Afghanistan: stumbling away from the war

If you think the U.S. strategy for Afghanistan is in a mess – take a look at ours.

The trouble really started in August last year, when Prime Minister John Key announced New Zealand would commit SAS troops to combat duty in Afghanistan for a period of 18 months.

His government did not allow time for a parliamentary debate on the Cabinet decision. The Maori party joined Labour, the Greens, and Jim Anderton to challenge the decision and force a snap debate . During the largely unreported exchange that followed, they expressed their united opposition to the SAS deployment and the decision to phase out the New Zealand Defence Force component of the Bamyan Provincial Reconstruction team, civilianize its operation, and eventually wind it up.

During the debate, Phil Goff revealed why the Labour-led had government stopped sending SAS troops to Afghanistan in 2005. The conflict had changed, he said, from a campaign to root out the international terrorist forces of al-Qaeda to a much more local conflict between disparate ethnic, religious, and political elements in Afghanistan. On top of that, the values of the Karzai government were “such that many of us find it hard to sacrifice New Zealand lives to protect that government”. It’s a shame his speech was not made when Labour formed that view five years ago.

Meantime, the Prime Minister was heading across the Tasman for the first [and last] cabinet-to-cabinet meeting hosted by Kevin Rudd. There, the two leaders announced the start of a study into the formation of a joint ANZAC contingent. What was not announced was that - either then or later - Rudd suggested it should be committed to the Uruzgan province of Afghanistan, where Australian troops are still putting their lives at risk mentoring Afghan security forces in the field.

Let’s come back to that ANZAC matter later - after we fast-forward through the more current, unfolding story about the date set for the NZSAS withdrawal from Afghanistan. Here are the relevant clips.

29 April 2010  SAS coming back next March: General James Cartwright is the second-highest ranking officer in the American military. 3News can reveal the general met with Prime Minister John Key who told us there was no mistaking the importance of the visit… “I made it clear actually that the SAS are coming back at the end of March, that they need to re-group,” says Mr Key.3News.

4 May 2010. – PM will consider longer stay: [General Stanley McChrystal] the head of international forces in Afghanistan wants New Zealand troops to stay longer and Prime Minister John Key says he will consider the possibility. Mr Key said the PRT commitment was likely to roll over for another year and then start reducing with more civilians coming in. Mr Key said the SAS's commitment would be looked at. "The SAS preference would be to have a smaller contingent to stay for a bit longer." However, he would not commit himself to allowing them to remain. New Zealand Herald

4 May 2010 – Rugby World Cup could affect SAS term: - Security around next year's Rugby World Cup could limit the Government's ability to keep elite troops in Afghanistan, Prime Minister John Key has said. Mr Key said while he was in Kabul visiting New Zealand troops he would consider extending the SAS deployment, but he did not commit to allowing it to remain. "We need to wait and see," he told reporters. "We've got a lot of domestic commitments with the Rugby World Cup and all sorts of other things." 3News

4 May 2010 – Senior Ministers reluctant to comment: Senior ministers were today reluctant to comment on whether the deployment would be prolonged until they had heard Mr Key's report on his trip. Defence Minister Wayne Mapp said the Government had always made it clear there would be a "staging out" of New Zealand troops. "The prime minister has been over there getting the situation on the ground and he'll be briefing me fully when he gets back," Dr Mapp said. NZPA

24 June 2010 – SAS will pull out in March: New Zealand SAS troops stationed in Afghanistan will be pulled out of the country next year, as originally planned. The SAS was due to end its deployment in March, but after a secret visit to Afghanistan in May, Prime Minister John Key left open speculation that the SAS might extend its stay. However Defence Minister Wayne Mapp told a parliamentary select committee today that the SAS unit based in Kabul will be withdrawn in March 2011. Radio New Zealand News

24 June 2010 – SAS withdrawal date undecided: The Government has clarified its position on the withdrawal of SAS troops from Afghanistan. It may be that they won’t pull out next March, as stated on Thursday morning by Defence Miniser Wayne Mapp. He has subsequently said… that the decision could still be reviewed and Cabinet has yet to discuss it. Prime Minister Key has chimed in, saying Cabinet will make its decision by November. Radio New Zealand News

2 July 2010. – SAS back by April: The SAS is currently deployed in Kabul with the Afghan Crisis Response Unit, but will finish there by April next year. "The absolute honest truth is it's a capacity issue, and we've got other tasks to prepare the unit for heading into the Rugby World Cup," says Lt Gen Jerry Mateparae."We're in discussions with [Rugby World Cup CEO] Martin Sneddon and his people about what support we might provide, through to the unit assisting police with counter-terrorism." 3News

What on earth do you make of all that? As this is written, there is no statement on the NZ Defence Force website, or from the Prime Minister, or from the Minister of Defence to confirm an official commitment to terminate the NZSAS deployment on its original schedule in March 2011.

Then, there was another strange revelation last week. A New Zealand bomb disposal squad, with a TVNZ film crew on board, came under attack near Khost. That’s three provinces away from Kiwibase Bamyan, in the bad-lands on the border with Pakistan. What was that squad doing and who authorized such a high-risk operation?

In the middle of all this muddle, we also had an out-of-the blue announcement from the Prime Minister that the Australian government was advised six weeks ago that New Zealand would not participate in the previously unreported proposal for a joint ANZAC operation to train and mentor Afghan troops in Uruzgan province. Too risky, not a good fit were the reasons given. Then there was this quote in the Sydney Morning Herald, attributed to John Key:

''I don't think we need to be embroiled further in a war which will not be won if the local government there continues to be corrupt and not win the hearts and minds of its own people. Sacrifice is one thing for Kiwis, we accept that, but we need to know that it's in a worthwhile cause and that there is a chance of success at the end of it. I don't believe that that is the situation at the present time.''

When do we leave?