Isaac Davison

Isaac Davison is a NZ Herald political reporter.

Hungarians hurt by 'snide' Key dig at troops

Honorary Consul-General of Hungary Klara Szentirmay. Photo /  Supplied
Honorary Consul-General of Hungary Klara Szentirmay. Photo / Supplied

The highest-ranking Hungarian representative in New Zealand has described Prime Minister John Key's remarks about the effectiveness of Hungarian troops in Afghanistan as "snide" and "unhelpful".

Mr Key said the New Zealand Defence Force's plan to extend its patrols beyond the borders of Bamiyan Province was partly to fill a gap left by Hungarian troops.

The expanded patrols followed the death of two New Zealand Provincial Reconstruction Team (PRT) soldiers at the hands of insurgents who were believed to base themselves inside the border of the neighbouring Baghlan Province.

A Hungarian PRT team was responsible for security in the province, and has been previously criticised for being ineffective.

Mr Key raised the issue of moving into Hungarian territory on Monday, and repeated it to TV3's Firstline yesterday: "There is a gap in the security arrangement there and the capacity for the insurgents to build greater capability."

Asked about the claim that Hungarian troops did not patrol after nightfall, Mr Key said: "As far as I'm aware, the Hungarians don't go out at night. Not in Afghanistan anyway - they might in Budapest."

Honorary Consul-General of Hungary Klara Szentirmay said Mr Key's comments did not reflect the good working relationship between New Zealand and Hungarian troops.

"The territories are separate responsibilities of each country and how things work between the two PRTs are dealt with at a local level.

"Maybe there's a gap there that needs to be addressed, but it'd be dealt with at that level and not by making snide remarks and inferring blame on Hungary for two New Zealanders' deaths.

"It's completely unhelpful because I'm sure there's very good reasons why Hungary doesn't [patrol at night].

"If New Zealand feels it is necessary to do that, then it is a discussion which should already have started."

She added: "I felt quite offended by it. It's ... emotive, quite derogatory. That's my personal opinion.

"It probably, if anything, just reflects more on John Key than on the actual relationship between New Zealand and Hungary."

Ms Szentirmay said the Hungarian PRT was willing to assist in helping to stop insurgent attacks.

Mr Key said yesterday that New Zealand would not apply diplomatic pressure on Hungary to police the border region of the Baghlan Province.

Victoria University professor of strategic studies Robert Ayson said he was "not 100 per cent surprised" by Mr Key's comments, given that Hungary's role in Afghanistan had been criticised before.

"It reflects the fact that different countries in their different PRTs have got various rules of engagement. Some are more permissible than others. Probably on the whole New Zealanders tend to ... be able to write broader rules of engagement."

But he said the primary concern should not be other countries' operations but the capabilities of the Afghan national forces, which are expected to take over security when New Zealand withdraws from Bamiyan Province late next year.

He said that even if the wider patrols improved security for New Zealand troops, it still amounted to an expansion of the Defence Force's role at a time when it should be trying to reduce its responsibilities.

Mr Key confirmed this week that the PRT was still scheduled to withdraw in 2013.

- NZ Herald

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