The SPARK interviews long serving anti-imperialist activist and Workers Party secretary Daphna Whitmore
Spark: It’s been 8 years since New Zealand troops were sent to Afghanistan - why did the Labour-Alliance government send them in the first place?
It needs to be understood in the context of New Zealand’s involvement with US and British imperialism. New Zealand is a partner in this bloc, and Labour enthusiastically signed up to the so-called War on Terror. When it comes to involvement in military adventures Labour governments have been just as warmongering as National.
The Alliance Party split over the issue of support for the invasion of Afghanistan, with the majority of its members rejecting the war. It highlighted the problem of being in government with an outright capitalist party like Labour.
Spark: New Zealand companies aren’t trying to make major sales in Afghanistan - why all the risk and expense over such a long period of time?
In its last term the Labour government did scale back the involvement, recalling the SAS and sending instead “reconstruction” forces. This tended to obscure the reality – that these are military forces, participating in an occupation. It dressed it up to look like it was simply a humanitarian mission.
Now Obama, facing a humiliating defeat in Afghanistan, is sending in more troops. His call has been heeded by the National government. As you point out, there are no major sales in Afghanistan; it is much more a case of being on board with the strategic goal of subjugating the region. It’s tricky for the NZ ruling class, because while they are aligned with US interests, there are also interests they have with European powers. Having a foot in both imperialist camps was something that Helen Clark was a master at.
Spark: why have successive governments kept up involvement in the war?
To withdraw and accept the Taliban’s resumption of power would be a major climb down for the US, Britain and its allies. They invaded for strategic reasons, and to show who was boss in the world, and to demonstrate the US had gotten over the Vietnam complex. It was important for them to beat the guerrilla forces on the ground. Of course, they have shown again how the world’s most powerful army can be tied up for years by a determined guerrilla resistance. That the Western powers are being beaten by the Taliban and other local forces in Afghanistan is humiliating for them.
Spark: What about the argument that these troop deployments are helping make the world a safer place by slowing down the terrorists?
The Taliban were never a force outside of Afghanistan, just as there were no weapons of mass destruction in Iraq. All wars of aggression have their pretexts.
When you see pictures of villages bombed, and whole families killed by the occupying forces in Afghanistan it’s clear who are the terrorists.
Spark : New Zealand has a name for being anti nuclear warships - how does that sit with your description of it as “imperialist”?
There was a mass movement in New Zealand, which was part of an international movement, for disarmament. The movement succeeded in New Zealand in banning nuclear warships; and it is such a popular position that no government has dared to revoke it since. However, it proved to be a concession that the ruling class (in NZ and the US) could live with. There was no blockade, no US led coup or any response that you’d typically see when an oppressed nation stands up to the US. And the reason was that New Zealand was an imperialist partner – not an oppressed country.
The same government that banned the visit of nuclear warships carried out a harsh neo-liberal programme, selling off state assets, privatizing services and slashing the living standard of working people. That Labour government was one that Margaret Thatcher would have felt at home in.
Spark: Labour is saying that it was right to send NZ troops 8 years ago, but its not appropriate today - has something changed?
They are in opposition, and words are cheap. If they wanted to get out of Afghanistan they had 9 years to do so.
Spark: If it’s so wrong for NZ troops to be in Afghanistan why aren’t more people protesting about it?
It seems a world away to most people. The Taliban and the various war lords in Afghanistan do not inspire people in the West, understandably. While the Taliban and the Afghan resistance are playing a positive role resisting the invasion, they are not a socially progressive movement. Also, the way the invasion has been dressed up as a humanitarian effort, and one that claimed to be about modernizing society and liberating women, concealed the true character of the war. In New Zealand the minimal troop involvement has meant that most people are barely conscious of this country’s involvement.
Spark: What does the Workers Party think should be done about NZ overseas troop commitments? What about the deployments of peace keeping troops?
Imperialism uses both the carrot and the stick. In the seventies and eighties Washington wielded power by backing military dictatorships throughout Asia and Latin America. When these became thoroughly discredited it adopted a humanitarian face and conducted invasions under the banner of “democratization”.
New Zealand has no business invading and occupying other countries, even under the guise of peace keeping. We need to consistently oppose all these military adventures, whether they are “legal” or “illegal”; sanctioned by the UN or not. They are unjust wars and are not liberating.
Spark: You’ve been agitating against NZ imperialism for two decades. That’s a long time and some would say not a lot has changed. What keeps you motivated and what changes do you expect to see in the future?
Vietnam showed that the US – the biggest power in the world – could be beaten. The resistance in Iraq and Afghanistan have again shown that military might is not invincible.
The decline in of the secular, progressive and Marxist movements in the world is a challenge facing us today, but there are some promising signs. In Nepal, and in Venezuela there is something like dual power where the old rulers are being overthrown. In the Philippines, and in parts of India communist movements have held their own and are growing.
The resistance of oppressed people is a constant source of inspiration.