With 10 dead and $300 million spent, what did we get out of Afghanistan?
That’s a conservative estimate of the cost this 20-year conflict has imposed on New Zealand. That’s lives lost and money spent in Afghanistan.
It doesn’t count those whose lives have since been spent. We don’t have anything like a capable count on suicide among former service people, never mind those with ongoing mental health injury.
We don’t know the potential benefit if the money and muscle had been plugged into different operations or what that $300m might have otherwise bought.
So what was it all for, now that the Taliban again controls Afghanistan? It’s a question being asked today by many of those 3500 NZ Defence Force personnel who served there.
The answer is always ugly in that space where politics meets war. We got better relations with the United States, thawed out the Anzus rift, paid our dues for membership to the Five Eyes club.
We stood with other nations who will today be asking the same question. That in itself is a club formed 20 years ago after the September 11 attacks when President George W. Bush said: “Every nation, in every region, now has a decision to make. Either you are with us, or you are with the terrorists.”
Prime Minister Helen Clark was in the air so it was Jim Anderton as Deputy Prime Minister who said: “New Zealand is a small country and the United States is very large, but we will stand ready to offer help in any way we can.”
Our help came in two forms,through the NZ Special Air Service deployments and through the Provincial Reconstruction Team in Bamiyan province.
It began awkwardly for the NZSAS which was initially reliant on other nations for transport before switching to long-range vehicle patrols, essentially finding a slot to work which didn’t involve begging helicopter rides. It came into its own almost a decade on when it took on training the Afghan elite unit in Kabul, often acting as the tip of the spear when faced with insurgent or terrorist attacks in the capital.
For those in Bamiyan, they arrived in a degraded and devastated community bumping along on the poverty line with Taliban brutality in recent memory. They patrolled a district with roads that make rough farm tracks back home look like highways, running health clinics in remote villages, building wells, getting power on, and even making swings for a local orphanage.
It was there in the dirt and dust that NZDF’s people at the PRT and in the NZSAS built bonds. Our military does this and is recognised for doing so – Kiwi soldiers might have weapons in hand but a genuine willingness to engage and treat people as equals and friends who had yet to meet has always been our best argument. Kanohi ki te kanohi, we met the Afghan people and showed ourselves.
Those men and women on the ground look for something tangible to come from a deployment. There’s adventure and excitement, there’s excellence in soldiering, but there’s also the desire to make a difference.
When bad days came, and losing a friend is the worst of days, that connection was part of getting through. They could look at the patch of Afghanistan in which they worked and fairly say, we made a difference, that there was a point to it. It was a belief they were contributing to something.
It is said soldiers fights wars, that it is politicians who start and end wars. It is politicians and generals who cast an eye across the world and judge loss and success by geopolitical tectonic shifts. At those levels, better relations with the United States, or improved trade, or better intelligence sharing fill up the other side of the ledger.
Those who tasted the dust, felt the cold bite of winter and the searing heat of summer, will feel the Taliban’s resurgence like a kick in the guts. In some it will inflict a moral injury – that feeling of having betrayed core values.
So what does it mean? What was the point? Right now, for those who served, it will be hard to answer. For those who lost someone, even harder.
There are words not often said in New Zealand. They have a jingoistic ring that makes Kiwis cringe.
Today, though, it is worth speaking those words. “Thank you for your service.” If you know someone who went to Afghanistan and came home again, thank them. Most sought to make a difference and the return of the Taliban has taken much of that.
With the Taliban returned, those who served brace for the tangible gains to wash away like sand held in the tide. The deaths of 10 who served, the injuries brought home both mental and physical, the damage distance and stress does to relationships with children and partners – the struggle to find meaning in the 20-year war stands on uncertain ground.
* David Fisher reported on NZDF in Afghanistan in 2006.
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