The departure of the last Kiwi soldier last week from Bamyan, Afghanistan marked the end of a decade of remarkable Kiwi effort in the province. Much has been written on the legacy that we leave behind, and the tragic losses that New Zealand suffered in the province. Kiwis can be justifiably proud of the gains we have made in security, education, health, agriculture and basic infrastructure. We can also be extremely proud of the efforts of our people in Defence, Police, and the civil service. They have represented the country extremely well.
Less has been written about the bonds that have grown between the Kiwis who served there and the people of Bamyan. A key theme running through the discussions held around the recent flag lowering ceremony at Kiwibase was the high esteem in which the New Zealanders were held by the local people. Provincial Governor Habiba Sarabi talked about it extensively: the fact that for a decade Kiwis had engaged with local people and respected their culture was identified as crucial to our success in the province. The New Zealanders were seen as friends by the overwhelming majority of the Bamyan population.
Consequently the partnership between locals and the PRT ensured a generally secure environment that nutured successful development projects.
This classic "hearts and minds" approach is something that is essential to any successful counterinsurgency. Yet for Kiwis it's not something contrived but rather it comes naturally (even if we say so ourselves). I witnessed multiple everyday examples of this on my recent visit: a soldier chatting to farmers in Dari, the local tongue; the easy interchange between Kiwis and local kids, and the strong bond between our troops and the Afghan interpreters.
Our people in Afghanistan couldn't have done their work without the efforts of those local interpreters and they were an integral and loyal part of our efforts. When I first went to Bamyan a year ago I met with the PRT interpreters at their request. They feared for their safety as they had been in meetings between the PRT and Taleban and been photographed and threatened by insurgents. They requested resettlement in New Zealand when the PRT left.
Bamyan is safe by Afghan standards and the local insurgent networks have been smashed. Governor Sarabi and her security chiefs all stated that they were happy with the state of security and the capacity of local forces to maintain it. However it is impossible to prove a negative ie that there isn't some level of justification for the stated fears of the interpreters. There was also the issue of fairness and acknowledging that our work would have been impossible without their efforts. On balance I believe that resettlement for the 30 interpreters and their 65 immediate dependents is the right thing to do.
Bamyan is a beautiful province with a terrible history. From Kiwibase you can clearly see The City of Screams, a mountain citadel where Genghis Khan slaughtered a whole city. Looming large over the town are the remains of the Buddhas that the Taliban destroyed only just over a decade ago. It's the mix of spectacular landscape, bloody history and the resilience of the people that makes a lasting impact on any visitor.
It's one of those places that puts first world problems into perspective. The sight of a group of Afghan kids dressed in rags, laughing and happy to see the Kiwi soldiers; the joy on a child's face as he was given a simple black NZDF baseball cap. Bamyan, Afghanistan is a place no visitor could ever forget.