Kiwis in Bamyan

This continues my ongoing review of Hynek and Marton’s book on state-building in Afghanistan.

New Zealand has had a presence in Afghanistan from the beginning with their providing an SAS element in 2001.  Beginning in 2003, they took over control of the Bamyan PRT and have been there ever since.  Stephen Hoadley focuses on the PRT experience and makes the argument that New Zealand has found the ‘silver bullet’ (or at least comes close) in the mix of soft and hard power to achieve results in a COIN campaign that has eluded most other coalition partners. 

I’ll get into that argument in a minute but first some context about NZ/U.S. relations to cast some light on the question of ‘alliance dependence’ that has proved so influential for all the other nations discussed thus far.  Back in the 1980s, New Zealand angered American authorities by refusing to let U.S. Navy ships dock in kiwi ports.  The issue surrounded concerns over nuclear power and the Kiwis refused to let any nuclear powered ships (and, I believe also those carrying nuclear weapons) use their ports.  That caused all sorts of repercussion:

…since 1985 the Unites States has refused to exercise bilaterally with NZ forces…The ANZUS Treaty of 1951 was declared ‘inoperative’, the security guarantee to NZ was suspended by Washington, high-level diplomatic contact was refused for several years and no US Navy ship has visited NZ since 1982.  [Although, that might not be such a bad thing since it’s not clear how thousands of bell bottom clad sailors would get along with all those orcs.  eds.]

So, maintenance of an alliance may not have been a particularly strong interest for New Zealanders, getting past this thirty year impasse may have been.

Under their aegis, the NZ PRT has focused a great deal of resources into Bamyan.  The province, described as ‘neglected’ by central authorities in Kabul, is the second largest recipient of development funds per capitia and they’d argue that they aren’t just throwing money around willy nilly.  According to one of the PRT commanders:

The NZPRT went to great pains to ensure that it ‘facilitated’ actions and were not the leaders.  In all activities and all meeting venues it was ‘let the locals take the lead’…ultimately decisions taken were local decisions.  [Furthermore] the Kiwi soldier, sailor and airperson is more empathetic than most….members took the time to learn parts of the language, but more importantly, local customs and practices…members made it a point not to offend locals and adopted as many local practices and customs as possible…Many PRTs from other nationalities would say they did this as well but Kiwis just did it better.

Huh.

And here’s where I start to have problems with this chapter or, perhaps, problems with how NZ evaluates its efforts in Afghanistan.  After going on about the lack of good metrics to evaluate progress in nation building, the Kiwis seem to settle on a hodge-podge of anecdotes and numbers and view them in the best possible light.  For example:

New Zealand military and civilian personnel at Kiwi Base or Bamyan town have never sustained direct attacks, threats or insults, indicating that their activities have not generated local hostility but rather have won acceptance and respect.

I’m not sure that’s what it indicates at all.  It could but there are other possible interpretations as well.  When I was in Bagram during 2003/2004, with the largest collection of coalition military personnel in the country, we had few instances of ‘direct attacks, threats or insults’ as well.  You could (and I fear many in command did) interpret that to mean that things were going quite well.  An alternate narrative was that potential opponents were content to bide their time by profiting from many lucrative coalition contracts.  Why screw things up in Bagram when you could make money there and fund insurgent activity elsewhere where the profit potential wasn’t as great?

Hoadley provides another possible explanation in the very next sentence of his chapter:

…New Zealand patrols operating distant from Kiwi Base have been the target of IED emplacements starting in 2008, attributed to Taliban militia moving through Bamyan from Baghlan and other less secure neighboring provinces.

(Full disclosure:  I don’t know jack about Bamyan, the surrounding provinces or the threat situation there.  However…)  If Bamyan is seen as a valuable route of travel by insurgents they might not want to draw a lot of attention to their presence and risk getting shut down.  Depending on how aggressive the Kiwis are/were on their presence away from Kiwi Base, insurgents may have essentially had free movement for years and only began pushing back with IEDs as patrols expanded their areas of operation (but, that’s entirely speculative).  In this hypothesis, Bamyan is not seen as being worth the time to expend resources on either because it’s not seen as strategically valuable to insurgents or the operating environment isn’t particularly conducive to the insurgents.  Were there any indications that Bamyan was vulnerable to insurgents before the arrival of the Kiwis?

So, I’m just a bit suspicious when someone points to success in Afghanistan by talking about ‘creating hope and confidence’ among the population or talks about ‘transforming society from within’ without following up by what that really means.

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