Troops stay as Key 'breaks his promise'

LONG HAUL: Inside the New Zealand Compound in the Bamiyan Province, Afghanistan.
LONG HAUL: Inside the New Zealand Compound in the Bamiyan Province, Afghanistan.

The decision to keep 27 military personnel in Afghanistan for another year means the Government has broken a promise to bring troops home, says the MP for Palmerston North.

Iain Lees-Galloway, Labour's defence spokesman, said the Government's announcement yesterday went against an earlier promise of withdrawing armed forces from Afghanistan by April.

"This latest deployment is a new mission, in a new area and with a whole new mandate. It is not about reconstruction and rebuilding, but about security and intelligence.

"Rather than leading New Zealanders to believe that the NZDF's work in Afghanistan was coming to an end, [Prime Minister] John Key should have been honest about his plans to extend New Zealand's commitment indefinitely."

The Government announced the contingent, including three crack SAS soldiers, will stay on in Afghanistan for a year under an extension of the deployment.

The 140-strong provincial reconstruction team is due to pull out of Bamiyan province by the end of April but Mr Key said a "small niche" contribution would remain, mainly in the capital Kabul, to work with other international forces.

Asked in November when the small team of SAS soldiers working with the Bamiyan forces in an intelligence and planning role was due to leave, Mr Key said their mandate allowed them to stay until April.

"At this point, I haven't been advised they're going to come back earlier."

But yesterday he said they would stay longer as "a legacy commitment" with a wider brief across the whole of Afghanistan.

The team would operate "behind the wire", suggesting it would not have a frontline role.

The commitment was for a year, and longer in some cases, but the situation in Afghanistan was "changeable and unpredictable" and it would be reviewed later this year.

Foreign Affairs Minister Murray McCully said it was a small but proportionate military commitment to the international mission from May.

"As previously indicated, the Government believes it remains in New Zealand's interests to continue to play our part to secure the gains that have been achieved in Afghanistan over the last decade," Mr McCully said.

Defence Minister Jonathan Coleman said the 27 would be based mainly in Kabul.

Eight would work with the United Kingdom-led Afghan National Army Officer Training Academy.

"As announced last year, this particular deployment is likely to extend beyond 2014," he said.

Twelve would be posted to International Security Assistance Force special operations forces headquarters, employed mainly in intelligence and planning.

Three would be based at Isaf headquarters and three in a support role as part of New Zealand's "National Support Element". One officer would be with the United Nations Assistance Mission to Afghanistan.

Dr Coleman heads to Brussels this week to brief Nato/Isaf defence ministers. The New Zealand Embassy in Kabul is expected to close before the end of 2014 but New Zealand will continue to provide development assistance to Bamiyan after the withdrawal of the PRT.

Mr Lees-Galloway said: "Our troops have been in Afghanistan for more than 10 years. They can be proud of the contribution they have made to assist the lives of the local Bamiyan people, but it's now time they came home."

Manawatu Standard