Key 'broke pledge' on Kiwis in battle

BY JON STEPHENSON AND ANTHONY HUBBARD
Last updated 05:00 24/01/2010

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Revelations about the SAS in Afghanistan last week suggest Prime Minister John Key broke his promise that the elite force would not fight alongside Afghan commandos, says political scientist Najib Lafraie.

News reports showed both the SAS and Afghan commandos were involved in Monday's fight with the Taliban in Kabul, said Lafraie, Otago University international relations specialist and a former Afghanistan cabinet minister.

That meant "the only plausible explanation" was that "John Key went against the pledge he has made to the New Zealand public".

Photographs were published in newspapers last week showing Victoria Cross-winner corporal Willie Apiata and other SAS troops during the action in which seven militants died.

Key said twice last year that the SAS would not fight alongside the Afghans they would be training because it was "particularly dangerous". The SAS are now training an elite group of Afghan commandos known as the Crisis Response Unit (CRU), also known as Task Force 24.

Key would not speak to the Sunday Star-Times but Defence Minister Wayne Mapp said the CRU took only a back-up role in the fighting last week.

"The actions that took place were essentially the domain of the Afghan national army, which, you can see from the photos, were the people actually engaged in the fighting." The CRU was not directly involved in the action, he said, and neither were the SAS.

Key said last week that the SAS involvement was "limited".

However, Norwegian defence correspondent and author of a book on the Norwegian special forces, Tom Bakkeli, said the CRU "absolutely were involved in the fighting" and "the CRU got a lot of acclaim for their counter-action against the attacking Taliban and suicide bombers".

The SAS took over the training of the counterterrorism CRU from the Norwegian special forces after they left Afghanistan in September.

A New York Times report said that within minutes of the Taliban attack last week, hundreds of Afghan security forces surrounded Pashtunistan Square and attacked. "Some of the Afghan fighters were part of specially formed anti-terrorism squads. One group of Afghan commandos said they had come straight from a training class."

Photographer Philip Poupin took the photo of Apiata and another SAS trooper when they emerged from a building in which Afghan commandos reportedly shot three Taliban.

Key said in October last year that the SAS would not "mentor" Afghans by fighting alongside them. "What I can tell you is that a specific group of people deployed to train – in theatre – the Afghan army or police is not part of the mandate we have."

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Lafraie said it appeared that under pressure from the US, Key had gone against his pledge. Last July, the American US military representative to Nato, Vice-Admiral William Sullivan, said he hoped the SAS would take up a mentoring role in Afghanistan. "It's more than just training and pushing them out the door. It is going with them when they go out the door," he said.

Key might have made it a condition that the SAS carry out the training in Kabul, "hoping that they would not have to play the role of `mentoring' [in battle]", Lafraie said.

"Little did he know, however, that the Taliban would take their fight to downtown Kabul and force the Kiwis to join their trainees in their operation."

Mapp told the Star-Times the paper was taking Key's statement out of context. There was no contradiction between the news reports of the battle and the government's position. "A lot of people were involved, it took place over many hours and there was confusion." Mapp said he did not want a detailed discussion of what happened.

The publication of Apiata's picture in newspapers last week caused controversy, with the government saying it was "disappointed" and that the photos would put Apiata at greater risk. Apiata called his family to reassure them of his safety, and will stay in Afghanistan until the end of his deployment, thought to be late next month.

- © Fairfax NZ News

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