Afghanistan, East Timor and the failure of “humanitarian” military intervention

Tim Bowron

Hegel remarks somewhere that all great world-historic facts and personages appear, so to speak, twice. He forgot to add: the first time as tragedy, the second time as farce.

-Karl Marx, The Eighteenth Brumaire of Louis Bonaparte (1852)

Since Labour took office in 1999, New Zealand military forces have been deployed overseas on a scale not seen since the time of the Vietnam War. Unusually, though, this renewed outburst of militarism has been greeted by many sections of the New Zealand left not with protest and bitter denunciation but instead with widespread approval.

Unlike the conflicts in Vietnam or Korea, we are told that the current Western military interventions in countries such as Afghanistan and East Timor are not missions of imperial aggrandisement and aggression, but instead are all about “humanitarian reconstruction” and multilateral action in accordance with international law.

So we have NZ troops in East Timor operating under the auspices of the United Nations, while in Afghanistan we have “provincial reconstruction teams” (an Orwellian title if ever there was one!) operating under the command of NATO. However, despite all the politically correct liberal rhetoric, it is increasingly difficult to see what, if any, humanitarian or stabilising role New Zealand forces are actually playing in these countries. Instead, they look more and more like unconscious actors in a farcical re-enactment of 19th century European colonialism, bringing onto the scene and then just as quickly discarding a supporting cast of native puppet rulers and palace viziers.

Too weak to engage in imperial adventures of their own (other than in Samoa and the Cook Islands), the New Zealand ruling class has in the last two decades discovered a strong passion for “multilateralism”, joining in with larger imperialists like Australia and the United States to force entry into overseas markets and gain preferential trade deals through the deployment of our armed “peacekeepers”.

By exchanging the pith helmet for the blue beret the imperialists think that they can drum up popular support for their military interventions, but deep down nothing in their fundamental nature has changed.

Attempted coup in East Timor

The botched kidnapping of East Timorese President José Ramos-Horta and Prime Minister Xanana Gusmao last month saw the near-overthrow of yet another Western-installed regime. Having come to power in 2006 following an Australian-backed army revolt against the Fretilin government of Mari Alkatiri (which provided an excellent pretext for over 1000 Australian and New Zealand military and police to be sent to the region), Ramos-Horta and Gusmao then fell out with the leader of the army mutineers, Major Alfredo Reinado. Reinado was later killed leading an armed assault on Ramos-Horta’s residence.

The tragedy of the East Timorese liberation movement is that since securing independence from Indonesia at end of the 1990s, its leaders have contented themselves with jockeying for power as the rulers of a client state of Western imperialism. The first post-independence government of Mari Alkatiri proved a reliable ally of the West in quelling widespread protests against the corrupt practices of foreign businesses and UN agencies in 2002. But it fell out of favour with Canberra and Wellington when Alkatiri tried to cut a deal for the exploitation of East Timor’s vast oil reserves with rival regional power China.

The recent flare-up of armed tension in the Timorese capital Dili, while leaving the government intact, has provided an excuse for yet more Australian military and police personnel to be drafted in. At a televised news conference on February 15, recently-elected Australian Prime Minister Kevin Rudd stated that his country “will always be open to requests from our friends in Dili” and that even more reinforcements would be sent if necessary.

Not to be left out, NZ Defence Minister Phil Goff announced that an additional NZ infantry platoon was also on standby to deploy to Timor if required.

Quite what these additional forces will accomplish that the 1000-strong ANZAC battle group could not, however, remains a mystery.

Afghanistan: NATO looking to replace the “Mayor of Kabul”

Meanwhile, in Afghanistan, NATO is appealing for more troops to fight its losing counter-insurgency battle with the Taliban, at the same time as it looks to replace the current Afghan president Hamid Karzai, whose authority is so limited that he is now derisively referred to as the “Mayor of Kabul” (the Afghan capital).

While New Zealand’s military contingent in Bamiyan province is supposedly working to maintain the authority of the Karzai government, other members of NATO have been holding talks with members of the opposition (Uzbek and Tajik-dominated) Northern Alliance, and even the Taliban.

The revelations (recently printed in the UK Independent newspaper) that British intelligence officials had been in secret negotiations with renegade Taliban field commanders about forming a parallel militia outside the control of the regular Afghan army were another example of the hollowness of all the NATO rhetoric about “nation-building” and empowering democratic institutions. These revelations came as a shock to the Afghan government, who reacted by expelling the head of the European Union mission in Kabul and a senior UN diplomat who were deeply implicated in the negotiations.

Hamid Karzai finds himself in the same position as the former East Timorese Prime Minister Alkatiri – despite having been a reliable proxy for Western imperialist interests over the past few years, he has now outlived his usefulness and so is in line to be replaced.

The real victim here, though, is not Karzai but the Afghan people. Over the past three decades they have seen their once-prosperous nation pillaged first by the Mujahideen, then the Northern Alliance and most recently the Taliban – all in their turn armed and financed by the West.

The best way workers in New Zealand can help the people of Afghanistan (and East Timor) is to demand an end to all Western military intervention. However much it is dressed up as disinterested humanitarianism, such intervention serves only to protect the property interests of the imperialists and a small layer of local warlords and corrupt politicians.

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