It's looking increasingly as if 2014 will be a false deadline in Afghanistan, with more SAS hand-holding needed for years to come. With the government expected to come under renewed pressure to make a greater commitment, what choice is the PM likely to make? 

As the war in Afghanistan closes in on its 10th anniversary, the questions it provokes aren't getting any easier, and as we've felt this weekend with the loss of another New Zealand solider, the cost isn't getting any less, either.

The question bubbling to the surface now is that of withdrawal and how much more will be asked of New Zealand troops.

If you've read Pundit much in recent years, you'll know my view - that the invasion in 2001 was a terrible mistake, but once made, our obligation to the people of Afghanistan has been to follow through and help them avoid again becoming a failed state. And yes, I recognise what an immense task that is.

The state of play at the moment is mixed, to say the least. Greater success in Afghanistan has been countered by more troubles with Pakistan. A record number of insurgent deaths in the past 18 months has been matched by record numbers of civilians and foreign troops losing their lives. This year is on track to be the second worst of the war in terms of casualties - the worst being 2010.

The New York Times reports that in the first six months of this year, the total number of casualties in Afghanistan was 1462, the highest of any comparable period.

While a huge effort has gone on training Afghan security forces in the past two years - at a cost of $15 billion this year alone - they're still not ready. Which is why our SAS is there, holding their hand.

If you're an ordinary Afghan you might be thinking that while the Taliban is taking a hammering at the moment, its followers are here to stay, the government's corrupt with weak security forces, and the foreign troops are on their way out. So who would you be backing? And if you're a western soldier, you've got to be asking what you're risking your life for when the likes of Napolean and Churchill, haven't been able to impose a lasting order on Afghanistan.

Already, 65 foreign troops have died trying this month. Actually, make that 66.

Prime Minister John Key says this is no time to "cut and run" and our SAS should stay until March next year as planned, and our Provincial Reconstruction Team (PRT) until 2014. And I'd agree, as far as that goes.

The problem is, what happens after? If it's our duty to be there now - and in our national interest, as the PM believes - why not in six months? Or six years? What's so special about 2014? (except that the US has run out of money and will). And what's our ultimate responsibility?

I suspect that question will become more intense in the coming months, asked mostly by our allies. British Special Representative Mark Sedwill is on his way to New Zealand - via Australia - as I write, to brief our top brass and defence minister this week. The assumption around his trip is that he's coming to ask for a greater commitment from us.

Whether that means more troops or more time, I'm not sure. But our allies aren't likely to let us off the hook in a hurry, in part because the SAS are doing such a good job. The Afghan army still needs them and will do well beyond March.

Of course, this latest death makes it the worst possible time for the British or others to be asking us for more. If there was any public mood for a longer stay for our SAS and PRT, there will be even less now.

John Key seems to be keenly aware of this, his antenna as alive as usual, saying on Q+A a few weeks ago that "the time for our men to be serving in Afghanistan in terms of the SAS has to come to an end because at one point, they're only a small unit, and they need to regroup and need to have some time back in New Zealand".

He's rolled out similar lines this weekend, seemingly drawing a line in the sand. On the other hand, he's used the SAS deployment to send the message to NATO capitals that New Zealand is firmly back in the arms of the Western alliance. Is he willing to risk undermining that message and what he sees as the associated gains in diplomacy and, potentially, trade?

It's interesting to note that what his words don't rule out is sending the SAS back again after that "regrouping" has taken place. And that should probably be the next question for the press gallery this week.

On Q+A today, Guardian correspondent Jon Boone said:

"I think everyone accepts that there’s going to have to be an extremely long presence of foreign forces... these Afghan commandos are really quite good and they’re getting better, but they’ll probably never be able to deal with a siege like this. For the discernible future, long past 2014, I would have thought, you will need foreign special forces operating quick-reaction teams in Kabul as well as, you know, a sizeable foreign troop contribution."

That's a message no politician in the West wants to hear, least of all John Key. It makes a nonsense of the public assumption that it's almost done and dusted, all will be well and the boys will be home soon.

The expectation is growing that more will be needed. Or, at least, requested. New Zealand needs to start thinking about what our answer will be.

Comments (6)

by william blake on August 22, 2011
william blake

The easy way out for the SAS is to withdraw on an economic imperative, after all we can cut night classes on this basis why not a pointless war?

The collapse of the USSR  cannot be blamed squarely on its conflict with Afghanistan, but it was a factor in its downfall, will the same be said of the USA or the New Zealand economy?

I struggle with the human cost (NZ soldiers) in this context, it almost seems like the Olympic games of soldiering, rather than a just war against totalitarianism. Stopping a bullet can be equated to choking in the quarter finals, courage under fire equates to a gold medal.

by stuart munro on August 23, 2011
stuart munro

Afghanistan was a lost cause when it began. But with Osama bin Laden ostensibly dead there is no credible rationale besides favour trading for prolonging our presence. And favour trading in war is despicable, because it is trading in human life and suffering. We are no nearer now to a favourable outcome in Afghanistan than when we began.

The greatest favour Key could do is to tell the US what their best friend wouldn't - "you lost this one too". Key of course does no favours without a pro quo. Into unending infamy and economic ruin, NZ's leaders take us, willy nilly, the cretins leading the better informed. Curse them all - an arrogant and unthrifty generation whose hubris dooms us all.

by Tim Watkin on August 23, 2011
Tim Watkin

I can't find the item online, but I heard on RNZ this morning Key saying he didn't rule out sending the SAS back to Afghanistan after they've regrouped. So thanks to whoever asked that question!

That means we're not really withdrawing to deciding the war there is over, but rather just pausing for breath, which all units need to do.

Stuart, the life or death of bin Laden is hardly the justification for the war. The US and NZ and I'm sure others have, since the initial Bora Bora quest failed, said it was about ensuring Afghanistan doesn't become a terrorist safe haven again. Yes, that's spurious and means we should be invading Yemen, Somalia etc as well, but bin Laden's irrelevant in truth and in politics.

by Tim Watkin on August 23, 2011
Tim Watkin

And I note that Australia has lost its 29th solider in Afghanistan. Horrible.

by stuart munro on August 23, 2011
stuart munro

There is no justifying an unjust war. But I think you'll find the 9/11 attack was the casus belli. So, bin Laden was irrelevant? He was relevant in that his death invalidates the casus belli, however dubious it may have been.

So now mission creep is why we're there, without an achievable objective, until some worthless politician is sufficiently embarassed, or that millenial occurance, a statesman turns up, to wind up the whole stupid and murderous debacle.

NZ soldiers are just another consumable in Unocal's campaign for a Caspian oil pipeline - like Afghan citizens, but more tractable.


by william blake on August 28, 2011
william blake

"And I note that Australia has lost its 29th solider in Afghanistan. Horrible."



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