SAS deployment: is the government making it up as it goes along?

Contradicting the convention on SAS deployments... Having no official advice on the Afghanistan elections... is the Key administration out of its depth on foreign policy?

Is it just me, or does the government's handling of the SAS deployment to Afghanistan seem somewhat, well, loose?

The Prime Minister's announcement that 71 SAS troops had arrived in in Afghanistan was odd, to say the least. As John Key himself noted when he announced the deployment in August, the convention is to not reveal where and when the special forces will be serving. As I noted last week, one former military officer I've spoken with was already unimpressed at the amount of information being reported, saying that it put the SAS at risk. Given that the SAS won a presidential citation for "extraordinary heroism and outstanding performance of duty in action" during its last involvement on the war, they will be marked by the Taleban, he told me. Politicians do our troops no favours by announcing their ETA.

While I'm not convinced by that argument, it seems a rather casual flip flop by Key to stay mum a month ago only to release details now. If it's simply to give him a good headline before he leaves the country and a news bump upon his arrival in the US, then that's a worrying set of priorities. Either he has a policy of being open about the military activity being carried out in our name – and if so, can we expect more detail about the SAS's operations? – or he stays quiet as per the convention. Which is it? Has government disclosure policy changed? Or is this operation being managed on-the-hoof?

Key's announcement that the SAS has deployed in Afghanistan confirms the report by the Herald on Sunday last weekend, which as I wrote last week, revealed the big news of the SAS' arrival in paragraph eight of a feature on page 35. If reporter David Fisher was right about the SAS' presence in the country, what chance that his sources are just as reliable in saying that the SAS is in Kandahar or surrounding locales? I'd say pretty good, although Key didn't release that information.

What Key did say however, according to Radio New Zealand this morning, is that he's received no official advice about the Afghanistan elections last month. That's staggering. We have troops in Bamiyan assisting with the election, we have the SAS going back into the line of fire, and our Prime Minister is dependent on media reports for information on the elections? In a year that has already been the most violent since foreign troops invaded the country in 2001, the election raised tensions significantly. A reported 26 people died on election day, many more in the build-up. In Bamiyan, where our reconstruction team is based, a rocket was fired at a polling station and, in contrast to other parts of the country, women turned out in large numbers.

And Key is surfing the net for updates on this? Are you serious?

We know we have spies in Afghanistan keeping a look out. Did they not supply him with reports? Was MFAT so incompetent as to not be updating him on the elections and the reports of corruption since? Or is Key simply being loose with the truth? The impression is that the ninth floor at least is not giving these operations, this war, and this country the attention is deserves.

Just overnight America has been reading details of Gen. Stanley McChrystal's review of its Afghanistan strategy. As has been widely supposed, McChrystal is crying out for more troops to stabilise that vast country; 45,000 more to be exact. He writes:

"Failure to gain the initiative and reverse insurgent momentum in the near-term (next 12 months) -- while Afghan security capacity matures -- risks an outcome where defeating the insurgency is no longer possible."

According to the Washington Post, McChrystal,

"repeatedly warns that without more forces and the rapid implementation of a genuine counterinsurgency strategy, defeat is likely. McChrystal describes an Afghan government riddled with corruption and an international force undermined by tactics that alienate civilians."

Asked about the corruption in Afghanistan, Key's answer yesterday was so glib as to be Bush-like:

"Yes, we are supporting that administration. The alternative is that we are left with a country where control is ceded to the Taleban, where in all probability more terrorist activities will be planned and scheme will be hatched."

Is he really saying that we only have two choices, corruption or terrorism? Where's the condemnation of corruption that so many other allied countries have issued? Where's any understanding of how you move from corruption to partial democracy? And what does he know about the level of corruption during the recent elections anyway, if all he's had to inform him are media reports?

It seems Key is also willing to take at face value a "verbal" assurance from some unnamed figure in the Afghan government that any prisoners captured by New Zealand soldiers and handed over to their Afghan counterparts will not be tortured. The question of New Zealand's responsibility to prisoners under the Geneva Conventions and the story of Afghan detainees being handed over to US forces was broken almost a year ago by David Beatson on this site, and it seems this government has learnt nothing and is being as off-hand as the last about its obligations under the Geneva Conventions.

If the goal is stopping terrorist activities and stopping the Taliban gaining control, as Key now seems to be saying, how long does that suggest we intend to stay there? In April he was saying that he would only send in the SAS as part of an overall "exit strategy". Yesterday's answers were more ambiguous, but suggest a longer commitment.

Can you imagine other governments being this loose in regard to their servicemen and servicewomen? This imprecise? I can't. This is raising serious doubts about the grasp this government has on foreign policy.