Is This The War You Want?

Tracey Barnett ©May 2010

My twelve-year-old son and I were boycotting getting up one morning, lying around asking the important questions:

“If you were King of New Zealand what would you do?” I asked, bracing for his edict to give kids a microchip-implanted cell phone in their middle finger—or maybe drop the driving age to twelve and a half.

He replied, “I would bring back the troops from Afghanistan.”

Whoa. That was the one sentence I never expected out of his mouth. I never even knew he noticed troops deployed anywhere. “Why?” I asked.

“Because it’s stupid. The only reason we should ever send troops is if they bomb our country,” He said. “It’s somebody’s Dad.”

It dawned on me that in his lifetime, he has no memory of a time when both of his countries did not have troops in Afghanistan. As a younger child in the US, he’s seen me watching the names of dead soldiers scroll across the evening news every night since he was old enough to know what that meant.

How can I explain to him why this country still has fighting troops in Afghanistan after nine years when I’m not confident our Prime Minister can?

If you didn’t notice, when John Key walked off that plane from Afghanistan this month, our Prime Minister’s promises to leave in 2011 crumbled. We’re not coming home from this war anytime soon, New Zealand.

Whatever happened to his assurances in headlines only seven months ago, “Key says SAS training role avoids battlefield danger”. Not anymore. Mentor roles only? Gone. The SAS will be home by 2011? Let me get back to you on that one.

His Teflon press comments didn’t help. It was like someone had dropped our Prime Minister in a 2002 time warp of stock phrases that no longer make any sense for the actual war in front of him today. We got rote blurbs about fighting Al Qaeda in Afghanistan [they uprooted to Pakistan years ago] and combating terror [instead of fostering it anew in Pakistan] like it was pulled off General McChrystal’s teleprompter.

Our Prime Minister is a talented politician. He doesn’t climb on a soapbox. He just hums the new song from the back row—and it is beautifully effective. We are so affably managed; we don’t notice he’s singing a different tune.

Becoming a Kiwi has taught me one thing. Whenever a politician starts telling the public what a good job our SAS troops are doing, listen harder. It is camouflage for: We’re staying and good men may die. Be mature about this. Get used to it.

The truth is, our politicians feed on our patriotism for the professionalism of our troops. New Zealand forces have always been highly respected. That’s understood. Yes, the SAS personally commit to potentially die at the behest of the mission that we choose for them. But don’t confuse that with justifying a misguided policy to continue waging a war that is open-ended, undefined, unwinnable, and may not serve the best interests of the Afghani people.

It is strange experiencing two countries’ commitment to war today as both a Kiwi and an American. My birth country beats the war drums out of flag-festooned loud speakers. This country has committed to this war by quiet acquiescence. Affirmation by complacence.

In some ways, New Zealand wages war more insidiously. We don’t get to imbed reporters with our SAS troops. We don’t get to see their faces [without controversy] or hear their words on television, as Americans can. It is no wonder that our Prime Minister can turn war policy around with no more than a few editorials the week he comes back from his ‘secret trip’.

New Zealand may commit to war more subtly, but don’t be fooled. The outcome is the same; we are putting the lives of our citizens on the line to justify giving Obama a long enough leash to get out with political credibility. You don’t fight wars to buy a free trade agreement.

Honestly, if this war was waged solely on moral grounds, wouldn’t we have rationally assessed that a decade is ample contribution and deploy to Darfur or the Congo where tens of thousands are dying? Civilian aid can do future nation building work.

In stark contrast to this country, the Dutch government fell at the hands of this very issue just three months ago. Troops died and its citizens saw the reality of a war whose overwhelming mission-creep is likely to mean another decade of involvement.

John Key hears our silence on our SAS presence there. He sat on the ground in Afghanistan and told us simply, “It’s going to take a lot longer than people think.” He talked about hearts and minds.

Where is your exit strategy Mr. Key? Define this country’s end goals so you can be answerable to New Zealand for your broken promise.

Our Prime Minister has just laid the groundwork for telling New Zealanders that we will continue deploying fighting troops in Afghanistan with no end commitment in sight.

Is this war what you want?

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