Afghanistan: Whoa, Johnny,Whoa…

Something happens when politicians put on the steel helmet and flak jacket to join then troops on the battleground in Afghanistan – over there John Key couldn't stop talking. Back home, however, he's keen to keep secrets

The prime minister’s not-so-secret visit to Afghanistan was packed with all the right photo-ops – from the high-security Hercules swoop into Kabul Airport, through the full-metal-jacket welcome, the grim-faced chopper ride to the secret location of the SAS, to the casual walk-about with the locals in the market, school and hospital of Bamiyan.

His sound-bites were near perfect.

“I am not prepared to send people to a destination I am not prepared to come to myself."

"The New Zealanders are very good at what they do....Everywhere we go, they have been complimented on what they do."

“The enemy is al Qaeda, really. The Taliban is a domestic focus.”

The pictures spoke louder than words when our leader dropped in on the model Kiwibase provincial reconstruction team to see their good works in Bamiyan. The mood was “festive and friendly”.

At the school, he promised the pupil who complained about the shortage of rooms, books, and clean water that he would ask the PRT about more rooms. The lab staff at the Kiwi-built hospital got the same treatment. Key was out there, winning hearts and minds, at home and abroad.

His meeting with Afghanistan’s erratic president Hamid Karzai seems to have gone uneventfully. It has yet to be noted on the website of the Office of the President and there is no mention of the content of any discussion on the Beehive site as this is written.

The script started slipping after his encounter with the commander of the International Security Assistance Force and Operation Enduring Freedom, General Stanley McChrystal.

McChrystal has been getting plenty of bad news lately. The US Department of Defence has just reported the following analysis to Congress.

“The overall assessment indicates that the population sympathises with or supports the Afghan government in 24% [29 of 121] of all Key Terrain and Area of Interest districts.”

That is Pentagon-speak for: “Listen up – after more than eight years of this war, more than three quarters of the strategically important areas of this country don’t care what happens or actually sympathise with the enemy”.

No doubt the commander also had a report that the second highest-ranked officer in the US military, four star general James “Hoss” Cartright, had flown out of Wellington the previous week with the following message from John Key:

“I made it clear actually that the SAS are coming back at the end of March, that they need to re-group.”

On top of that, starting in September, New Zealand had committed to phasing out the military and civilianising Bamyan PRT that McChrystal holds up as a model for the rest of the country. In fact, it was in the process of announcing the appointment of the PRT’s first civilian director while the commander was meeting the prime minister.

General McChrystal is clearly a man who does not take no for an answer, even when he knows he should not be asking the question. He made it McChrystal clear that he wanted our troops to stay longer:

"It is something I would like to see. I try to shy away from dealing with the requirements for any country. I think that's for the wider coalition leadership to do. But what I have found is continuity of commitment to the Afghan people is important."

Key came out of his encounter with the commander with a new message for the folks at home. Now, the military commitment to the Kiwibase PRT is likely to “roll over for another year” and the SAS commitment would be looked at again. The PM even volunteered the following advice:

"The SAS preference would be to have a smaller contingent to stay for a bit longer."

That caught Foreign Affairs Minister Murray McCully flat-footed. As he ran the press gallery gauntlet on his way into the chamber, all he could gulp was:

“That was not on the agenda.”

And that says it all, really.

Now, opposition leader Phil Goff is trying to make the most of the flip-flop. His theme:

“We think it's not appropriate to put New Zealand lives at risk for a corrupt regime that doesn't win the support of its own people.”

Never mind about his own flip-flop some time after 2005, when Labour neglected to tell the public why it was not sending the SAS back to Afghanistan, or why it was unable to find out what happened to the 50 to 70 detainees the SAS had turned over to US custody on his watch. Memories are short. It is Key’s turn in the hot seat now.

Irony of ironies, as this news was breaking a letter from the Ombudsman arrived in my mail.

Ombudsman David McGee has formed the “provisional view” that the current government and the New Zealand Defence Force are justified in declining my request for a copy of the standard operating procedures to be observed by the NZSAS for the detention and processing individuals that it may capture during its latest deployment to Afghanistan.

The information I seek is contained in the NZSAS Rules of Engagement and the Military Technical Arrangement with Afghanistan. The rules of engagement are classified because “they are drawn not only from NZDF sources but also, with approval, from other governments.” Disclosure could prejudice the provision of other confidential information by those governments.

In short, the Key government will not tell us specifically how SAS detainees are going to be processed, treated and monitored – just like the government that Goff served. At least we have a debate going now.