John Armstrong on politics

John Armstrong is the Herald's chief political commentator

John Armstrong: Realities of war hit home at last

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John Key during his visit to Afghanistan earlier this year. Photo / NZ National Party
John Key during his visit to Afghanistan earlier this year. Photo / NZ National Party

This country's politicians had long braced themselves for the eventuality of New Zealand fatalities in Afghanistan.

What they had not really counted on was the first New Zealand soldier killed there being a member of the largely non-combatant provincial reconstruction team (PRT).

The focus of the concerns of most MPs was last year's redeployment of elite SAS troops to the strife-torn central Asian republic. Despite pressure from Washington to send those troops, Cabinet ministers sweated long and hard before giving the okay.

They knew the prospect of troops returning home in bodybags would have consequences both for National and for New Zealanders' willingness to keep contributing to the American-led efforts to bring some stability to Afghanistan.

Though it may sound perverse, what was most worrying for ministers was that there had been no fatalities during the previous SAS deployments sanctioned by the last Labour Government.

The absence until now of serious casualties had bred a relative indifference, if not complacency, among the public about the dangers of Afghanistan. That indifference was accentuated by the PRT having multi-party support.

The shockwaves resonating from the death of Lieutenant Tim O'Donnell should cut through that indifference and have people asking whether New Zealand should continue to deploy troops to Afghanistan under whatever guise.

Those questions were not being asked yesterday - at least in public. As Phil Goff stressed, yesterday was not the day for political statements. Those might have to wait until after O'Donnell's funeral. Even then, any such debate might be relatively restrained for other reasons.

While Labour and the Greens oppose the SAS deployment, both parties support the work of the PRT. The unit has been based in Bamiyan province since 2003. It is made up largely of engineers - a mix of carpenters, plumbers, electricians and other tradesmen - supported by staff officers, infantry, drivers, medics, mechanics and communications personnel.

The team's task involves strengthening the influence of the Kabul Government in the region, helping aid efforts, monitoring disarmament and rebuilding essential infrastructure such as schools.

Labour and the Greens could use O'Donnell's death to call for the SAS and possibly the PRT as well to be brought home for good.

In doing so, however, those two parties would face charges of using O'Donnell's death to score political points at National's expense. They will tread carefully. Their ability to gain any advantage is further constrained by National ensuring it has an exit strategy in place to leave Afghanistan.

National - which, with Act, is acutely aware of wanting to satisfy the wishes of traditional allies like the United States, Britain and Australia - still clearly wants out of Afghanistan in the not too distant future despite the Prime Minister showing some enthusiasm for the SAS staying beyond next March. Both deployments - the PRT is currently scheduled to remain until September next year - contain obvious political risk in an election year.

Should conditions become even more difficult and dangerous in coming months and the public mood shifts towards favouring withdrawal, National has retained sufficient flexibility to be able to do so.

- NZ Herald

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