Cowardice in Afghanistan

News reports over the weekend confirm what most people who have followed the Afghanistan conflict have known for many years – New Zealand was a participant in US operations which led to torture, abuse and death of suspects.

From 2001 to 2005 there were three deployments, numbering from 40 to 65, of our so-called elite troops, the SAS (Special Air Services), to Afghanistan. They took part in “snatch-grab” missions whereby suspected terrorists were captured and handed over to the US for detention and interrogation. By all accounts our SAS handed over between 50 and 70 suspects but they did so without taking identity details. Instead of being photographed, identified and having their weapons properly registered the suspects usually had their heads shaved and their belongings thrown into a single pile.

We are signatories to the 1949 Geneva Convention and the 1984 UN Convention against Torture which prohibit degrading, humiliating or torturing prisoners and from transferring them to countries which do so. And yet this is precisely what happened.

It’s seems clear it was common knowledge among the New Zealanders that the suspects they captured were being mistreated. One SAS soldier is quoted saying “we sort of knew what would happen to the prisoners, Americans being Americans”.

There were some early signs of concern. There is the suggestion that after one incident the New Zealand commander “remonstrated with the Americans about the way they were initially handling people who were handed over to them”. Then in April 2002 SAS commander Lieutenant-Colonel Jim Blackwell evidently convened a meeting with leaders of the Danish, Norwegian, German and Canadian special forces where similar concerns were expressed.

New Zealand Defence Force Brigadier Kevin Riordan says New Zealand takes its responsibilities under the Geneva Convention seriously and there were difficulties getting the names of those they snatched. Defence Force Chief Jerry Mateparae says the rules about handing over prisoners had been tightened since the SAS first went to Afghanistan.

None of this counts for much. Raising concerns is not a substitute for insisting international law is upheld. American torture of detainees was an open secret from very early on in the piece. If the US sidelined the Geneva Convention it’s no excuse for New Zealanders to do the same. The effect of the actions of New Zealand soldiers, their commanders and politicians back home was to turn a blind eye. We have all heard of the bravery of SAS soldier Willie Apiata in Afghanistan when he carried a wounded comrade to safety while under fire. It’s a pity such bravery did not extend to New Zealanders standing up to the US for the most basic rights of the suspects they had captured.

That there were breaches of international law is clear. And such breaches mean our soldiers could be guilty of war crimes.

Prime Minister Helen Clark showed no courage. She was asked at the time to protest about the murder of two detainees in US custody in Afghanistan when this was publicised but she refused. She also refused to confirm or deny what the SAS were doing in Afghanistan.

Subsequently we sent a PRT (Provincial Reconstruction Team) of army personnel and since then we have been regularly treated to good news stories about the great work these soldiers have been doing in rebuilding schools and health clinics. Warm fuzzies all round. It’s been so successful as a public relations exercise that most New Zealanders want the PRT to stay despite John Key’s intention to end the mission.

It shouldn’t have gone in the first place. It may come as a surprise to many that there are lots of builders, electricians, plumbers and drainlayers in Afghanistan. The $180 million we have spent keeping the PRT there would have been much better spent channelled via non-governmental organisation to give the work to local Afghans to do the building for themselves. The money would have stretched a lot further to build a lot more schools etc.

Alongside closing the PRT mission John Key wants to send SAS troops to the country again. In the coming days and weeks he will tell us we need to be there to prevent the country becoming a terrorist haven.

We shouldn’t buy into this redeployment. For the past eight years we have helped the US turn Afghanistan from a terrorist haven to a terrorist incubator with the starting point for terror in the first place being US foreign policy.

The invasion and occupation of the country has been a disaster. The US and its allies are losing a war they should never have started. We should get out and stay out. Better late than never.