The buck stops... in Kabul?

The government's decision to keep the SAS in Afghanistan for another year is sound, but its reasoning is gutless. Cabinet needs the courage to own its decision

Right decision, wrong reason.

The government has opted to keep the New Zealand SAS operating in Afghanistan for another year, although the deployment of troops will halve from 70 back to 35. It's a typically Key decision – neither one thing nor another, trying to keep everyone happy. With no definite decision either way, critics are muted, the media give the story less prominence and voters therefore shrug and carry on their daily lives.

Indeed, most of the media attention – in rather trivial fashion sadly – focused not on the lives of our servicemen or the development of Afghanistan, but on how the government's decision might affect the Rugby World Cup. There are dignitaries to protect back home when the festivities begin, it seems.

Which means no rest for the returning 35 SAS troops after what will have been a gruelling tour of duty. Especially given that the Afghanistan winter has created a certain lull, and it's the six months leading up the world cup that are likely to be the most dangerous for international forces.

But the decision to stay is the correct one, because to leave now would be like a gardener walking away from seeds newly planted, leaving them unwatered and uncared for. There's no guarantee of a bumper harvest – indeed, the odds are long – but those who demand withdrawal because Afghanistan is "an unwinnable war" miss the point.

The role of ISAF troops in Afghanistan is not to win anything, but rather to buy time so that some sense of peace, some infrastructure and government services, some order and even a little prosperity, can take root. That will take years, which is why US President Barack Obama says the July deadline he put on the surge is only the start of withdrawal. Obama has added:

"But after July 2011, we are still going to have an interest in making sure that Afghanistan is secure, that economic development is taking place, that good governance is being promoted."

We have that interest too, because we were part of the errant invasion in the fits place, because we want to give Afghanistan a chance to get back on its feet after what has frankly been a shitty few decades, and,  because we don't want to see violence and extreme activism spreading through the border areas with Pakistan, which is beset by a weak government, bolshie military and economic woes stemming from last year's floods and rising food prices.

Yes, both Obama and our government are weasling out of commitments to exit the country sooner rather than later, but if getting out sooner leaves a power vacuum and more scope for renewed violence, then so be it. Better the break a promise than a country and its people. The important next step as troop numbers diminish is to see them replaced by civilians who can do the vital work of development.

The political risk for National isn't small, given it's an election year. We've been incredibly lucky not to lose one of our SAS thus far, and a death would get a lot of people asking why exactly this decision to extend was made.

That shouldn't be front-of-mind when making this decision, of course. But then neither should this government's efforts to get closer to the US, and my guess is that it was the main talking point when cabinet discussed this. This government seems to see foreign policy through the lens of its US and Australian relationships, and I can't see them changing in a hurry.

That aside, what really struck me in Key's announcement yesterday – what made me sit up and ask 'did he really just say that?"  – was the Prime Minister's comment that the SAS should stay because the soldiers in Afghanistan had asked to. They wanted to stay to finish the job, Key said. It was a reason for staying that he repeated in media interviews. (And one that went unchallenged, incredibly).

For a start, is the message from the military really that straight forward? The immediate past-head of our defence forces Lt-Gen. Jerry Mateparae last year hinted strongly at a preference for the troops to come home on schedule. He said last ANZAC Day 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".

But more worringly, where's the political leadership? Who is the Commander-in-Chief here? And who decides what's in New Zealand's best interests? Since when did soliders get to decide their own orders?

I'm left wondering what decision the government would have made had the word from Kabul been that the troops there would really rather come home. And what if our SAS want get involved in other actions around the world?

Do other public servants get to choose how and where they serve? MFAT might fancy an office in Venice or Lake Tahoe, nurses might want to work half the hours for double the pay and to down tools when Coronation Street is on, and our SIS might like a bit more access to people's private records. But you know what? None of them get to choose.

I'm poking the borax with those examples, of course. But I hope you take my point that while politicians must take advice from those in the field, one of the points of a civilian-led military is that the buck stops far from the roar of cannons and decisions are made with an eye to the big national picture.

There is no more serious decision a PM makes than to put the lives of his own citizens at risk, even if they are military personnel. He should only make that decision after cautious and considered thinking, and only if it serves the greater good and our national interests. And when he makes that decision, he should take sombre responsibility for it, not say he's made that choice because it's what the soldiers themselves want.

What happens now if one or more is killed in action. Do we look at that death differently because of Key's claim the man wanted to be there? That his preference was taken into consideration and it was his choice?

Frankly, to consider their wishes – and to make that part of your public reasoning – lacks courage and leadership and shows naivety when it comes to foreign policy.

If the cabinet wants our servicemen to risk their lives in the uniform of this country, then the decision must be theirs, and the reasons must be the best interests of this country. Anything else is disrespectful and weak-minded.