'Stain on our character': War journo says NZ has to accept some of the blame for the failure in Afghanistan

A Kiwi journalist whose work on the ground in Afghanistan led to a Government inquiry says our failure to evacuate locals who helped our forces is a "stain on our character" as a nation. 

New Zealand ended its almost 20-year deployment in the war-torn Asian nation earlier this year, but a few went back in August to assist with evacuations after the US gave up trying to hold off the resurgent Taliban. 

The Taliban were in control of Afghanistan when al-Qaeda terrorists  launched a stunning attack on the US, killing about 3000 people on the morning of September 11, 2001. Less than a month later the US led an international effort to unseat the Taliban, who wouldn't hand over al-Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden, as the US had requested, without proof he masterminded the attacks. 

Nearly 200,000 lost their lives over the next 20 years as a result according to an Associated Press tally, many of them civilians. In August nearly 20 years after they were driven from the capital, the Taliban retook control.

War journalist Jon Stephenson says on reflection, it is clear the global response has been an abject failure.

"It's tragic beyond words that 20 years after the Twin Towers came down, the attack on the Pentagon, the loss of the plane in Shanksville, Pennsylvania and all the trauma of the invasion and occupation of Afghanistan and Iraq, we're pretty much back at ground zero again." 

Stephenson spent time in Afghanistan, and his book Hit and Run - written with Nicky Hager - uncovered a raid by New Zealand forces that led to the deaths of half-a-dozen civilians

"In countries like New Zealand, people will be asking what was it all about? What did we gain from the 20 years we've been involved in America's so-called 'War on Terror'? … 

"It's really important to acknowledge the work that many New Zealanders undertook in Afghanistan, particularly our servicemen and women who went up there with the best of intentions - particularly in places like Bamiyan province, and really tried to make a difference. But it doesn't matter how hard you're rowing the boat if it's pointing in the wrong direction…

"There wasn't a coherent plan on the part of the Americans, who essentially were calling most of the shots. We allied with the Americans, they allied with corrupt warlords and corrupt leaders… we were part of a failure in a sense that we didn't deliver what the people of Afghanistan needed. We didn't build the institutions, we didn't give the Afghan people the tools they needed to run a successful country." 

His comments echo those of Helen Clark, the Prime Minister at the time who committed New Zealand forces to joining the US-led invasion. She said the US got distracted by Iraq and failed to make a long-term investment in rebuilding the country, which has been in a constant state of warfare since the Soviets invaded four decades ago. 

"I think what we did was appropriate," Clark told The AM Show on Friday. "But as I say, you can replay the record and see the steps at which the international response could have been different in the following years, and perhaps with better results… I guess hindsight is a wonderful thing."

Stephenson said New Zealand has to "accept a significant share of responsibility for what has happened in Afghanistan". 

"We weren't the architects of the policy, but we certainly followed along in an occupation that failed to deliver what it promised." 

And we're still failing, he says, with Afghans who worked with our troops either left behind or here, but without their families - a "stain on our character". 

"I'm personally aware of multiple cases of Afghan nationals who have been granted New Zealand visas, and yet have had no - as in zero, zip, nada - follow-up from New Zealand authorities." 

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

Nawidullah Atayee, who was an interpreter, has been in New Zealand for a few years now - but his family are still in Afghanistan despite his efforts to bring them over.

"I haven't had a proper sleep since the fall of Afghanistan. I still have my brother and sister, I still have my family there. Similar to my situation, there are other interpreters that worked for the New Zealand army that have family members in Afghanistan...

"Banks are shut, people are out of work, there's no government support. People that have worked for international troops… their family members face significant threats from the Taliban." 

Stephenson said authorities here seem to have "very little knowledge of what's going on, and very little that they can do in terms of helping". 

While he acknowledges the fall of Kabul happened with "astonishing rapidity" once the US announced it was finished, he says more could have been done in the six months between the end of our mission and the end of the war.