John Armstrong 's Opinion

John Armstrong is the Herald's chief political commentator

John Armstrong: Not running, just walking away very fast

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Photo / AP

The Prime Minister insists bringing the remaining troops home from Afghanistan earlier than the September 2013 date agreed three months ago is not a case of New Zealand cutting and running when the going suddenly gets tough.

Fair enough. New Zealand is not the kind of country which welches on its international commitments or conveniently ducks the hard decisions by disappearing in an overnight flit. Neither has Afghanistan descended into the chaos and panic which was South Vietnam falling to the communist North in the 1970s. At least not yet.

So the withdrawal of New Zealand's provincial reconstruction team will be orderly. Nevertheless - whether by accident or design or a combination of both - New Zealand's exit strategy from the strife-torn country still gives the appearance of a Government, if not cutting and running, then cutting and and walking very fast in the opposite direction to Bamiyan province and Kabul.

In his defence, John Key says Cabinet ministers were already considering an option for an earlier withdrawal of the troops and other personnel before the deaths of two soldiers earlier this month.

Key chose not to reveal that rather important fact at that time.

That was probably because it would have been interpreted as cutting and running, given Foreign Affairs Minister Murray McCully had announced as recently as May that the PRT would not be pulled out until the latter part of next year.

The subsequent three deaths at the weekend have changed everything, however. Key desperately needed a bone to appease those who want the troops out forthwith.

It appears April next year is now the favoured date as that suits one of the international coalition partners willing to help the New Zealanders with the logistical demands of "transitioning" out of Afghanistan.

Key did not say which partner. But April will not come a moment too soon for him. The weekend deaths may well awaken what could prove to have been a sleeper issue in domestic political terms - and in a fashion which is hardly likely to benefit the major ruling party.

Up till now, New Zealand's decade-long military presence in Afghanistan has been of little consequence for most people.

That indifference has been reinforced by public acceptance that one of the roles of the Defence Force is to play a constructive role in keeping the peace that others have made - thereby enabling New Zealand to be seen to be pulling its weight internationally.

The public has become hardened to things going wrong on long-term deployments such as to the former Yugoslavia or Timor Leste. Judging from on-line comments from readers, death is simply seen as part of the soldier's job description.

Above all, National and Labour have by and large reached a consensus on the necessity of most deployments.

For an issue to cause governments strife, public opinion has to be strong, the weight of that opinion has to come down heavily on the other side of the argument to the Government's position, and the major parties need to hold sharply contrasting stances.

Afghanistan has so far failed to pass those tests. With Labour, however, calling for the troops to be brought home "as soon as practicable", the politics may just be beginning.

Five deaths within two weeks may yet turn out to be a statistical blip. But Key cannot bet on that. With the insurgents and the Taleban targeting the PRT, delaying full departure until September next year could have yet more gruesome consequences, not only militarily, but politically as well.

- NZ Herald

John Armstrong

John Armstrong is the Herald's chief political commentator

Herald political correspondent John Armstrong has been covering politics at a national level for nearly 30 years. Based in the Press Gallery at Parliament in Wellington, John has worked for the Herald since 1987. John was named Best Columnist at the 2013 Canon Media Awards and was a previous winner of Qantas media awards as best political columnist. Prior to joining the Herald, John worked at Parliament for the New Zealand Press Association. A graduate of Canterbury University's journalism school, John began his career in journalism in 1981 on the Christchurch Star. John has a Masters of Arts degree in political science from Canterbury.

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