Key indicates SAS will return to Afghanistan

By John Armstrong

The United States wants New Zealand troops in Afghanistan again. Photo / Supplied
The United States wants New Zealand troops in Afghanistan again. Photo / Supplied

Prime Minister John Key has given the strongest indication yet that New Zealand's elite SAS troops will be sent to Afghanistan despite Government misgivings about the increasing numbers of American and European casualties from the escalating war against the Taleban.

"I do think it's important that New Zealand plays its role, and plays its part in trying to get on top of what is a terrorist hotspot," he told TVNZ's Q&A programme yesterday.

The Prime Minister stressed that the Cabinet would not make any decisions before next month, when ministers will have received the findings of a review of New Zealand's military commitment to Afghanistan.

But he agreed the "war on terrorism" in Afghanistan had been necessary and New Zealand's involvement likewise.

British Prime Minister Gordon Brown has been forced to defend his country's stance towards Afghanistan after eight British soldiers were killed during one weekend in operations against Taleban insurgents in the southern part of the country.

New Zealand currently has about 140 military personnel in a provincial reconstruction team based in Bamiyan, farther to the north. The deployment began in 2003 and is due to continue until at least September next year.

Amidst escalating conflict elsewhere in the country, New Zealand patrols in normally quiet Bamiyan were last month involved in a firefight and a bomb attack.

The SAS has undertaken more secretive missions in Afghanistan three times, the last in 2006. In April Foreign Minister Murray McCully confirmed that the United States had asked for them to be sent again.

In reaching its decision on that request, the Cabinet will have to weigh up the increased likelihood of New Zealand troops being killed this time against the diplomatic downside of disappointing Washington and the new Obama Administration.

Citing last Friday's bomb blasts in Jakarta that killed eight people including expat New Zealand businessman Tim Mackay, Mr Key said New Zealanders around the world were never immune from the threat of terrorism.

"We're a First World country that has to play its part in trying to stamp that terrorism out."

The Prime Minister said it was his Government's long-term view that it would like to "exit" Afghanistan.

"What I would like to see happen in Afghanistan from New Zealand's perspective - and ultimately I guess from the world perspective - is that we stabilise Afghanistan, and that the huge commitment of foreign forces that are in there can ultimately be withdrawn.

"Now that can only happen if the position's stabilised. It's very complex, it's challenging, and at the moment it's proving to be very costly from a human life perspective.

"I wouldn't want to put New Zealanders in the front of human fire, or danger, unless I felt it was in the right interests of New Zealand."

- NZ Herald

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