The SAS is to be withdrawn from Afghanistan on schedule in March, the Government announced yesterday - but the move was met with Opposition calls to ensure they are never deployed again.

Prime Minister John Key confirmed the Special Air Service troops would be returning to New Zealand after two and a half years working alongside the Afghan Crisis Response Unit in the capital, Kabul.

"You made a difference. It's time to come home," he said.

The PM had previously said the withdrawal was likely, but left the door slightly open for a further extension.

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However, Labour foreign affairs spokesman Phil Goff said the withdrawal needed to be accompanied by a commitment not to redeploy them.

Mr Goff said he welcomed the decision on the SAS, but it had to be long term - not simply a break between deployments.

"That does not mean he won't redeploy them in six months or a year's time. That's a question Mr Key won't answer. What is important is to seek a commitment that they won't be sent back there.

"We've been in Afghanistan now for a decade. That's longer than we had in two world wars and there is nothing to suggest the security situation is improving there."

A spokeswoman for Mr Key said the Government had not ruled out a future deployment of the SAS or "other niche contributions" to Afghanistan, although it was unlikely.

Mr Goff said the Labour Government deployed the SAS to combat al-Qaeda and international terrorism. The Afghan conflict was now more in the nature of civil war and President Hamid Karzai's regime did not have the support of the people.

Asked what circumstances might warrant a redeployment, Mr Goff said there would have to be clear evidence Afghanistan was being used to host international terrorism.

"I don't think there are likely to be circumstances that would warrant a redeployment of our troops there."

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United States President Barack Obama has set a 2014 deadline for withdrawing from Afghanistan and New Zealand has aligned its plans to withdraw the Provincial Reconstruction Team in Bamiyan.

In August 2009, the Government announced it would redeploy the SAS to Afghanistan for 18 months in three rotations of about 70 troops. Last February, Mr Key extended that by a year, but halved the number of troops, partly to ensure there was sufficient security for the Rugby World Cup.

Yesterday, the Prime Minister said that although he regretted the deaths of two SAS soldiers, he did not regret sending the troops back.

"Tragically, they have also paid the highest price, with two of the SAS's fine soldiers losing their lives in the course of this work and I would, once again, like to pay tribute to Corporal Doug Grant and Lance Corporal Leon Smith, who were killed in action.

"I deeply regret the loss of our soldiers but I do not regret our commitment to operations in Afghanistan."

The deployments have been controversial. Questions were raised about the involvement of SAS troops in fighting rather than mentoring local security forces. The Government has also had to defend handing prisoners over to local authorities after a UN report on widespread torture and abuse in Afghan detention centres.

A Metro article by Jon Stephenson also claimed some prisoners handed over by the SAS could have been tortured. The Defence Minister at the time, Wayne Mapp, said there were no individual reports of such cases but admitted it was possible.

KIWI TROOPS IN AFGHANISTAN
August 2009 - SAS redeployed for 18 months in three rotations of about 70 troops, acting alongside Afghan commandos in Kabul.

January 2010 - SAS soldiers including Victoria Cross holder Willie Apiata photographed responding to a Taleban attack in the capital.

February 2010 - Deployment extended for further year but number of troops halved.

August 2011 - SAS trooper Doug Grant, 41, killed during Taleban attack in Kabul.

September 2011 - SAS trooper Leon Smith killed in action during operation in Wardak province.

March 2012 - SAS due to return to New Zealand.