PM: April pullout from Afghanistan 'likely'

VERNON SMALL, TRACY WATKINS AND JOELLE DALLY
Last updated 05:00 21/08/2012

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New Zealand troops are set to pull out of Afghanistan in April, after the deaths of three more soldiers in a roadside bomb attack in the dangerous northeast of Bamiyan province.

But it is understood plans are in place to pull out of the troubled northeast region even sooner, maybe by November before the severe Afghanistan winter sets in.

The soldiers killed were named yesterday as Corporal Luke Tamatea, 31, Lance Corporal Jacinda Baker, 26, and Private Richard Harris, 21. Corporal Baker is New Zealand's first female combat casualty.

Ten Kiwi soldiers have now died in Afghanistan, eight in combat.

Prime Minister John Key said the latest deaths, coming two weeks after Rory Malone and Pralli Durrer were killed by insurgents in the same area, had not affected the timetable for withdrawal.

But as recently as May Foreign Affairs Minister Murray McCully said the provincial reconstruction team would be pulled out "later in 2013".

Mr Key said the Cabinet's preference was to pull out in April, rather than next September which would have been a "worse-case scenario".

The earlier date also suited a coalition partner that New Zealand had to work in with, Mr Key said.

"Therefore, April is likely to be the date," he said.

The Government is under mounting pressure to pull out even earlier, but Mr Key said New Zealand would not "cut and run".

"We made a commitment."

Labour spokesman Phil Goff said it was not a case of cutting and running, but there was nothing further New Zealand could do in the province. "I understand sacrifice, but to warrant it you need an obtainable objective."

The Government had missed the chance to pull out sooner. It was important now to organise an orderly withdrawal but that would take "no longer than the early part of 2013".

The three soldiers were killed on Sunday when their Humvee was hit by a "massive" improvised explosive device on the road between the Kiwi forward bases at Do Abe and Romero.

Mr Key said although that particular road was suitable for the more heavily protected light armoured vehicles, the Humvees were used because they could access areas not open to the LAVs.

The bomb was estimated to have more than 20kg of explosives.

"The capacity of this bomb would have torn apart any vehicle," Mr Key said. The troops would have been killed instantly.

The Chief of Defence Force, Lieutenant General Rhys Jones, had told him the troops had the best equipment and support. But he had asked him to look again at whether the New Zealand soldiers had the right equipment.

The blast was attributed to bomb makers who were part of a new insurgent group that had set up in the neighbouring Baghlan province, prompting approval from ministers for New Zealand forces to cross the border to target them.

Mr Key said troops had not yet crossed the border and were working with Hungarian forces in Baghlan - a contrast to his comments critical of the Hungarians a fortnight ago.

He said some SAS troops could be sent to provide support and planning, and to link with other special forces, but not in a combat role as the public would understand it.

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Mr Key said if he thought the SAS would make life safer there, "I'd do that in a heartbeat" but that was not the issue.

All three soldiers were deployed to Bamiyan in April and were from the 2nd/1st battalion royal infantry.

Their bodies were evacuated by helicopter and an Australian military aircraft would take them back to Australia from where they would be flown home probably late this week.

Mr Key, who is due to leave for the Pacific Forum in Rarotonga on Wednesday next week, said it was likely the funerals would be held before then. If they were not, he would miss the forum to attend.

General Jones said it was quite possible there would be more Kiwi casualties.

Mr Key said the soldiers' sacrifice would not be forgotten.

"Every time I get a phone call from the Defence Minister or the chief of the Defence Force about this, it is a gut-wrenching experience. I want our boys and girls to come home."

PULLOUT CAN'T BE RUSHED - DEFENCE EXPERT

Victoria University professor of strategic studies, Robert Ayson, said there were logistical and strategic reasons the Government would not bring them home any earlier than April.

"You can't do it in a month or six weeks," Dr Ayson said.

"And if they really accelerated it, the risk is they then come across as responding to the timetable the insurgents are setting."

The Taleban has claimed responsibility for the attack, which follows reports that Taleban leader Mullah Mohammed Omar warned coalition allies their troops would be targeted.

In a statement last week, the Taleban leader reportedly said it was "a pity that some countries have become a scapegoat for the interests of America" and called on the countries' citizens to "prevent your governments from doing this".

Next year marks a decade since New Zealand troops were sent to Bamiyan and Dr Ayson said they had improved the situation.

"It's a better place than it would have been if they hadn't been there, that's almost certain. The national police are better trained than they would have been . . . the governor is more secure than she would have been . . . but are they leaving at a time when the local security forces are able to take on those roles and provide security for the population of Bamiyan? I don't know."

Even if New Zealand troops stayed another five or 10 years, local forces would probably not be ready, he said.

'WE'VE SERVED LONG ENOUGH'

University of Canterbury political science professor Alex Tan said deaths were "a heavy hit" for a proportionally small New Zealand reconstruction team.

He said the casualties would be "an important variable" in the Government's decision-making over withdrawing forces, despite Key saying this was not the case.

"Casualty is an important variable in the consideration of any government," Tan said.

"If you only have 30, 40, 50 of us over there, that's 10 per cent."

Tan said New Zealand had not shied away from its collective responsibility as a United Nations member and "we have paid it in blood".

The Government would follow the lead of other countries in handing the responsibility for the reconstruction to the Afghan Government, he said. "[United States President] Barack Obama has been saying we are ready to pull out. New Zealand and the world community cannot be there forever," he said.

"We've been there since 2003. From the Government's perspective, we're a small country and we've been participating long enough."

Tan said the Taleban may have targeted the soldiers because of the success of their reconstruction efforts in Bamiyan.

"We are in an area where we have actually changed the lives of local people."

Related stories:

Comment: Time to put date on troop return

Tragic end to Kiwi soldiers' mercy mission

- Fairfax Media

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