Two visions of how New Zealand sits in the world
The secrecy which surrounded the operation of the SAS in Afghanistan was no accident, according to Nicky Hager. It acted, he says, as a shield protecting action operations which might have been unpopular with New Zealanders had they been brought to light.
“Afghanistan,” he says, “was like a secret war. Most of what went on there wasn’t known.”
He considers that Labour or National politicians in New Zealand will always say that they strongly believe in an independent foreign policy because the public feels so strongly about it. But he feels that’s only one of the tracks of New Zealand history.
“There’s another track which is represented by the descendants of our colonial past who still look to Britain and the old allies as their reference point for where we sit in the world.”
As evidence, he cites the example of what happened after September 11, 2001. “The twin towers were still smoking in central New York,” he says, “and a New Zealand military officer – the head of the SAS – flew across to the US and went to Florida where the special operations command is, and spent the next few days lobbying to try to get the SAS to join the war there.”
According to Hager, that SAS officer was Tim Keating, who is now the head of the defence force. “And what he was representing was a section of the New Zealand bureaucracy and military which believes that the ultimate goal of policy is to be as close to the United States as possible, and to operate with them in every possible overseas situation.”
This attitude led to our deployment not only of the SAS, but of other defence personnel who formed the NZ Provincial Reconstruction Team operating in the Bamiyan Valley in Afghanistan until 2013.
“The reason that we – a little South Pacific country – were actually helping one dusty valley year after year in Bamiyan in the middle of central Asia was about Alliance politics. The reason we were there was because the war in Iraq was going badly.”
“We didn’t go there because someone said ‘For goodness’ sake, there needs to be more security in Bamiyan, we really care about them.’ No, the reason we were there was because the Americans had said the war is going badly and asked if their closest allies could free up their troops by taking over a role in Afghanistan.”
Hager concludes, “We’ve got two visions of how New Zealand sits in the world which are competing with each other, and which are only able to co-exist because so much of it is secret. One is nuclear-free – we’re an independent country, we don’t like wars very much, we like peacekeeping. And the other vision which is that the closer we are to old allies the better. And we will defend that to the end of the earth.”
Smart Talk at the Auckland Museum is a part of the LATE at Auckland Museum season.
About the participants
Nicky Hager works as an author and investigative journalist. He has written seven books about New Zealand politics, intelligence, public relations and war. The most recent is Hit and Run, which lays out the story of a New Zealand SAS raid on two Afghan villages.
Maiki Sherman is a journalist who has worked for many platforms and broadcasters. Maiki is currently reporting for Seven Sharp at TVNZ. She was previously a political reporter for Newshub TV3 and also covered politics for Māori Television. In 2016, she was named Māori Journalist of The Year.
Jane Kelsey is a Professor of Law at the University of Auckland and widely-known as a social commentator. For several decades her work has centred on globalisation and neoliberalism, with a particular focus on free trade and investment agreements such as the Trans-Pacific Partnership Agreement (TPPA).
Leonie Hayden – chair
Leonie Hayden (Ngāti Whātua o Kaipara) is the editor of The Spinoff Ātea and co-host of podcast On The Rag, a monthly dissection of sexism in culture and the media. She is the former editor of Māori current affairs and lifestyle publication, Mana magazine, and was involved in New Zealand's music industry for about a decade.