Afghanistan – Our call-up papers arrive

New Zealand has received a formal call from the United State to resume armed combat in Afghanistan. Foreign Affairs Minister McCully will find it hard to say no, but saying yes will be even harder

New Zealand troops have not been assigned to combat duty in Afghanistan since Special Air Service deployments were terminated in 2005. Given the resurgence of the Taliban and Al Qaeda since then, and the United States' push for allies to do more to share the growing combat burden, it is hardly surprising to learn that we have been frequently asked to send in another batch of battle-ready Kiwis.

In October last year, responding to one of my many Official Information Act inquiries, outgoing Defence Minister Phil Goff confirmed that formal written requests had been received and considered on two occasions in 2007. He declined to release any details of the requests or his government’s responses – but gave the assurance that “no New Zealand Defence Force personnel have been committed to combat-related roles or duties to Afghanistan since 2005”.

Since then, incoming Defence Minister Wayne Mapp has taken over the role of responding to my continuing inquiries. On 30 March this year, he confirmed that “New Zealand has received several requests from different sources” to contribute to the Operational Mentor and Liaison Team [OMLT] programme introduced by NATO in 2006 to embed military trainer teams in combat units of the Afghanistan National Army.

New Zealand has received several requests from different sources to contribute troops to the OMLT programme since it began. Many of these requests have been delivered verbally during routine meetings. Others have been more formal,” he wrote. He declined to release copies of the requests, noting that the Provincial Reconstruction Team in Bamyan Province remained “the primary focus of our defence in Afghanistan for the time being,”

My inquiry about the prospect that New Zealand was being invited to contribute to the OMLT programme was inspired by a brewing controversy in Australia over whether there was adequate back-up to support embedded “mentors” after one of their trainers was killed in a firefight between his Afghan army unit and 20 Taliban insurgents in Oruzgan province. A fortnight before the Australian mentor’s death, an officer with the first of the OMLTs in Oruzgan, Lieutenant Jake Kleinman, had told reporters he would like more infantry to support operations. Like most stories about “incidents” in Afghanistan, this one rapidly fell below the ANZAC media radar.

To me, it was cause for caution.

A fortnight after the rollover announcement, the NZDF commander of New Zealand's Joint Forces, Major General Rees Jones, issued a gypsy’s warning that the death of a New Zealand soldier serving in Afghanistan is "inevitable". After that, it seemed timely to check if the composition of the NZDF team had been changed to provide it with more protection from its protective Quick Response Team of infantry, especially since there were signs that the anti-government presence in Bamyan was growing.

I decided to ask Wayne Mapp if there had been any change in the composition of the NZDF deployment when his Government rolled out its commitment to September 2010 last February.

Mapp responded on April 9 by saying his government had decided to roll over the current configuration of the NZDF deployment until September 2010.

However, he went on to point out that “New Zealand politicians, diplomats and service personnel receive several suggestions each year to make additional contributions to Afghanistan. However, no request has been made that has been formally considered by the Government.”

On the very day that Mapp signed out that letter, the New Zealand Herald headlined Patrick Gower’s report from Washington on the first meeting between Foreign Affairs Minister Murray McCully and the new US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton – “US wants NZ’s SAS back to fight Taliban”.

Gower reported that McCully said that while Mrs Clinton did not make a formal request, the inference could be drawn that she wanted the SAS to return. “We’re not rushing into any decisions to make a further deployment,” he added.

On April 15, the Defence Minister signed off another letter to me. It said a formal request for additional troops for combat purposes had now been received.

“At the time of my response on 09 April no such request had been formally received by, or considered by the Government. However, just after sending that response to you, I was advised that a formal request had just been received,” wrote Mapp.

Obviously, Hillary Clinton was determined to make it quite clear to New Zealand that the United States wants its enthusiasm for the NZ SAS to be regarded as something more than a mere “inference” to be drawn from her comments to Minister McCully.

This chain of events puts quite a different complexion on the US Government’s latest request to any of the others received, rejected or placed in park since 2005. The new Obama-Clinton administration wants Kiwi troops to join the frontline force in Afghanistan to help implement its new war strategy.

The call back to combat in Afghanistan is now out in the open, and Washington is going to judge Wellington by its response. This is a test of solidarity, equivalent to the Lange Government’s moment of truth on its promise to make New Zealand a nuclear-free zone. McCully has indicated the decision will be made by August.

Maybe, we all need to start taking our Afghanistan exposure seriously – for the first time since we went to war against Al Qaeda and the Taliban in 2001.