GUYON The death of Tim O'Donnell has prompted debate and
questioning all around the country about New Zealand's role in
Afghanistan. So I'm joined now by Defence Minister Wayne Mapp. Dr
Mapp thank you very much for joining us this morning we appreciate
There'll be a ceremony for Lieutenant Tim O'Donnell later today. What government representation will we see there?
DR WAYNE MAPP - Defence Minister
Well the Prime Minister and myself will be there, but obviously more importantly the principal Defence leaders of our nation will be there as well, and the family most importantly actually.
GUYON Tim O'Donnell and the other injured soldiers were in a Humvee vehicle that was hit by an improvised explosive device (IED). Now there's been a lot of debate about how these vehicles can stand up to these explosives. Are we using the right vehicles in Afghanistan?
WAYNE Well certainly I've had briefings on that over the last several months in fact. The difficulty is the challenging terrain particularly up in this part of the country. Narrow roads, steep country, very tight turns and so forth. So they're much bigger vehicles, which typically are 15 to 20 tonnes don't seem to be suitable. The Humvees at this point in time seem to be the most suitable vehicle, but that's clearly going to be assessed as part of the inquiry.
GUYON So was there any consideration of using the larger LAV vehicles, we've got 105 of them. Any consideration to using those vehicles in Bamiyan, or is that simply just not practical?
WAYNE That's certainly been looked at, and the view is that the roads are simply too narrow, too steep, too windy for what is effectively a 20 tonne vehicle.
GUYON So you don't expect anything to change operationally or equipment wise there, this is just a tragic death but not a systematic problem?
WAYNE Well that will be looked at, because as you can imagine there has been a complete examination by the entire NATO ISAF nations, as to the range of vehicles. You know we've got Hummers at one end, four and a half tonnes, through to 20 tonne vehicles, there's been a bit of a gap there, and there's obviously a need to fill that gap. But unfortunately those vehicles are just really coming into service.
GUYON Let's step back here from the specifics of Bamiyan. Why are we in Afghanistan?
WAYNE Well the fundamental reason, as you've already actually heard is international terrorism. The West as a whole went to Afghanistan because of 9/11. New Zealanders have been killed in 9/11, New Zealanders have been killed in London, and in Jakarta, and in Bali. So that's why we are there, and we just simply cannot have a nation that is a safe haven for terrorists, it's simply a risk to ourselves if we let that happen.
GUYON And those attacks organised by Al Qaeda. How many Al Qaeda does your intelligence estimate are in Afghanistan now?
WAYNE Well the Al Qaeda seems to be largely in the border regions.
GUYON How many in Afghanistan?
WAYNE Well I've not had a specific report on that specific &
GUYON Well I read in the newspaper that the head of the CIA says there are 50 to 100 and maybe fewer Al Qaeda in Afghanistan, do you agree with that?
WAYNE And also in the border regions, and the problem is this: If you allow the Taliban to regain control of Afghanistan you then create a safe haven. Now Pakistan is a place there, but we also know the Pakistan government is working hard to reduce that. That's a big challenge as we know.
GUYON Well let's talk about Pakistan's motivation first with respect because, you end up, you say the enemy's Al Qaeda, they have organised the terrorist attacks. The Al Qaeda are essentially no longer in Afghanistan. Why are we fighting the Taliban, an ugly misogynist violent regime no doubt&
WAYNE Who provided a safe haven to the Taliban, and that is the key issue.
GUYON Are they still working with Al Qaeda? Because most intelligence officers in the United States, and a lot of writers on this issue, believe the Taliban and Al Qaeda have severed links. Is that our belief in New Zealand?
WAYNE No it's in fact not our belief and in fact they're in exactly the same place, which is on the borderlands of Afghanistan and Pakistan. I mean everyone recognises that this is both and Afghanistan and the borderland area of Pakistan, and if you allow Taliban to regain a major foothold, unreconstructed, then you are likely to be providing a further safe haven for Al Qaeda. That's precisely why we are there, and that's precisely what we are trying to prevent.
GUYON Somalia and Yemen are also safe havens for Al Qaeda and similar terrorist organisations, we're not fighting there.
WAYNE But you've seen actions there.
GUYON Would New Zealand be prepared to put military action into those countries?
WAYNE Well the major base undoubtedly has been Afghanistan and the border regions of Pakistan, there's no question about that.
GUYON When we look at who actually killed Tim O'Donnell, there has been a text message sent from a Taliban spokesman to the Associated Press claiming responsibility for that attack. I mean have we had that confirmed, is that our understanding that this was a Taliban attack?
WAYNE Well there's certainly been Taliban influence up there, but that's gotta be fully assessed. But the Taliban have been operating in that area, obviously with a degree of connivance of the local area. They come actually through the neighbouring province, which is effectively ungoverned. There isn't any government presence there in short.
GUYON You talked about fighting terrorism as the reason that we have gone into Afghanistan nine years ago now. Is the world a safer place after nearly a decade of fighting in Afghanistan do you think?
WAYNE Well I think we'd have to observe that there was a period of time when frankly the West and the United States took their eye off Afghanistan, Iraq essentially. If that hadn't happened I guess the situation maybe have been resolved earlier, and this was obviously recognised by President Obama during the election. Now that unfortunately doesn't change the reality of where we are right now, which is having to deal with the situation right now there. And the point is to build up the capacity of the Afghan government, both the Police Force and the Military Forces, it is going up that extra - they've trained 130,000 soldiers. That actually matters.
