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Dialogue: New Zealand is now prime target for hateful revenge
5 November 2001
If New Zealand does not recall its SAS troops now, it stands to become a target for acts of terrorism.
The decision to send our SAS to join the attack on Afghanistan is a serious misjudgment. Worse, our joining the attack cannot be justified morally, not even by those who believe that war between nations is a legitimate human activity.
More pragmatically, it is not in our interests. We are making ourselves a potential target for acts of terrorism that the annihilation of thousands of Taleban will encourage.
Let's look at it from the point of view of national self-interest first. After all, that's the fundamental premise of American foreign policy. It's not a good guide to how to behave morally, but it can help us understand the context of our actions.
Earlier this year I was in Belgrade, the last capital city before Kabul to be bombed by United States forces. Driving down a main street I was startled to see bold, anti-New Zealand graffiti scrawled across a street corner. I asked my hosts why New Zealand had become a target of such abuse, imagining it could be the prank of a drunk Australian.
It turned out the intention behind the graffiti was more sinister. It had appeared the day after a nationalist member of the fledgling Parliament had decried the growing Serbian use of words from English, the language of the nation which had so recently bombed their city with the support of their other English-speaking friends, Britain, Canada, Australia "and, of course, New Zealand".
In his eyes, New Zealand was a willing junior partner, always expected to put up a hand and say "me too, me too" when its friends decided it was time for military action.
Although New Zealand has occasionally shown remarkable independence, as in our policy on nuclear weapons, we have been enthusiastic participants in virtually every war we could conceivably have joined. Now, we have sent our SAS to Diego Garcia where they are joining their Australian and British counterparts ready to engage in behind-the-lines missions against terrorist enemies who cannot be identified clearly.
Americans have been terrorised by suicide bombers who attacked their military-planning headquarters and killed thousands of people going about their ordinary lives in New York. Now they are terrorised when they collect the mail, realistically fearing that they may be under biological attack. Their Government has responded by making war against Afghanistan.
Despite the heavy daily attacks, Afghani civilians are assured they should not be terrorised by US bombs and missiles. The houses, offices, mosque, Red Cross depot and hospital that have been hit and the innocent dead were not targets. The collateral damage is a result of human error and technological malfunction. The mix-up between food parcels and cluster bombs is the sort of thing that comes out of any complex bureaucracy like the US Government that is trying to do a good job.
For us, the loss of life and terror suffered by the mostly Christian and Jewish-Americans is a scandalous outrage. But we are not open to the same feeling about the death and terror now being endured by Muslim Afghanis.
We strain to comprehend how a person can be so instilled with calm hate that he sits in a cockpit and annihilates himself in an inferno of burning fuel and crashing metal and concrete.
But we do not ask what special techniques of psychological numbing are taught to SAS soldiers who are ready to kill by hand, silently, soldier or civilian, innocent or guilty, anyone whose action could compromise the cover of the operation they have been sent to carry out.
Action such as the SAS intends becoming involved in would have to pass a supremely high moral test and would have to be directed only by those with a judicial mandate: international law enforcers not motivated by their own need for revenge. United Nations resolutions do not provide such a mandate.
If one-tenth of what we have been told about Osama bin Laden is true, he must be brought to answer before an international court. Unfortunately, that is not the main goal of what is being done in Afghanistan, and our SAS will not achieve it.
The main goal has become to kill as many as possible of the people who now appear somehow to be on his side. That includes anyone identified with the Taleban, but excludes their rivals to the north who are practically indistinguishable in terms of their political goals and religious fanaticism.
However, if the Northern Alliance remain friendly to the US, Russia and China will probably be prevented from controlling the flow of oil from the huge untapped reserves in the Caspian basin.
Layer upon layer of military, political and economic strategy is being worked over in the assault on Afghanistan. What is most distressing is that the strategy is no different from the one that bred the terrorists who murdered thousands of our American friends.
When the Soviet Union invaded Afghanistan, the US backed the Taleban and bin Laden. Now bin Laden is the enemy and the US are attacking the Taleban, giving succour to their tribal enemies from the Northern Alliance. There is no real difference. The Northern Alliance will likely turn against the US when their broader goals are not supported, just as quickly as the Taleban and bin Laden.
The US has ignored all the other nations of the world when it comes to the Kyoto Treaty on climate change, verification of the Biological Weapons Convention, the Biosafety Protocol and the Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty. But when it comes to attacking Afghanistan you either join the US or you are an enemy.
The economic order and Western corporate interests are preserved, with the prospect of gains from the Caspian area at the ultimate expense of the already-poor.
What do those who sympathise with the Taleban and bin Laden think of us and what will they do?
They will know that although there are 12 coalition nations represented at the US Central Command Air Force Base in Tampa, only three have committed themselves to join action on the ground in Afghanistan - Britain, Australia and, of course, New Zealand.
The millions of aggrieved Muslims who feel unjustly treated are not as naive as us about the global power of the US and some do not stop at graffiti when it comes to expressing their anger. By identifying ourselves so closely with American aims while failing, rightly, to question the whole context of the action, we have made ourselves a prime target for hateful revenge.
There is no point to courage in the face of such a threat when we lack moral rectitude.
If New Zealand wants to get off the list of future targets, the Government must start talking honestly in international forums about justice and the failure of centuries of imperialist adventures - military, political and economic - to deliver it.
Having taken steps to set our own house in order and peacefully address some historic grievances of our own citizens, it is high time we demanded the best for others who have not been dealt with fairly.
Helen Clark should pull the SAS back from Diego Garcia and stop using cheap revenge as an instrument to gain political popularity based on misguided nationalistic fervour.
Peter Wills is an associate professor of physics at the University of Auckland. Published in the NZ Herald. (c) 2001.