The Government is now claiming New Zealand troops can not leave Afghanistan before April 2013, even if they wanted to. "The problem is we can't get out sooner, that's the whole point," admitted Defence Minister Jonathan Coleman on Morning Report yesterday. He said it was a "big logistical operation" and that "once the winter starts we can't pull out ... it takes months to pull out."
As for the decision to bring the departure date forward to April when the Government had previously been talking of later in the year, that too was purely logistics, and has nothing to do with the death of five soldiers in two weeks.
It's all about fitting in with the Japanese timetable for rebuilding Bamiyan airport. Dr Coleman said that was planned to begin in April and once completed, "the airstrip there won't be able to take the size of the aircraft needed - it won't be able to take the [NZ] Hercules once it's been rebuilt, we've got to get in and out before the reconstruction starts."
So, on the one hand, we're being told accelerating our troops' departure from Afghanistan to save them from further attacks from the roaming Taleban guerrillas would be to disrespect the 10 New Zealand personnel who have been killed in the conflict, but to speed up our departure to accommodate the rebuilding of the airport is all right.
Tell that to the next group of bereaved families and see what they say. As Labour leader David Shearer argues, "the fight is now becoming more of a civil war between the Taleban and the Karzai Administration". He echoes the words of his predecessor, and Labour's Defence spokesman, Phil Goff, who just before the latest deaths, said that success in Afghanistan relied on the local administration capturing the hearts and minds of its people. He told a weekend newspaper the "deeply corrupt" Karzai Government had failed. "It is involved in drug trafficking, supports war lords and hasn't got the support of the people. Why are our guys dying to defend an administration of that nature?"
Yet now Cabinet has decided that instead of getting out fast, and in the meantime prudently hunkering down out of harm's way, New Zealand forces will extend the perimeters of their present patrol range to try and flush out the bombers. At a time like this a smarter move would have been to revisit the tactics of our Hungarian allies in the neighbouring province of Baghlan to the north which Prime Minister John Key mocked two weeks ago, following the first two deaths.
Criticising the Hungarians' refusal to patrol after dark thereby making it easier for Taleban to slip across the provincial borders, he said "Hungarians don't go out at night - they might in Budapest, but not in Afghanistan."
WikiLeaks documents reveal the United States ambassador to Kabul similarly complaining in 2009 about the way the Hungarians regarded themselves as a humanitarian and development force, were "not permitted to fire their weapons except in self-defence", and "are looking to get back home unscathed".
Like the Hungarians, we're a small cog in an invading army in rapid retreat.
Instead of beating our chests and heading into the badlands to take up the slack left by the Hungarians, perhaps a saner response would be to take a lesson from the Hungarian survival manual. Risking the lives of more Kiwi soldiers in the pursuit of shadowy killers that President Karzai's own forces seem reluctant to engage is not going to alter the outcome of this civil war one jot. So why do it?
Former Afghani Foreign Minister from 1992-1996, Najibullah Lafraie, says New Zealand troops should be careful where they go now. A senior lecturer in politics at Otago University, he says "the Taleban try to inflict casualties to foreign troops whenever they get the opportunity" to get the message out that they're still there. He called on our troops to take "precautionary measures".
Staying in at night, both literally and figuratively, seems a very wise tactic, short, that is, of clearing out.
Mr Goff disagrees with Dr Coleman's claim that the airport is unusable during the winter, pointing out it's next to Kiwi Base and could be used for departure before next April.
Whether or not the Taleban are deliberately targeting New Zealand troops to underline their presence, and, as argued by the Chief of the Defence Force, Lieutenant General Rhys Jones, highlight their ability to strike in even the safest of provinces, is rather academic as far as Kiwi soldiers are concerned.
Whatever the reason, the New Zealanders are part of a front line in a war that all are agreed we can't win. Whether we stay another month, another year or another decade isn't going to change that. Nor is spilling any more blood.By Brian Rudman Email Brian