Sending the troops is one thing, keeping them there something else altogether

Funny how no-one has picked up on the fact that John Key's decision to consider extending the stay of NZ troops in Afghanistan is in direct contradiction to his own military chief, who says they have things to do back home

Now that John Key's back in the country after his foray into Afghanistan, he'll have time to catch up on what I'm sure is a long list of phone messages that has been building up during his time away. There will be the one Gerry, saying that he's a bit worried about this mining thing getting out of control and how terribly sorry he is that – being from Christchurch and all – he just didn't understand how upset Aucklanders would be about mining in the city's playground, the Coromandel Peninsula.

There will be the one from the Second Property Owners' Association just checking in to make sure there's nothing too radical in the Budget, and a similar one from the Business Roundtable making sure on behalf of its members that they are still in line for their juicy tax cut. Plus there'll be the message from Rodney Hide, "Don't worry John, I've got the privatisation... bugger, I mean commercialisation under control. Water's up for sale, ah, I mean, um, being made commercially viable this week. Roger and out... Um, not that Roger has anything to do with this... Crap, sorry. Bye"

Tariana Turia will have left a message asking if she perhaps misheard at the press conference today about the $134 million promised for Whanau Ora. "Er, what's happened to the other $866 million again? Did I miss something?"

But perhaps the most interesting message will be from Lieutenant General Jerry Mateparae who, in all seriousness, may want to know why his political boss has hung him out to dry over how long New Zealand troops are expected to stay in Afghanistan.

Last year, John Key said sending the SAS back to Afghanistan was part of the ISAF's exit strategy. I supported that reasoning. Just last week Key reassuringly himself told 3News:

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

He then changed his mind having spoken to US Gen. Stanley McChrystal and, perhaps, the SAS troops in Kabul, who are known to be keen to stick around. He's now re-thinking.

But what no-one's reported this week as the country has debated whether we should stay or we should go is that the man who is actually in charge of those troops, the man who is the country's leading expert and top decision-maker, the chief of the defence force made his opinion pretty clear just two weeks ago.

He said on Q+A that the SAS in Kabul was due out next March and the Bamiyan-based Provincial Reconstruction Team in September next year, before continuing:

So we're matching how we operate in Afghanistan to the conditions in Afghanistan, and also to the conditions at home in relation to just how much the Defence Force can commit, in the event that we've got other things that we need to be concerned about in our own area, we've got modernisation plans that are unrolling, we've got other things to look to.

That's right, our top military man is saying we've got better things to do in our own backyard; that's a pretty strong hint that his focus is the Asia-Pacific region. Mateparae's alsopretty conscious that the government's got a white paper due out later this year, and by next year he will be waist deep in a generational re-jigging, or "modernisation" of the defence force, quite possibly working under tighter budgets.

He was also saying that any decision about troop movement would be determined by military strategy, not political horse-trading. The Americans talk about "conditions on the ground" and stress that general, not politicians should be making the operational decisions.

But it seems that in this case, our Prime Minister has over-ruled his general. So yes, I'm very curious about just what will be said in the next phone conversation between the pair. Was there consultation? We don't know. But given quite how recently both the PM and the Chief of the Defence Force seemed decided on sticking to the original schedule, it looks like an example of foreign policy being made on the hoof.

That, my friends, is a worry. You can wing a bit of domestic policy now and then, but when you're deciding about sending young New Zealanders to war, the utmost care and consideration must be taken. That's when you need to be at your most prime ministerial.

Instead, the man who said, "I don't want to stay in Afghanistan forever" is now talking about extending his soldiers' stay. It looks like the SAS is now being used as a tool to please the Americans, rather than helping hold together the wounds of a troubled country. That, it seems to be, is hardly a cause worth risking lives for.

A few extra months may be justifiable, but the reasons for extension matter, as does the process by which the decision is made. And this doesn't look encouraging.

Finally, Key's antenna let him down horribly this week; perhaps as badly as it ever has. His comment that, “I am not prepared to send people to a destination I am not prepared to come to myself" is one of the most shallow and insulting lines I've heard form him.

He flies in secretly protected by security and carries a series of carefully co-ordinated photo ops; the troops go out on patrol amidst a very dangerous insurgency with a weapon in their hands and a uniform marking themselves out as a target. Any form of comparison is ridiculous, clunkily self-serving and demeaning to both the PM and the troops who are serving at his command.

It's perhaps yet another sign of his ever-floating poll ratings that the media hasn't come down on such a woeful comment like a ton of bricks. He should be ashamed of himself, and I suspect he is.