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Q+A: The panel on Jonathan Coleman's interview

Published: 4:28PM Sunday August 26, 2012 Source: Q+A

GREG BOYED

Time to welcome our panel this morning. Dr Bryce Edwards from Otago University; Lieutenant-Colonel Sir Wira Gardiner, a former professional soldier and senior public servant, now a company director and writer; and former Labour Party president and pollster turned CEO of the Howard League, Mike Williams. Welcome to you all. Wira, if I can start with you. This message from the Taliban overnight - they know we're not as well equipped as the rest of the coalition forces. More blood will be spilt. That's pretty jarring. Can the government afford to ignore that?

SIR WIRA GARDINER - Company director

Well, firstly - tuatahi - tenei te mihi ki nga hoia o Tumatauenga, e hoki mai ki te kainga inanahi. Firstly, I want to acknowledge the soldiers of the god of war who have returned home yesterday. Can I say in terms of the question, wars and battles are fought in the minds of their opposition commanders, and often messages are sent that if you react to them- And I think the message is right - the Taliban are not ignorant. They've got access to news. They've got access to Sky. They've got access to the internet. And they'll be looking what our reaction is. From a military point of view, the minister's right. We have to reach out, we have to secure the province, and we have to continue to do things that we've always done. To react in any other way would actually put our soldiers at significant risk.

GREG From a very basic point of view, though, there was a lot made right at the beginning that we were driving- these people who died were in Humvees. They shouldn't have been in Humvees. They'll still be in Humvees. Nothing's changed, as far as that's concerned.

WIRA  No, the issue around equipment is an eternal one. Whether you go to Vietnam, which is where I went, or whether you're in the Second World War, there's always a question about equipment, and we can always have better equipment, and we can always improve that. The issue around it is who controls the battlefield, and the only way you can control the battlefield is to patrol it, and I think the tactical issue behind extending into Baghlan province is a very sensible one, from a military point of view, and if I was on tactical control on the ground in Afghanistan and Bamiyan, I would be doing exactly that and asking my commanders to let me go.

GREG Mike Williams, the minister called this a war of words, the statements overnight from the Taliban. There are three funerals that have just happened that would attest it's more than just a war of words.

MIKE WILLIAMS - Former Labour Party President

Yeah, I'm going to have to disagree with Sir Wira here. It seems to me that- I read that we actually requested bomb-proof vehicles. I mean, these Humvees - effectively, they're really just bloated Land Rovers.

GREG Yep, they're a big issue, then.

MIKE Yeah, and we requested more-effective bomb-proof vehicles from the Americans. The Americans said, "We haven't got any spares." And we still carried on with those patrols into that other province over the border. Now, I think that's a bad decision. Now, I don't see how it honours our dead soldiers to put their comrades at risk any longer, and I don't see why we don't bring them home.

GREG What do you make of what he's saying - that it takes a long time to do this properly, to withdraw? Nine months - that's an awful long time to pack up.

MIKE I find that very difficult to believe.

WIRA I don't.

GREG Nine months is a reasonable amount of time?

WIRA I don't- Because one of the things you have to do is to pack up an operation, you have to unwind not only the equipment and the gear - we could probably leave it there, like the Americans did and abandon Vietnam in '75, and that's not the issue. The issue is the safety and the security of the soldiers.

GREG Which so far has been not great, let's face it.

WIRA No, but let's take the issue that Mike raised - the vehicles that they travelled in. The size of the explosion would have destroyed any American equipment - the size of that particular explosion. And the only way you're going to find that is put feet on the ground and to patrol and to make sure that those don't happen. You cannot sit in a base, and if you don't do those patrols, you won't control the province.

GREG Bryce, let's talk about our legacy here. The minister said we can't just cut and run and lose the gains. What gains and what's our legacy?

DR BRYCE EDWARDS - Political Scientist

Well, increasingly we've got a lot of academics and experts coming out and saying that these deaths have been for nothing, that, you know, eventually the Taliban will come back and control this area. And, you know, I think that's quite scary for a lot of the public - that these deaths have been in vain, that the 10 years New Zealand has been there has been in vain. But it's not quite true, I don't think. I think the government and this mission has achieved a lot, especially in political and economic terms, and that's why they were always there, I think - for international commitments, for increasing New Zealand's political and economic trade prospects. And that might be a bit distasteful for some people to find that people have died for economic and political means, but I think the government's been quite successful in that manner.

GREG We had Mike Moore on just last week saying there's no way that they'd trade off an FTA deal for dead soldiers. Is there pressure coming from Washington?

BRYCE No, there's no direct deals, absolutely not. But this is part of a wider sort of international - I mean, it's imperialism, if you like - of governments wanting to line up their other allies in wars like this.

GREG OK, beyond April, are we just going to walk away and a civil war's going to erupt there anyway?

WIRA I think there's a good prospect that that might occur, and I think that's why it's very important for us to ensure that the legacy that we've worked on for the last 10 years, including the deaths of soldiers who've been involved it, that we exit as tidily as possible. That is to have the Afghan police starting the process now, and they've already started it, of taking over the installations, of taking over the patrol areas. If we don't do that, then the possibility of a breakdown is fairly on the cards.

GREG Do you think New Zealanders fully understand why we're there? We're a reconstruction team who hasn't actually done a lot of reconstructing. We've done a lot of training of police. Do we understand and agree with why we're there?

BRYCE I don't think so. We have mostly- For the last 10 years, within the public, there hasn't been a lot of debate about this, and the public's been relatively indifferent to New Zealand's involvement in Afghanistan. I think that's changing quite significantly. In the last six months, the mood has changed, and that's where the government's on not-very-good ground, because basically it's not just the deaths that have changed things. We have the very strong work of investigative journalists like Jon Stephenson, Nicky Hager, who didn't have a mass audience six months ago, but those critiques are filtering through. And it's meaning that the government's line is now being challenged increasingly, and people are saying, "Why are we there?" And we're not believing the government's line totally.

GREG Mike, if I can come back to you on what the minister said about the safety in Bamiyan. He did a bit of about-facing: it's safer in Bamiyan; not safer everywhere else. What are we to make of where the safety levels are at?

MIKE It's obviously unsafe. I mean, five people have died in the last month. You can't argue with that. But I take up what Bryce says - I think public opinion is changing on this. I think when it was sold to us as a provincial reconstruction team, we could all support that, because that's very laudable. Now it seems that we're actually in combat with a particularly nasty, vindictive enemy. But I would say if anything's been gained about this whole invasion of Afghanistan, it's actually been to bring the Taliban to the negotiating table, and that's starting to happen. Two weeks ago in The Economist, there was a report on discussions going on in a very back-channel way between the Taliban and the Americans in Qatar. And the Taliban was reported as giving up their objection to educating girls. Well, that has got to be a step in the right direction, and an achievement that we can take some credit for, I think.

GREG And it's something you believe we can take credit for, given our part in it and the price we've paid?

WIRA I think so. I think the involvement of New Zealanders in the last hundred years in these kinds of activities all around the world do bring benefit to the communities.

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