Two reports released last week give a typically bleak insight into the dirty politics of war.
In the first, Defence Minister Phil Goff said New Zealand’s Special Air Service soldiers who took part in the 2001 US-led invasion of Afghanistan acquitted themselves well. He was reporting to parliament’s Foreign Affairs, Defence and Trade Select Committee.
From 2001 to 2005 there were three deployments of troops to Afghanistan, numbering from 40 to 65. One of their main tasks was “snatch-grab” missions whereby suspected terrorists were rounded up and handed over to the US for detention and interrogation at Bagram airbase. Our troops were involved in the capture of between 50 and 70 suspects.
It has now been revealed that within a few months of arriving in Afghanistan the New Zealanders expressed serious concerns at how their suspects were treated when handed over to the Americans.
Instead of being photographed, identified and having their weapons properly registered the suspects had their heads shaved, no photos or ID taken and their belongings thrown into a single pile.
So concerned were the New Zealanders that they called a meeting with special force units from other countries.
The outcome of the meeting is unclear but neither Goff nor the former Defence Minister Mark Burton claim to have been aware it even took place. They should have been. Bagram air base is the Abu Ghraib of Afghanistan with routine torture and brutal treatment of suspects.
For example in March 2003 the death of two detainees at the base was confirmed as homicide, contradicting earlier false US military reports that one had died of a heart attack and the other from a pulmonary embolism.
The death certificates showed that one suspect, known only as Dilawar aged 22, died from “blunt force injuries to lower extremities complicating coronary artery disease” while another suspect, Mullah Habibullah aged 30, suffered from a blood clot in the lung that was exacerbated by a “blunt force injury”. These men were beaten to death during interrogation.
Were these detainees “snatched” by New Zealanders? We don’t know. At the time Helen Clark was specifically asked to protest their torture and murder but refused.
Goff now loftily says that “We from quite an early stage have made it clear that our expectation is that all detainees are treated humanely and in accordance with international law”.
Just how the government “made it clear” and to whom is a mystery.
What is perfectly clear is that while New Zealand soldiers were raising concerns in Afghanistan our government was refusing to engage.
Goff did reveal last week that after the first SAS deployment the former New Zealand Defence Force Chief, Bruce Ferguson “negotiated a deal with the International committee of the Red Cross to follow up on any prisoners New Zealand forces helped to capture”.
Goff also said “…to the best of our knowledge, none of those people are still in custody in the hands of US authorities”.
They may no longer be in detention but equally they may well lie in unmarked graves. We will never know.
Why didn’t the government just front up and ask the US some straight-forward questions? The answer it seems is that it’s best not to ask questions that might tell you what you don’t want to know.
Instead Goff’s statements are designed to smooth over uncomfortable truths, disguise a lack of moral courage and discourage unpalatable questions. They amount to a political whitewash.
The second report paints a grim picture of life in “liberated” Afghanistan. The Washington based Centre for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) released a survey financed by the US government. It bluntly says what we have all known for a long time now. There has been a collapse in confidence and support for the Hamed Karzai government (now associated with nepotism and corruption) and a resurgence of support for the Taleban, not in its own right but for the fight to oust foreign troops.
Ordinary people now even prefer justice to be dispensed by tribal authorities rather than the newly established courts because most cannot afford court costs or the amounts needed to bribe judges.
The country is effectively in the control of warlords and drug barons, one of the largest of whom is none other than Karzai’s younger brother, Ahmad Wali Karzai.
Few tears were shed anywhere when the medieval Taleban were toppled but by any measure Afghanistan today is in a worse state than when New Zealand joined the invaders in 2001. Foreign invasion and occupation was never going to be the answer.
We must now all share the shame of our involvement and our government’s lack of backbone.