The death of SAS Corporal Doug Grant in Kabul underlines how difficult and dangerous the task in Afghanistan remains. The SAS have been there, on and off, since 2001 when the Taleban were driven from power. Their latest mission has been to train a crisis-response unit of the Afghan police for the day that foreign forces are withdrawn. "Training" clearly puts them in the thick of the action. Corporal Grant was killed in an attack on insurgents who had got inside a British Council compound.
The SAS went to the rescue of civilians after a Taleban suicide bomber blasted a hole in the wall and several accomplices went into the compound, seizing weapons and taking hostages. Corporal Grant had climbed on to the roof of an adjacent building to co-ordinate fire and provide information to the team that was going in. A bullet went through an armhole of his body armour.
It is remarkable that he is the first SAS soldier to be killed in 10 years of the unit's deployments in Afghanistan. New Zealand has lost two regular soldiers providing security for reconstruction work in Bamyan province. Lieutenant Timothy O'Donnell died when his convoy was ambushed a year ago and Private Kirifi Mila's Humvee rolled down a cliff in February. But as far as we know the SAS has not lost a life until now.
For a long time, the public was told nothing about the activities of the special operations unit. The code of silence was compromised for the award of a Victoria Cross to Corporal Willie Apiata in 2007 and once the SAS was posted to Kabul in 2009 some of its actions were bound to be seen. Corporal Apiata was photographed after a firefight in Kabul, and the Government agreed to issue bulletins on significant operations.
In June two SAS members were injured in an action to end a night-long assault on Kabul's Inter-Continental Hotel, and last month SAS troops intervened in a gunfight with Taleban who stormed the home of an adviser to President Hamid Karzai. Clearly the 38 soldiers are doing more than training or "mentoring", as their role is usually described. British newspaper reports of the attack on the compound suggest Afghan and New Zealand soldiers led the rescue operation.
Unfortunately it is not until a life is lost that the public comes to know another of the brave men fighting in its name. Corporal Grant was 41, a father of two children. His wife was also in the Defence Force. He was a veteran of 21 years in the force, seven in the SAS, and was on his second deployment to Afghanistan.
His family attest to his belief in the mission. It is men such as he who convinced the Prime Minister to let them stay on the assignment a year longer than he had intended. They are now due to come home next March.
It will be not be a day too soon for those such as the Labour Party and Greens who think the mission serves only the interests of the Karzai regime. But the soldiers must see it differently. They will have come to know Kabul citizens and have some sense of their predicament.
Their commander, Lieutenant-Colonel Chris Parsons, has told John Key the Afghan Crisis Response Unit is making progress and performed well in the relief of the British Council last Friday. Mr Key says other countries' forces are prepared to take over the mentoring job if the SAS leaves Afghanistan in seven months.
But that will be two years before the United States hopes to be able to hand security responsibility back to the Afghan authorities. New Zealand's highly respected troops should stay there for as long as they think it worthwhile. They are in the thick of it, they know what they are doing and should be allowed to see it through.