NZ's role in peacekeeping and in Afghanistan

  • Phil Goff

Thank you for your invitation today, and for the opportunity to give my first speech as Minister of Defence.

It is a privilege to hold the Defence portfolio. I am proud of the role our defence forces have played over the last century and in contemporary deployments.

Despite being a small country in a relatively isolated geographic location, New Zealand has consistently been internationalist in its outlook and ready to contribute to international security.

The contribution and sacrifices made by our country's defence forces have often been disproportionate to our size. We can take pride in the reputation they have earned for competency and courage.

Today we continue to be active in peacekeeping and where necessary for peace and security in deployment of combat forces.

I have had the opportunity to observe at first-hand the work undertaken by our defence personnel in Bougainville, East Timor, the Solomons, Bosnia, Cambodia, the Middle East, and Afghanistan. Those working alongside our personnel, and the communities in which they work, have accorded them highest praise.

A special feature of Kiwi forces has been their ability to relate to local people, to get on with them and avoid arrogance. I remember visiting our peacekeepers in Suai, East Timor, in January 2000 in the first weeks of our deployment. I was travelling in an army truck marked with a Kiwi emblem when I saw a group of school children being taught in the shade of a tree because their school had been stripped of its corrugated iron roofing and torched.

I asked the driver to stop so I could take a photo. The kids looked up, jumped to their feet and came running towards the road, shouting kia ora, Kiwis. Our soldiers, in just a few weeks, had won the affection of children who only months previously had regarded soldiers in uniform as a threat.

I got similarly positive responses from local people in Bougainville and the Solomons, who welcomed the presence of our forces and the work they did.

Outside the Pacific, in places like Bamyan in Afghanistan, the local Hazara people have also responded in a very warm fashion to Kiwi peacekeepers. And it is on Afghanistan that I would like to focus this morning.

Members of our own Afghani community living in New Zealand have welcomed the role played by New Zealanders in their country. But support had not been universal. Some of you may have seen an article by David Beatson in last week's Independent newspaper sharply critical of our presence there.

Beatson characterises New Zealand as playing a 'secret' role in 'a dirty little war' and goes on to argue that we despatched troops there before there was a United Nations mandate for it. He is wrong on all counts.

Our deployment to Afghanistan was in strict accordance with international law and under a process of multilateral decision-making that New Zealand, as an active member of the international community, strongly supports.

International forces were sent after the unanimous passing through the UN Security Council of resolutions 1368 and 1373, on 12 and 28 September 2001. These expressly reaffirmed, with respect to intervention in Afghanistan, the inherent right of countries to individual and collective self-defence as recognised by the UN Charter.

The reason for the UN-mandated international intervention in Afghanistan was clear. It was not simply that the Taliban regime was involved in appalling human rights abuses, though that was certainly true. Girls banned from attending school, women prohibited from the paid workforce, weekly executions at the Kabul football stadium, and the destruction of the ancient Buddha statues at Bamyan, are just a few examples of the Taliban's appalling behaviour.

The key reason for the intervention, however, was to end the Taliban's hosting of Al Qaeda – the terrorist organisation launching attacks on innocent civilian populations around the world. These attacks culminated in the 9/11 attacks on New York. The Taliban repeatedly refused international demands to stop Al Qaeda's activities.

On 3 October 2001, in accordance with the Security Council resolutions, the New Zealand parliament voted overwhelmingly in support of a contribution to the war against terrorism in Afghanistan.

We accepted our responsibility and committed troops and resources to end Afghanistan's hosting of Al Qaeda and to help create stability and prosperity in a country that after twenty years of civil war had become a failed state.

Mr Beatson talked about a range of problems persisting in Afghanistan – the continuing power of warlords, the production of opium, and abuse of human rights, which have not been eliminated.

These problems and more are very real, but it is unrealistic to believe that transforming a country from feudalism and anarchy to a modern 21st Century state can be achieved overnight. Inevitably such a huge challenge will take time.

Afghanistan remains in transition with a tenuous security situation. The Taliban and elements sympathetic to Al Qaeda continue to provide resistance, particularly in the south and south east of Afghanistan and the border with Pakistan. The level of violence including the use of improvised explosive devices and suicide bombings has increased this year.

The poor security environment hampers reconstruction and the chance of a decent future for ordinary Afghans, who have yet to see sufficient change in their daily life. Afghanistan remains a critically poor country.

Other problems are also present: regional warlords are trying to hedge against the emergence of a strong Afghan government. Many believe they can merely wait for the withdrawal of the international community and return to controlling their respective areas.

The disarmament of illegal armed groups is a key national challenge, as is reducing the influence of opium production.

The narcotics problem is huge. Opium constitutes 40 per cent of the country's total economy. It has a strong link to other problems such as corruption, which remains a major barrier to building trust and effective governance.

Widespread unemployment hampers national and regional development, and without alternative forms of income, in some areas locals see the only choices as being between dealing in narcotics or poverty.

These challenges continue to impede the establishment of strong central government and longer-term nation building objectives.

