US: Fight for us, you may need us

By Patrick Gower

Herald reporter Patrick Gower went to Afghanistan with the war in one of its most critical - and violent - phases. Countries around the world are questioning their involvement - and the New Zealand Government is about to decide what our contribution will be.

Brendon Whitmore is one of 155 New Zealand soldiers in Afghanistan. Inset: US ambassador Ivo Daalder. Photos / Patrick Gower, supplied
Brendon Whitmore is one of 155 New Zealand soldiers in Afghanistan. Inset: US ambassador Ivo Daalder. Photos / Patrick Gower, supplied

The United States is putting pressure on New Zealand to contribute more to the war in Afghanistan, warning Wellington that it should act as an ally in case it ever needs US military support.

President Barack Obama's new ambassador to Nato, Ivo Daalder, has told the Herald that New Zealand should be fighting the Taleban as a "partner and ally" in a Western effort.

Prime Minister John Key has indicated the elite SAS combat troops will be sent back to the war and the United States already has a likely role ready for them.

New Zealand currently has 155 troops in Afghanistan, mainly in a provincial reconstruction team in the relatively stable Bamiyan province.

It also contributes $7 million in aid and a small team of police trainers.

Dr Daalder said the US wanted more troops - in particular the elite SAS - more aid, more police and army trainers as well as civilians with expertise.

All would help to bring an end to the war, he said.

"Every penny, troop and trainer will hasten this."

Mr Key has said New Zealand's rationale for being in the war is to counter global terrorism. But Dr Daalder made it clear a major reason for a resumed troop commitment would be the maintenance of military relations with the US and the West.

"Being part of this Western effort is important," said the ambassador. "It is important for the self-definition of who New Zealand is, I would say."

Dr Daalder said New Zealand should consider not just its relations with the US, but with other allies, particularly Australia.

"God forbid there be a threat directly to New Zealand. Wouldn't it then be good for a country like Holland or Canada or Slovakia or the US to be there [for you]?"

The war in Afghanistan is now almost eight years old and a new push has seen July already become the deadliest month of the war, with 67 international troops killed so far.

Questions about the war are rising in allied countries such as the UK, which has lost 20 soldiers this month.

A review of NZ's Afghanistan commitments is almost finished and will be considered by the Government before a final decision on the SAS or other contributions, such as civilian assistance, is made next month.

Told of Dr Daalder's comments, Mr Key issued a statement last night saying any further commitment would be made in New Zealand's "best interest".

Dr Daalder praised Australia's "significant commitment" of 1550 troops to Afghanistan despite its major deployment in East Timor, currently the major security issue in this region.

Wellington has already said New Zealand will remain involved until September 2010 at a cost of $40 million, and the United States is keen for this commitment to be extended.

The Government has previously said its Afghanistan commitment, alongside the 155-strong deployment in East Timor and about 100 military personnel in other troublespots, puts the Army near its maximum.

The Herald travelled to Afghanistan this month, when the United States openly asked for more troops, more police trainers, more civilian expertise and more aid money.

Washington has a new strategy and is intensifying its efforts under orders from President Obama.

The White House is looking for an exit point from Afghanistan, but Dr Daalder said he was unable to give any timeline.

"Is there a timeline? No. Looking for a date, Sir? No. The more we do now, the less we have to do later and the quicker the job gets done."

The United States runs the Nato-led security force in Afghanistan and has about 59,000 troops there, with thousands more on the way.

There are about 32,000 other international troops in the country.

Labour Party leader Phil Goff said Dr Daalder's comments came from an "earlier" era, such as the Vietnam War.

"New Zealand's contributions to Afghanistan are purely a decision for New Zealand to take, and we should not make that decision on the basis of pressure from anyone else."

Mr Goff said New Zealand had contributed about $180 million in military and development assistance since the war began.

He believed the work in Bamiyan should be rolled over past 2010 but said he was not convinced the SAS should be sent back, preferring New Zealand instead to focus on development.

* Patrick Gower travelled with the assistance of the US State Department.

* Herald series on Afghanistan

Tomorrow: The SAS - Details of the role they could have in Afghanistan.

Wednesday: Kiwis in Kabul - The New Zealand soldiers in the Afghan capital.

Thursday: Rebuilding Afghanistan - The other side of the war in the remote Ghor Desert.

Friday: The election - Is Afghanistan ready for next month's crucial Presidential elections?

Saturday: Security - For international forces to leave, Afghanistan must have its own viable army and police. How long will this take?

- NZ Herald

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