Afghanistan in Context

July 22, 2009

John Key’s National Government looks likely to send New Zealand SAS troops back to Afghanistan; a decision which Key has not taken lightly and which has not been without public controversy. Rightly so. It is, after all, the new government’s first major decision on an overseas military deployment and therefore a chance for the Prime Minister to prove his foreign policy credentials.

Key’s initial preference for a New Zealand military role in Afghanistan was one as part of  ‘an overall exit strategy’ (Herald, April 20). This stance has since been watered down to a general hope that Afghanistan be ‘stablised’, allowing for Western troops to leave the country (Herald, July 20).

The lack of clear objectives or time frame for New Zealand military involvement in Afghanistan (this applies not just to SAS missions but to the PRT in Bamiyan), plus the Prime Minister’s both vague and shifting positions on the issue, indicate no coherent overall strategy on the political level for the New Zealand Defence Force in the country. Indeed, it seems that any decisions on such a strategy are to be delayed until after a review of the Defence Force is completed in August.

At this point then, it could be of much use to consider European nations’ current predicament in Afghanistan.

They too are facing heated public debate on the conflict: Casualty numbers are growing; in Britain the opposition alleges troops are underequipped for the fighting; in Germany the first new military medals for bravery since WWII have been awarded to soldiers fighting in Afghanistan.

They too are under pressure from the United States to provide additional military assistance: President Obama sees Afghanistan as a ‘litmus test’ of European reliability in military matters.

Now is a crucial, paradigm-shifting point in the conflict, offering Europe the chance to redefine its strategy in Afghanistan. It makes sense, therefore, for New Zealand to take note of how Europe approaches this process and take its lessons into account when formulating its own policy on engagement in the conflict.