The New Zealand-led Provincial Reconstruction Team in Bamyan has been presented as a model for building security and stability in Afghanistan – but the cracks are showing as insurgents step up the pressure.
Saturday, 4 August 2011, is New Zealand’s blackest day – so far - in the longest war in our history .Two New Zealand soldiers have been killed, six of their unit wounded. Two members of the Afghan police squad they’d been sent to assist were also killed, 11 of their colleagues wounded. Four deaths, 17 casualties in a single clash with Taliban insurgents near the remote coal town of Do Ab-e-Mikh-e-Zarin on the northeast border between Bamyan and Baghlan provinces.
In Afghanistan, this is just another day in the war– but it comes as a shock to most New Zealanders to learn that five of the seven NZDF soldiers who have died there since September 2010 were members of the Bamyan Provincial Reconstruction Team, and all five PRT deaths occurred in the same region of the province.
When the Bamyan PRT was initiated in 2003, Labour’s defence minister Mark Burton assured everyone that it was not a combat unit. “PRTs provide a strengthened military observer capacity, monitoring and assessing civil, political, and military reform efforts through community engagement. In addition, they also act as liaisons for non-government organisations and other civilian organisations,” he said.
Since then, Bamyan has been consistently represented to New Zealanders as an island of relative peace in a land racked by one of the most un-civil wars in the world today. The air-brushed official version of life in Bamyan was presented perfectly last June by U.S. Army Sgt. Ken Scar, a member of the 7th Mobile Public Affairs Detachment:
“Led by the Bamyan PRT, which is headed by tireless contingents of New Zealand and Malaysian soldiers, real progress is taking root. Encouraging signs of advancement have sprouted up everywhere: More than 1,000 triangular stone doorways stand to the sides of the cultivatefields, entrances to efficient potato storage units designed by the Japanese. Brooks and streams rush into flumes that divert their energy through micro-hydro dams funded by the United States Agency for International Development. New tractors chug through the fields, plowing deeper and faster than the traditional teams of two oxen, thanks to a mechanization program spearheaded by the Bamyan PRT and funded by New Zealand Aid.”
Reality was ready with a brutal antidote to Scar’s lyricism. As his puff piece was published, insurgents mounted an attack on the Bamyan office of Haji Mohammad Mohadid, the leader of the People’s Unity Party in Afghanistan. Within the space of a few days, two roadside bomb explosions in Bamyan killed dozens of civilians and nine police officers.
Bamyan’s police chief Juma Guldi Yardem had been expecting trouble. A month before the explosions, Yardem revealed that 20 Taliban fighters had crossed the border from neighbouring Baghlan province. “They usually plant roadside bombs, lead attacks on security checkpoints, and some have even launched suicide attacks on some government offices.” Prophetic words.
Bamyan’s governor Habiba Sarabi had seen trouble coming for more than a year. She asked the Karzai government to station Afghan National Army troops in her province as soon as Karzai announced a process to take control of security there in July last year. In April, Sarabi told the Afghan news agency Bamdad:
“Bamyan security forces are not well-equipped. We have already asked relevant authorities to strengthen and equip security forces, particularly the Police. We hope they provide police with modern equipment and heavy weapons as soon as possible.”
Her police chief Yardem says he needs army support to deal with the insurgent threat spilling over from less peaceful neighbouring areas – particularly Baghlan, Parwan and Wardak provinces.
There is still no Afghan National Army presence in Bamyan – but, a month after Sarabi made her concerns public, our government announced it would accelerate its plan to bring the New Zealand PRT troops home next year instead of 2014.
Since last February, I have filed requests with Defence Minister Jonathan Coleman for the information he has received from NZDF about the impact of the transfer of general security responsibility in Bamyan to Afghan authorities and the future of the New Zealand PRT. He says releasing the documents he has would prejudice the security and defence of New Zealand, the government’s international relations, the provision of confidential information by other governments, and free and frank expressions of opinions between ministers and officers of government departments. He refers requests for information about the performance and future of the PRT to his cabinet colleague Murray McCully. A similar request for information from Minister McCully has been just as productive.
In an appearance before Parliament’s Foreign Affairs, Defence and Trade Committee last month, Minister McCully was challenged over the release of a heavily censored version of his Ministry’s brief to him as its incoming minister after the last election. It has since vanished from the MFAT website, and a promised, more revealing, new version has still to make its appearance.
The Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Trade Statement of Intent for 2012-2015 contains absolutely no mention of Afghanistan beyond a statement of the blindingly obvious: “Afghanistan, Iran, North Korea and the stability of Pakistan remain major international security preoccupations.”
All we have as a guide to the future of New Zealand’s commitment to Afghanistan is a paragraph from Minister McCully’s announcement of the early troop withdrawal last May.
"The government has agreed to continue to contribute to the international effort in Afghanistan in a number of ways. A small number of training officers will be made available to the Afghan National Army Officer Academy from 2013. A three year commitment of US$2 million per year has been made to Afghan National Security Force rule of law projects in Bamyan, and we will maintain an on-going development presence in the province.”
This month’s Black Day in Bamyan demands a serious reality check on the contribution of the New Zealand-led provincial reconstruction team model to security and stability and the feasibility of maintaining any civilian-led aid commitment in Afghanistan beyond the withdrawal of New Zealand troops.