Matt McCarten on politics
Matt McCarten is a Herald on Sunday political columnist

Matt McCarten: Let's not forget SAS is under civilian control

Soldiers, such as Willie Apiata, are respected but John Key must control them.
Photo / Norrie Montgomery
Soldiers, such as Willie Apiata, are respected but John Key must control them. Photo / Norrie Montgomery

Does anyone believe for a minute the official line that our SAS commandos are merely acting as mentors to the Afghan police force's Crisis Response Unit? I guess none of us are really meant to swallow it, but it does give fig leaf cover for what their real role is.

It looks to me like we've become de facto commanders and heavyweights for the serious work of taking out the Afghan Government's enemies in a civil war. In previous eras, I suppose we'd call us mercenaries.

Whenever our soldiers are caught on camera in any melee, our elites in this country start singing the praises for our boys killing the bad guys. It's all good fun as none of our boys get hurt. There's only one exception, when one soldier got shot by "friendly fire". But that doesn't count.

Our SAS are the new pin-ups. They have received uncritical and even adulation by our press where women are even encouraged by pap photo pieces to consider the dating attributes of our SAS heroes.

More seriously, they get well-deserved respect from their international counterparts. So I am not surprised they want to stay in Afghanistan.

What does concern me, though, is that they have lobbied Prime Minister John Key to stay and he says he is considering that option. Taking into account whether soldiers want to go or stay in any war theatre should never be a factor when making decisions like this.

The matters to take into account are: is the mission in our national interests? Is the mission moral? Does the mission have a clear achievable goal to win and an exit strategy once the job is done?

I'm not sure if the current Afghan escapade meets any of these criteria. To want to continue is unbelievable. After all, the Afghans were not involved in 9/11; we are propping up an illegitimate regime backed by drug lords; the local populace wants us to go; and our allies have neither clear goal nor an exit strategy.

More disturbingly the Western occupation is losing anyway.

The American public and the majority of US politicians want their troops out too. President Barack Obama says he's pulling out 30,000 soldiers in a drawdown, against the wishes of his generals I might add. So on what basis are we staying?

Our SAS were supposed to be home last March but Key extended their tour for 12 months after the soldiers lobbied him then. Now he's considering caving into them again. This is an extraordinary show of weak leadership.

Of course professional soldiers want to use their skills - killing and otherwise. But a central principle of any democracy is that the armed forces are under the control of civilian government. Soldiers do not campaign to start, maintain or terminate wars. The only question permitted by the military when ordered to jump by a prime minister is "how high?"

If you think I'm being too dramatic about this, history is on my side. My recollection of the first Fiji coup is that then Prime Minister David Lange struggled to get the SAS to do what he wanted. And when he ordered a naval ship to set sail, our military commanders claimed there were none suitable.

The circumstances are different but whether civilian or military people are in charge is fudged again.

In any event, it's either naive or cynical for our PM to signal a few days before he meets the US President that he is open to a suggestion on our SAS remaining as "mentors" in Afghanistan.

As the world's leading democracy, the US has no problem in keeping a tight rein on its military leadership. Therefore, Obama will be bemused by Key's apparent weakness when dealing with our military. I assume the President will see Key's musings as an opportunity to use his fulsome smile to push our Prime Minister to capitulate.

If that doesn't work he can always promise Key another slot on the David Letterman Show. Given Key's track record that should do the trick.

- Herald on Sunday

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