'Abject failure': New Zealand's involvement in Afghanistan War questioned

As New Zealand prepares to pull its troops out of Afghanistan after 20 years of war, experts here are questioning what it was all for. 

Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern on Wednesday announced the final six Kiwis still on the ground in the war-torn Asian nation will soon be home.

"The deployments to Afghanistan have been one of the longest-running in our history, and I wish to acknowledge the 10 New Zealanders who lost their lives in the line of duty, and the more than 3500 New Zealand Defence Force (NZDF) and other agency personnel, whose commitment to replace conflict with peace will always be remembered," she said.

New Zealand was involved in the initial invasion in 2001, following the ruling Taliban's refusal to hand over terrorist leader Osama bin Laden unless the US provided proof he was involved in planning the September 11 attacks in the US. 

In the 20 years since, 10 New Zealand troops have lost their lives and hundreds of millions of taxpayer's dollars have been spent. 

"It's a very high price to pay for rebuilding our relationship with the United States," Kiwi war correspondent Jon Stephenson told Newshub. 

"We've lost lives, we've had a lot of people injured and we've been part of a very brutal, bloody war which has involved torture and mistreatment of prisoners."

Stephenson has been to Afghanistan, reporting on New Zealand's involvement in what has become the longest war in both our and the United States' history. His book Hit & Run, co-written with investigative journalist Nicky Hager, sparked an inquiry into alleged civilian deaths at the hands of Kiwi troops. 

The inquiry found it was "likely" a young child had died and six civilians injured as the result of a NZDF raid which wasn't properly investigated by military bosses at the time, who later made a series of false claims about what had happened that day in August 2010. 

"It's important we recognise the contributions that have been made by New Zealand servicemen and servicewomen, but overall in terms of the political, economic, social and most importantly security situation, I think the war in Afghanistan has been an abject failure," said Stephenson. 

"There's no doubt that the foreign forces - including New Zealand - have made some significant contributions, but the real question is have those gains been what they should have been, given the fact we spent billions of dollars and sacrificed thousands of lives?"

Jon Stephenson.
Jon Stephenson. Photo credit: The AM Show

Since 2001, more than 65,000 Afghan soldiers, 3500 international coalition soldiers, 38,000 civilians and at least 72,000 Taliban and Islamist militant fighters have been killed. The fighting might not make headlines much anymore, but it's still happening - the New York Times monthly casualty report shows more than 310 died this most recent January

Peace talks started last year have stalled in the wake of "violence... much higher than historical norms", according to Gen Scott Miller, head of the US forces in Afghanistan, who expects a "spring offensive" from the Taliban to come in March. 

Locals spoken to by Reuters have backed this up.

"In the past two weeks the topics Taliban preachers preach, especially on Friday prayers... have changed,” one a tribal elder from Kunduz said. “They preach about... fighting against invasion, and they openly invite people to join them. It’s a clear message that they are preparing for another fight this spring.”

The Taliban has failed to live up to its previous promises of de-escalation, University of Waikato professor of international relations Al Gillespie told Newshub.

"After 20 years of fighting, tens of thousands of deaths and billions in dollars, this is not what success looks like. New Zealand was right to be involved in this fight. Our people made a great contribution, but we too paid a price."

Al Gillespie.
Al Gillespie. Photo credit: File

New US President Joe BIden has a dilemma on his hands, Prof Gillespie said. Plans for US and NATO troops to leave by the end of April are in disarray. 

"The timeline was based on the 2020 agreement between the US and Taliban - and was subject to the Taliban keeping a number of promises (reduced violence, no foreign terror influence). The Taliban have done neither...

"Biden is now stuck with the option of either reinflating the small number of US troops remaining, or walking away. After 20 years, the temptation is to walk away from what has become an inter-generational conflict. However, if he does so, the country will almost certainly collapse back into a vicious civil war."

The Taliban are battle-hardened. Before the US-led invasion, they took control of Afghanistan in a multi-sided civil war - and prior to that, many were involved in fighting against the Soviets. 

Prof Gillespie says the Taliban are stronger now than at any time since the invasion of 2001. In 2019, a report said they still controlled about 15 percent of the country's territory, but were openly active across most of the nation. 

"Grand visions of what a peace deal would look like are quickly fading. It's not a deal about democracy, human rights or even reduced violence. At the moment, probably the best deal Biden could get is not to be shot at on the way out."

Stephenson says despite two decades of fighting the extremists, getting them onside will be crucial to any lasting peace. 

"One of the great ironies of our involvement in Afghanistan is that the very people we went in there to overthrow - the Taliban - are the people who will be either running the Government or playing a critical role in it after we leave," said Stephenson. 

"If you look at New Zealand's involvement in Afghanistan and you ask whether the mission has been a success, it's definitely been an abject failure in terms of restoring that country to some semblance of stability."