GUYON Is the world a safer place?
WAYNE Well if you can achieve better governance in Afghanistan over time, the world will be a safer place because you'll reduce the impact of international terrorism.
GUYON Are we doing that? Because it looks like from a lot of the reports, and a lot of the people on the ground there, that there's increasing concern about corruption in that government. I mean are they in any state for this to be handed over?
WAYNE Well there is corruption in the government. There's always been corruption in Afghanistan. I don't however believe that the entire government apparatus is corrupt. It's not to say there isn't any corruption. You know we're never going to get a perfect government in Afghanistan. What we do want however is a government that is sustainable enough to resist challenges to its fundamental authority, and that does not provide a safe haven for terrorists, as was the case between 1992 and 2001. That's why we are there fundamentally.
GUYON Do you believe Hamid Karzai is running a corrupt government?
WAYNE I don't believe the Afghanistan government as a whole, is corrupt. There is obviously corruption in the government, it's not quite the same thing however.
GUYON If we look at the overall progress, are we winning the war in Afghanistan?
WAYNE Well it's certainly a challenge and there is - we've got to build the capacity of the Afghan government, that is actually occurring, and it has been known that during that process there was likely to be this increase in conflict, which now New Zealand has borne the very direct cost of, and more particularly &
GUYON That's not just about what is causing the conflict though, it's when the coalition forces have taken the lives of innocent people inadvertently in mistaken attacks, as we've seen with the Wiki leaks material, some 90,000 documents leaked on to the internet. A pregnant woman, bus loads full of children, actually attacked. Each one of those incidents creates scores and scores of sympathisers for the Taliban. Aren't we simply exacerbating this conflict rather than actually mitigating it?
WAYNE And that's precisely why there had to be a change of direction, because those things were occurring, and it was creating enemies. And so there's been a more sophisticated approach taken to that less use of heavy force if you will.
GUYON It's still happening though isn't it?
WAYNE Yes it is, and it was anticipated as the NATO ISAF troops built up, as they have, and as the capacity of the Afghan government built up, there would be this increase. The challenge is really to build the capacity to a point where the Afghan government can take primary responsibility for its own security. Now I've been told they are getting to a position where they'll be able to do that in the north, the east and the west of the country, but the south still remains challenging, and it will be for some time. So New Zealand's intent indeed along with the rest of the western nations is to be able to start leaving from 2011 onward, because the capacity of the Afghan government is building all the time, and I get very clear information on that.
GUYON Well where's the evidence of that? I mean we just saw record deaths in June and July of US soldiers, 60 killed in June, 66 killed in July. Where's the evidence that there's all this stability that you're talking about?
WAYNE In the advice I have received at the international conferences, in fact by General McCrystal and now obviously his successor, is that that was likely to occur because of the increased presence as we built up. And the point of the building us is to train the Afghan government to take responsibility.
GUYON So this is the darkest before the dawn sort of scenario is it? I mean the evidence seems to be things have never been as bad over there, we've never had so many deaths, but oh you know the dawn is just around the corner, and we'll be able to hand over. I mean I can't hear any evidence from you this morning that that's actually gonna happen.
WAYNE Well General McCrystal and the other advisers have said that the capacity of the Afghan government &
GUYON General McCrystal was sacked though wasn't he?
WAYNE For his indiscretions, but not for his fundamental approach. There is no doubt that the capacity of the Afghan government has improved.
GUYON What evidence do we have for that?
WAYNE The increased size of the defence forces. You only have to talk to our SAS, they would say the Crisis Response Unit in Kabul is clearly more capable than they were, and indeed even in Bamiyan Province, the Afghan National Police have got better over time. That's actually the way for us to leave Afghanistan &
GUYON Well let's leave this interview in that vein. We are going to pull out our SAS in March, 2011, correct?
GUYON That is a definite?
WAYNE Yes that's the Cabinet decision.
GUYON That has been made, because there's some talk from the Prime Minister that we may stay longer. You're saying no. March 2011?
WAYNE Well that's the Cabinet decision. Obviously things can be revisited.
GUYON The Provincial Reconstruction Team - September 2011 they get out?
WAYNE Well progressively build down from there. We recognise that we can't just be there one day and gone the next, so it will be a progressive build down.
GUYON So there would be what, perhaps 20 or 30 that would remain beyond that?
WAYNE An appropriate number, but we also have a civil aid programme there, as you know.
GUYON So by September 2011 we will have only a few remaining soldiers in Afghanistan?
WAYNE Well it'll be enough to provide security for our aid programmes.
GUYON Nowhere near a Provincial Reconstruction Team of 106 soldiers that we've got at the moment. Nowhere near that volume?
WAYNE Well, not 106 no.
GUYON Half that many?
WAYNE Well that's got to be determined yet. That's a year from now and we will determine that based on the circumstances.
GUYON But we are out of there?
WAYNE It's our intention to leave over time, as indeed it is of all the NATO ISAF nations, and that's going to occur for a number of them, really from late 2011 onward, and partly because the capacity of the Afghan government is building through it's security forces, and there is clear evidence of that fact.
GUYON Right. Thank you very much for joining us this morning, Defence Minister, Wayne Mapp.