Government to look at longer stay in Afghanistan

By Mike Houlahan

The time New Zealand troops spend in Afghanistan may be extended as the Cabinet considers a provincial reconstruction team staying on in Bamiyan province beyond September next year.

An upsurge in violence has led Nato military chiefs to call for more troops and aircraft to be sent to Afghanistan.

Defence Minister Phil Goff said yesterday that the Government had not received a formal request to boost the number of New Zealand soldiers in Afghanistan beyond the 120 to 140 there, but might extend the provincial mission beyond its September 2007 deadline.

"Cabinet will be giving consideration to deployments beyond September 2007 in the next couple of months ... I've been very pleased with the success of the Defence Force personnel and I believe - and the UN and the international forces believe - they have done a superb job there."

The first team was sent to Afghanistan in 2002. The SAS has also served there.

Mr Goff met his Canadian counterpart, Gordon O'Connor, on Friday and said that while Afghanistan was discussed, there had been no request to boost New Zealand's contribution.

"Our stance is that we have them in about the numbers that are appropriate for a country of our size. It's a disproportionate contribution, and what they're doing is very effective, but our first consideration will be the length of time that they will continue to be deployed in Afghanistan rather than whether we would be intending to expand on those forces."

Including development aid and the cost of the soldiers, New Zealand had spent about $150 million in helping to rebuild Afghanistan, Mr Goff said.

Meanwhile, the minister said NZ had held informal discussions with the United Nations about what contribution this country could make to peacekeeping efforts in Lebanon.

That would likely entail fewer than 10 soldiers being sent to the troubled region.

In Parliament last week Mr Goff condemned the use of cluster bombs and said Lebanon had the worst post-conflict cluster bomb contamination yet seen.

NZ troops have considerable experience in de-mining operations.

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