin and are willing to fight indefinitely to expel what they see as an invader army.

And with the recent suspension of the army training programme, Coalition hopes of leaving behind well-trained Afghan forces capable of providing adequate security are well and truly extinguished.

Similar efforts to "win hearts and minds" have also completely failed. Most Afghans want foreign forces out, seeing them as both fundamentally unable to provide security and a continuing source of grievance in their own right. The revelations of torture, rendition, killer squads, the abuse of insurgent corpses, civilian massacres, almost daily "collateral damage" from drone strikes, and abuses of the Koran have turned ordinary people against the Coalition forces.

Most Afghans now see the Coalition as an illegitimate and oppressive army of occupation.

From this perspective, New Zealand forces are sacrificing their lives for a mission that has lost both its raison d'etre and any legitimacy it might have once had. This is the very definition of dying in vain - continuing to fight in a war that is strategically lost in pursuit of goals that are no longer achievable, on behalf of a people who no longer want your help.

This tragic quandary says nothing about the Kiwi soldiers who continue to serve in Afghanistan. They are dutifully following orders, and their country is rightly proud that they do it with such professionalism and self-sacrifice.

The real culprits here are the political leaders who continue to sacrifice the lives of soldiers against all commonsense in a hopeless cause. In this they are guilty of hubris and a misplaced sense of pride.

From the very beginning it was hubristic to think that the Coalition would be the first army in history to subdue Afghanistan. And that a nationalistic insurgency could be defeated solely by force of arms, without a negotiated political settlement.

And that a force-based intervention could, in a few short years, graft a stable Western-style democratic state on to a non-Western country which has experienced 50 years of continuous war.

As senior military officials have argued for decades, the military is not trained or equipped for tasks such as generating economic development, protecting human rights, building effective state institutions or creating a democratic system. In other words, it was a mistake from the very beginning to send a military mission to build a new Afghan state.

In the end, the real tragedy of Kiwi losses in Afghanistan is that it is nothing more than stubbornness and misplaced pride which prevents politicians from publicly admitting that the mission has been a total failure and withdrawing the troops immediately.

Because they cannot admit the mistake of sending military forces in the first place, they will keep them over there in harm's way unnecessarily, compounding the original error with a new one.

Sadly, some sections of the New Zealand public will support this decision, wrongly assuming that admission of failure in Afghanistan somehow renders the sacrifice of Kiwi soldiers meaningless. But if their death serves to induce greater caution in future political decision-making, thus saving future New Zealanders from being sacrificed in hubristic, ill-considered foreign wars, then they will surely not have died in vain.

What is not uncertain is that these soldiers tried to make the world a better place in a war that was just.

* Richard Jackson is deputy director of the National Centre for Peace and Conflict Studies at the University of Otago and is editor, with Samuel Justin Sinclair, of Contemporary Debates on Terrorism, Routledge, 2012.

No: Decision to go to war made for right reasons - Alexander Gillespie

Ten New Zealand soldiers have now died in Afghanistan. Pericles wrote some 2400 years ago of the loss of the young men who died fighting for democracy, "as if the spring had been taken from the year".

This observation resonates today, most especially because the losses of our soldiers have not been in vain. They died fighting in a just war. There are three reasons for this assertion.

The first reason is that the decision to go to war was made using the correct process under the right authority. This has not been a unilateral invasion of questionable legality, such as the 2003 invasion of Iraq by the United States. The New Zealand involvement has been through the authorisation of the United Nations, as part of a series of agreements reached with the Afghan government.

The second reason is that the justification for armed intervention was strong. This was not a war for glory, plunder, lust for dominion or revenge. This has been a conflict about attempting to set foundations for sustainable peace and development in Afghanistan.

These foundations serve our self-interests because a fragile, or failed, state becomes a magnet for lawlessness which creates spill-overs with international repercussions. These can range from the shielding of terrorists, as Afghanistan had done, through to becoming hives for crime and piracy, as Somalia became.

The fact that multiple powers, from transnational crime syndicates involved in the drug trade through to foreign governments involved in the creation of puppet regimes, have spent decades manipulating this country added weight to the realisation that without assistance, a post-Taleban Afghanistan would have been still-born.

The presence of the international community in Afghanistan is also justified because it helps to secure the legitimate needs of others.

The forces fighting the Afghan government are the antithesis of peace and development. It was the Taleban regime that gave sanctuary to al-Qaeda, who pursued their crusade of terror most famously, via jet airliners and architecture which symbolised modernity.

Within Afghanistan, the Taleban pursued the same goals, in which they created a totalitarian state where they recognised no limits to their own authority and strove to regulate every aspect of public and private life.

This authority was repugnant when it destroyed the cultural heritage of others, prohibited everything from music to marbles, and secured the "chasteness and dignity of women" by restricting their freedom of association, access to education and health services.

This authority was illegal when their actions became a catalogue of crimes of war, crimes against humanity and gross violations of fundamental human rights.

By the time the international community became involved in Afghanistan, the practices of the Taleban - with their wholesale massacres of civilians - had become very clear. These killings ranged from the barrel of the gun through to the denying of United Nations food to areas that were within their control, coupled with scorched-earth policies, through which tens of thousands of civilians were either displaced or starved to death.

The anti-government forces have not matured during their years in exile. There is no discussion of the Geneva Conventions or the most basic international norms in this area. Their use of torture and execution of prisoners, their perfidy in misusing the uniforms of their enemy, or their willingness to inflict collective punishments on innocent civilians is an outrage to any clear-thinking member of the 21st century.

Reports in this newspaper of the recent beheadings of a 6-year-old girl and a 12- year-old boy, because some of their family members may have helped the reconstruction efforts, are the latest additions on a list which reflects a regime that is hard to consider as being anything other than evil.

The final reason that this war has been just is due to the methods that it has been fought with. Civilian deaths have been caused by Coalition forces. In 2011, the figure was 207 people. Although these deaths are classified as collateral damage it is small consolation; the question of intent and the desire of the Coalition forces to practise precaution and proportion is a big one.

The Taleban and their associates, on the other hand, use terror and intentionally target civilians. In 2011, the figure of civilians killed by anti-government forces was 1167, about 80 per cent of the total deaths of Afghan civilians. This figure is not an anomaly, because since 2007, they have consistently, and intentionally, taken the lives of more than 1000 civilians a year.

Our soldiers do not do this. They fight to protect others for no personal gain, beyond trying to help distant communities build a stable and peaceful future.

What the future holds for these people when all of the foreign soldiers leave is uncertain. What is not uncertain is that these soldiers tried to make the world a better place in a war that was just.

* Alexander Gillespie is professor of law at Waikato University and author of the three-volume History of the Laws of War, Hart Publishing, 2011.

- NZ Herald

Your views

Featured comments

"Its widely reported in intelligence circles that Al-Qaeda is a completely fictitious organisation invented to manipulate an unwilling public into an unjust war."

Andy C
Andrew Goddard

"We alone saved many Afghan lives through direct medical aid, helicopter evacuation, protection etc. It is about protecting people who can't protect themselves."

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