The recent death in Afghanistan of Lieutenant Timothy O’Donnell was a tragedy for his family and a blow to his army colleagues. It was also a missed opportunity, a chance to debate why our Government continues to send troops to a violent and intractable war, and what national strategic interests this deployment serves.
In On War, the Prussian general and military theorist Carl von Clausewitz wrote about the nature of war and the relationship between a government and the use of military force. “War is a serious means to a serious end,” he wrote. It is an instrument of policy. A government should use war, or the threat of it, to achieve a policy objective or further a strategic interest.
It’s not at all clear what policy objective or strategic interest is advanced by New Zealand troops fighting in Afghanistan. The Government has not articulated a convincing rationale, and nor has the Opposition and the news media sought one. About the closest the Government has recently come is the Prime Minister’s statement that “New Zealand remains committed to trying to ensure Afghanistan is no longer a hot bed and breeding ground for terrorism”.
Fair enough, but this response doesn’t make the vital connection to New Zealand’s strategic interests. Worse, it raises more questions than answers. How, exactly, are terrorists a threat to New Zealand? Is eradicating terrorism in Afghanistan a feasible goal? If al-Qaida is the enemy, why are we fighting the Taliban?
Don’t get me wrong, I’m not a bleeding heart liberal demanding that the troops come home. There are compelling reasons for staying in Afghanistan. These reasons have little to do with Afghanistan itself but concern wider and longer-term national interests.
By working with the Americans in Afghanistan we gain substantial benefits for our defence force: access to top-notch training, intelligence, equipment, doctrine and, most importantly, operational experience. This makes the NZDF a more effective fighting force. All this at minimal cost – the deployment of a token force in a relatively safe province, well away from the areas of intense ground combat, like the Korengal Valley and Helmand province.
More importantly, we’ve gone some way to rebuilding closer, albeit informal, alliance ties with the United States and Australia. This gives New Zealand a long-term security hedge against Chinese expansion in the Asia-Pacific. It doesn’t guarantee that the Americans will help out if we’re in trouble – ultimately, every state is alone and must therefore be prepared to defend itself – but it significantly increases the odds of assistance.
That’s my take on the situation in Afghanistan. So, am I just barking mad? Maybe I should read more Kipling: “When you’re wounded and left on Afghanistan’s plains…”? Or is there something in what I’ve written?
Alternatively, are there compelling strategic reasons for us to get out of Afghanistan ASAP?