What critics of our involvement in Afghanistan do not say, however, is how leaving the Taliban and Al Qaeda in control of Afghanistan would have addressed those problems. Clearly it would not have, and it would have left the international community exposed to continuing Afghanistan-based terrorist action.

Years of hard work remain before Afghan people will be able to create a peaceful, sustainable and successful Afghan state. The international community needs to maintain its involvement and commitment for this to happen.

Despite the challenges I have just described, the reality is that four years on, Afghanistan is a very different place. While fragile, it is no longer a failing state.

The country has a new constitution, an elected president, an elected legislature and rep provincial councils. The main institutions of state are now largely in place and Afghanistan is entering a new era. International assistance has been critical in helping establish security support for the political process to succeed.

New Zealand has made a real contribution to that. Our assistance has included providing defence force personnel to Operation Enduring Freedom and participation in the NATO-led International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) and the United Nations Assistance Mission in Afghanistan (UNAMA).

Two NZDF non-commissioned officers are working alongside the United Kingdom to provide command and leadership training to the Afghan National Army. Progress has been made towards establishing a professional, multi-ethnic army with the capacity to ultimately take responsibility for Afghanistan's security.

The New Zealand Police are now also playing a role mentoring the local police force. The establishment of an effective Afghanistan police force is a critical element in the restoration of law and order, protection of human rights and maintenance of security in Afghanistan.

Our 120-strong Provincial Reconstruction Team (PRT) in Bamyan, now in its sixth rotation, has been our largest defence force contribution. It was just the third PRT established in Afghanistan. As mandated by the UN, it has worked towards, and succeeded in achieving, a more secure environment.

Our PRT has promoted stability and security in the province; facilitated the conditions for elections and the disarmament, demobilisation and reintegration of former combatants; facilitated reconstruction and development, and worked to encourage the extension of national and regional Afghan government authority in the provinces.

It has worked with non-government organisations and other civilian organisations and is part of a key partnership between local government, national government and the international community.

The PRT has also supported a number of development projects, funded by our international development agency, NZAID, the UK Department for International Development and USAID. Its work overall has been welcomed and praised by locals, the Afghani government including President Karzai, and by other foreign agencies and defence forces it has worked alongside.

PRT patrols have helped to create a secure environment and that is reflected in the confidence now shown in the local community. The PRT provided a reassuring security presence during the Parliamentary elections in September.

In this environment, for the first time in their history, the people of Bamyan have exercised the democratic right to elect their president and parliamentary representatives. The enrolment and turnout of women voters in Bamyan was amongst the highest in the country.

New Zealand’s PRT cannot stay indefinitely in Afghanistan. Nor would the local population desire a permanent foreign presence. New Zealand is currently committed to providing a PRT in Bamyan province until at least September 2006. Ministers will consider early next year the future of the PRT and the desirability of extending it further, as well as other possible commitments for Operation Enduring Freedom.

Our other major military contribution has been through our special forces. Security and stability in Afghanistan will not be restored by peacekeeping and development assistance alone. Taliban and Al Qaeda remnants continue to resort to violence, including against aid workers, and have shown the international community that they will only be constrained by the use of, or at least the threat of, force.

As a result, New Zealand has sent three rotations of SAS combat forces to contribute to the building of security in Afghanistan. They conduct long-range missions alongside Special Forces from other countries. This year the SAS were especially important in supporting efforts to improve the security situation in the lead up to, during, and in the aftermath of the September parliamentary elections.

One of the key impediments to reconstruction work and development is the security situation. Without security, development is impossible, and without development security by itself cannot achieve economic and social progress.

Our commitments in Afghanistan, the cost of which now totals around $110 million, reflect our willingness to tackle both issues head on.

I began my comments today by referring to New Zealand's long-term commitment to building a more secure international environment, mandated by a multilateral decision making process.

We have made that contribution for reasons of self-interest as well as humanitarian considerations. New Zealand's own security, prosperity and stability rely on a world in which other countries enjoy these attributes. While terrorism spawned in the chaos of Afghanistan has not resulted in attacks on New Zealand itself, New Zealanders have died in attacks on New York, London and Bali.

New Zealand's commitments today involve more than 200 defence personnel deployed on multinational missions around the world.

In addition to Afghanistan, the Solomons and East Timor, New Zealand peacekeepers are deployed in the Middle East. We have 26 personnel in the Multilateral Force and observers in the Sinai.

We currently hold the head of mission position and contribute peacekeepers to the United Nations Truce Supervisory Organisation based in Israel and Lebanon.

We have personnel deployed in Bosnia and Kosovo, and most recently in Sudan. And we currently have senior officers working within the United Nations Department of Peacekeeping.

I believe that New Zealanders as a whole strongly support the continuation of our commitment to peacekeeping work.

As a country we have the advantage of being a small and non-threatening country. And we have a reputation for having competent and professional defence forces.

Peacekeeping is a contribution we can make as a good international citizen to enhance the security of the world in which we live.

I wish you well for the remainder of the day's proceedings.