Key rules out SAS training Afghan troops

By Patrick Gower

John Key has ruled out a suggestion by the US military that NZ troops serve as mentors to Afghanistan's army. Photo / Mark Mitchell
John Key has ruled out a suggestion by the US military that NZ troops serve as mentors to Afghanistan's army. Photo / Mark Mitchell

Prime Minister John Key has snubbed the United States military over what the SAS will do in Afghanistan, saying he does not want them fighting alongside the troubled country's fledgling army because it is too dangerous.

American vice admiral William Sullivan has told the Herald New Zealand's Special Air Service troops are ideally suited to a "mentoring" role. This would involve the SAS training Afghan army units and fighting the Taleban.

But yesterday, Mr Key ruled this out, saying it would be "particularly dangerous".

Operational Mentor and Liaison Teams, dubbed "omelettes", play an important role in the war because they are training the Afghan Army and police so international forces can eventually leave.

The danger arises from the mentor troops being paired with their less-able Afghan counterparts on missions rather than relying on their own loyal and highly trained colleagues.

Admiral Sullivan, the US Military Representative to Nato, hoped Wellington would send the SAS back to Afghanistan - as Mr Key has signalled - and proposed they undertake the mentoring role.

"It is more than just training and pushing them out the door. It is going with them when they go out the door.

"They go with them on operations and they live with them. They help them plan missions. It is an ideal role for your SAS."

In March, Australian mentor Mathew Hopkins was shot dead by the Taleban, and a just-released report has revealed serious failings by the Afghans the corporal was mentoring.

It says the locals played only a limited role when the joint patrol came under heavy fire and the Australians had to take control even though there were far fewer of them and they were only there in support.

Mr Key said he would not bow to pressure from the US and believed New Zealand could refuse certain roles because they were too dangerous.

"We don't answer to America. We make decisions on what is in the best interests of New Zealand."

The PM dismissed comments in yesterday's Herald by the new US ambassador to Nato, Ivo Daalder, as a "a little gung ho".

Dr Daalder said Wellington should contribute to the war because "god forbid there be a threat directly to New Zealand" and it needed help from the US or other allies.

Mr Key said he would be taking Dr Daalder's comments with "a grain of salt".

The Prime Minister said he was "sympathetic" to the US plea for more combat troops.

A decision is imminent, because Mr Key said the Cabinet would consider New Zealand's contribution to the war before he goes to Australia to meet PM Kevin Rudd in three weeks.

This may mean the SAS could be back in Afghanistan for the potentially violent aftermath of its presidential elections on August 20.

Mr Key also revealed he was keen to withdraw from Bamiyan province the 140-strong Provincial Reconstruction Team, which "sucks up a lot of resources" and is committed only through to September next year. That could shift New Zealand's emphasis to combat instead of reconstruction if the SAS were deployed.

The SAS were not involved in mentoring or partnership roles in their three previous missions to Afghanistan, which happened when local security forces were virtually non-existent.

The report on Corporal Hopkins' death highlights the major task facing international forces in building the Afghan army and police.

But Admiral Sullivan said getting the local forces to a point where they could look after the country themselves was the way out for foreign troops. "That's your exit strategy."

The admiral refused to indicate how long this might take.

He said the special-forces expertise of the SAS was in high demand on the battlefield, particularly because of the New Zealanders' maturity and training in dealing with the locals, which enabled them to separate the Afghan people from insurgents.

The US leads the Nato force there with 59,000 troops.

Thousands more are on the way. Other countries have sent 32,000 military personnel.

Said Admiral Sullivan: "Your guys would be welcome."

* Patrick Gower travelled to Afghanistan and to Nato HQ in Brussels with the assistance of the US State Department.

- NZ Herald

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