Wednesday 6 July 2011

New Zealand Troops In Afghanistan: "Mentoring" What?

The Point Of The Spear: Far from "mentoring" (such a wonderfully un-military term) Afghan policemen from a safe distance, the New Zealand SAS always seems to be in the thick of the action. And, sometimes (as happened in the Tiger International raid of 24/12/10) the point of our spear gets driven into the wrong targets.

SOMEWHERE in the city of Kabul, the parents and siblings of two slain security guards, Mubin and Sadiq, still mourn the loss of their sons and brothers.

They died at the hands of New Zealanders: SAS troopers; acting in our name.

Local officials called the killings “murder”. It’s not hard to see why.

On Christmas Eve, 2010, Mubin, Sadiq and their co-workers, Hamid and Barialy, were keeping watch over the property of Tiger Group International – a local company contracted to supply logistical equipment to the International Security Assistance Force (ISAF). Hardly surprising, then, that when the security team encountered bearded figures in the Tiger Group car-park, they assumed they were under Taliban attack, and challenged the intruders to identify themselves.

But, the intruders weren’t Afghans, they were Kiwis. And when the security guards challenged them the New Zealand SAS troopers opened fire on them at close range – killing Mubin and Sadiq, and wounding Hamid and Barialy.

The raid on Tiger International was a botch-up from beginning to end. The operation was launched on the basis of bad intelligence, and the required co-ordination between the ISAF, the Afghan authorities and the NZSAS was deficient. Our troopers killed Mubin and Sadiq for doing no more than their job.

To date, the New Zealand Government refuses to say whether it has formally apologised to the families of the slain security guards, or made any offer of compensation.

This refusal to accept responsibility for our soldiers’ mistakes will undoubtedly encourage ordinary Afghans to lump our SAS in with the rest of the ISAF. Little distinction will be made between New Zealand’s special forces and all the other Nato contingents operating in Afghanistan. The deaths of Mubin and Sadiq will be attributed to the same lack of care that sees village wedding parties decimated by US missiles and helicopter gunships.

The Afghan people will, once again, hear the loss of innocent civilian lives described as “collateral damage” – and the foreign perpetrators will be reviled for their indifference.

NOT THAT our armed forces chiefs will admit to any of this. Following the most recent Taliban attack in Kabul, during which two SAS troopers sustained minor injuries, the Prime Minister, John Key, spoke approvingly of the “mentoring” role our special forces were playing in relation to the Afghan Government’s Crisis Response Unit.

“Mentoring”: it’s such a reassuring – and decidedly non-military – expression.

In the New Zealand context we tend to associate the word “mentor” with those public-spirited individuals who help young people, and young businesses, grow and mature. No doubt the public relations staffers who dreamed up the idea of calling military advisers “mentors” were well aware of such connotations.

It is, however, becoming increasingly clear that whether our SAS troopers are engaged in operations initiated by ISAF, or the Taliban, the role they play is very far from that of the passive advisor.

 On the contrary, all the evidence emerging from Afghanistan suggests that our SAS leads from the front, and that such Afghan Government support as may be found in these operations  is located (how to say this politely?) at some distance from the action.

In other words, when the Taliban come a-calling, our special forces are regularly being deployed as “the point of the spear”.

Spear-points don’t “mentor” anything: spear-points strike hard, and they strike to kill.

And, sometimes, as we have seen, they kill the wrong people.

WE SHOULD TRY to imagine how we would feel if those slain security guards had been called Bruce and Wiremu, instead of Mubin and Sadiq. How we would react if our nation’s skies were filled with helicopter gunships, and our city streets with foreign soldiers?

What, exactly, would we make of a prime-minister telling his people that their special forces were “mentoring” the security police of a corrupt government?

Mentoring them to do what? Rely on the same bad intelligence that our SAS relied on before unleashing the deadly force that killed Mubin and Sadiq? Trust the same people who unleashed the raid on the hitherto loyal village of Band E Timur on 24 May 2002?

Three civilians, including the village head-man and a six-year-old girl, died that day. Fifty-five were handed over to US personnel who no longer considered themselves bound by the Geneva conventions.

Our SAS spear-pointed that operation as well.

THE ONLY “MENTORING” the NZSAS is doing in Afghanistan is in how to kill. But, after more than thirty years of war, there is little we can teach the Afghans about death and misery.

My heart goes out to the families of Mubin and Sadiq.

If I could, I would tell them that their boys did not die at my bidding.

Not in my name.

This essay, originally published in The Press of Tuesday, 5 July 2011, could not have been written without the investigative efforts of journalists Jon Stephenson and David Beatson.


Sanctuary said...

"...will undoubtedly encourage ordinary Afghans to lump our SAS in with the rest of the ISAF..."

Not surprising, given that in the latest battle our SAS were involved in some went into combat from NATO (an alliance we are a member of) helicopters and engaged in battle without apparently the pre-knowledge or pre-approval of any New Zealand politician or senior military officer. I would say we've gone back to being about as independent as the NZ Division was under General Godley in World War One.

Frazer and Freyburg must be spinning in their graves.

Victor said...

I agree entirely, Chris.

The only conceivably useful objective New Zealand forces could achieve in Afghanistan is to ingratiate us a mite more with the US.

Others might disagree (they probably will), but, given the emerging great power balance in the Asia Pacific region, I don't personally find this to be an inherently risible objective.

However, there comes a point at which realpolitik is an insufficient excuse for the lives lost, the hurt and damage caused and the principles violated.

That point was reached a long time ago.

Anonymous said...

Although I agree New Zealand could display a little more independence in its foreign policy, contrary to Sanctuary, unless I missed something major in the news, NATO has not been expanding into the South Pacific.

Sanctuary said...

*we are NOT a member of.

Michael said...

How many of 'their boys' would die at the hands of the Taleban if we did not bid our soldiers fight there? Would we equally say to them, we are glad that our soldiers did not help you? Would they thank us for that? If New Zealand was in the same condition as Afghanistan (God forbid) most kiwis would be bleakly resigned to the idea that any foreign assistance would come at the terrible cost of innocent lives. As it is our police occasionally do shoot innocent people (e.g. Auckland 2009). And that in our comparatively very orderly country. Everyone is appalled, but no one is yet calling for an end to the police force. That would be worse. I am a pacifist so I find it hard to support our troops being in Afghanistan. But it is with great sadness that I imagine Bamyan sliding back into Taleban control.

Victor said...


I am certainly not a Pacifist but I do not believe in fighting wars that cause great suffering and recurrently breach international conventions without any prospect of a beneficial outcome.

The default position of Afghanistan's Pushtun hub is rule by fundamentalist Sunni tribesman.

True, His late Majesty, King Mohammed Zahir Shah, managed to achieve a more progressive and outward looking polity in the decades before he was overthrown.

That, however, was before the local fundamentalists were buttressed by a rising global tide of Saudi-funded religious extremism, egged on by the Carter and Reagan administrations.

In any event, a revival of the Monarchy was ruled out, under US influence, by the Loya Jirga, immediately after the 2001 invasion.

Perhaps more consideration should have been given to reviving the only source of non-fundamentalist authority with organic, traditional links to the country. But that's now all water under the bridge.

At this point, the best that we can hope for is a severance of the Taleban's ties with international terrorist franchises such as Al Qaeda. Eventually, that will mean serious negotiations with at least some of the local militants.

The renowned UK newspaper polemicist, Simon Jenkins, maintains that the Taleban's leadership was already at the point of ditching its links with Al Qaeda before the NATO invasion.

If Jenkins is right, the whole war was a mistake, albeit legally justified as a response to the 9/11 assault on the United States, which was ultimately inspired from Afghan soil.

In any event, the global terror franchises have now migrated to the tribal areas of Pakistan, to the terraced streets of South Yorkshire, bland German apartment blocks etc.

However, the ongoing slaughter in Afghanistan remains relevant as one of the top-of-mind grievances driving a small but far from unimportant minority of angry young Moslems into the arms of terrorism.

New Zealand has no interest in the Afghan conflict per se, other than as a means of strengthening our ties with the United States. As far as I'm concerned, that's a worthwhile aim, as it will help us balance our increasing economic subservience to China.

But Realpolitik, whilst an inevitable feature of inter-state relations, provides insufficient justification for the war we are now fighting, for how we're fighting it or for the numbers of civilian deaths in which we're implicated.

Just as I'm not a Pacifist, I'm not a Christian either. But St Thomas Aquinas et al might be worth re-reading on the concept of a 'Just War'.

Andy C said...

Two points,

"Try to imagine how we would feel if those slain security guards had been called Bruce and Wiremu, instead of Mubin and Sadiq. How we would react if our nation’s skies were filled with helicopter gunships, and our city streets with foreign soldiers?"
Your proposition is absurd. What would I think , "Unlucky bastards, but with foreign soldiers in our streets, you gonna kick up a stink ? I've got a wife and kids to think about, so no , I won't be marching down Queen St demanding that the ocupational forces leave. After all, the agitators, such as your good self, would be first up against the wall."

Second point, what were the Taliban doing on the top floor of the Intercontinental hotel, RPG's et all. Star gazing ?

For a more real world an down to earth evaluation of whats up, may I thoroughly recomend The Straegy Page..

"June 25, 2011: A car bomb demolished a small rural hospital in eastern Afghanistan. The Islamic terrorists know that medical aid, economic growth and education are popular with most Afghans, and attack it whenever possible, so as to eliminate these un-Islamic Western influences"

Chris Trotter said...

Well, well, well, Andy C.

First you come over with all the world-weary cynicism of a man who would endorse Dr Johnson's quip that "Patriotism is the last refuge of a scoundrel". And then you start asking questions that only someone who still believes in our Afghanistan "mission" could pose.

Forgive me, but aren't these two positions contradictory?

Or, are you so cynical that the only sort of fighting you're prepared to condone is that done by soldiers from someone else's country?

Were New Zealand invaded and occupied, I hope I'd have the courage to emulate the hero of Leonard Cohen's song "The Partisan":

"When they poured across the border
I was cautioned to surrender
This I could not do
I took my gun and vanished"

If you would know more about the real situation in Afghanistan, read James Fergusson's "Taliban: The True Story of the World's Most Feared Fighting-Force."