Key: no honour for soldiers by withdrawing
VERNON SMALL, TRACY WATKINS AND DANYA LEVY
Should New Zealand troops withdraw from Afghanistan?
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Leon Smith, who died in Afghanistan yesterday, was the first medic to treat SAS comrade Doug Grant before his death.
Smith, in his mid 30s, died after being shot in the head during a raid on a compound in the strife-torn province of Wardak, southwest of the Afghan capital Kabul.
It was revealed today that Smith, who joined the Special Air Service (SAS) in 2008, had spent almost 11 of the past 24 months employed as an advanced medic.
In that role he was the first person to treat Grant, who died in Kabul last month following a mission to rescue hostages from the British Council diplomatic offices.
In spite of renewed calls to pull out of Afghanistan, Prime Minister John Key said this afternoon that New Zealand would not be honouring the deaths of Leon Smith, Doug Grant and Tim O'Donnell if New Zealand pulled its troops out.
There have been calls for New Zealand to withdraw its remaining troops from Afghanistan after news of Smith's death.
But Mr Key ruled out an early exit.
"It's been a 10 year commitment by New Zealand in Afghanistan ... the role and the aim of New Zealand's role is trying to make the world a safer place ... I think we should stay the course."
Mr Key also defended the use of the word "mentoring" to describe the role of the New Zealand SAS Afghanistan alongside the Afghan Crisis Response Unit - and appeared to be at odds with his defence minister, Wayne Mapp, who earlier today conceded there was a "substantial combat component" in the SAS role.
Mr Key insisted it was wrong to suggest the SAS had a combat role.
"That's not right; in a combat force you're the front line force. You're out there leading the charge. The [Afghan] Crisis Response Unit lead the charge and we support them. But if in that support role something goes wrong, we go in and help them."
Defence Force Lieutenant General Rhys Jones said the Defence Force described the role of the SAS in Kabul as "mentoring" the local police crisis response unit because that was the term used by the United States.
"But it is a discussion to say, okay it's like being a driving instructor. You're in the car, if there's a crash, you're going to get hurt.
"The term mentoring does need explanation."
FURTHER DETAILS OF RAID
Further details have been released on the operation in which Smith was killed.
Jones said the conflict in which Smith died was not a family dispute, as had been previously suggested.
He said the SAS, along with the local police crisis response unit, had embarked on a pre-emptive mission to stop a suspected insurgent attack on Kabul.
"The operation was carried out in response to time sensitive information being obtained about a compound housing a suicide bomber."
Intelligence indicated that along with the suspected suicide bomber, there were weapons and suicide vests within the compound.
General Jones said preparation for the mission took place over 48 hours and was not an immediate response to a family dispute, as had been speculated by a Kabul-based journalist.
"Unless it was a humdinger of a dispute, the time taken to compile the information, to actually get the legal authority, indicates this was a measured and legal response, not a response to a neighbour giving information in a time off."
Smith had climbed a ladder to see into the compound. He was involved in an exchange of fire with an insurgent who was later found with gunshot wounds to the head and who later died.
Another insurgent had fired at Smith, hitting him in the head.
A young girl sustained minor fragmentation wounds to the stomach. She has been treated and is expected to be released today.
Two of the insurgents found at the compound, including one who died, were named on the search warrant.
Attacks on Kabul often came from Wardak and the SAS were frequently in the province, Jones said.
Smith was an experienced soldier who began his career in the armed forces in the Navy. He later enlisted into the Territorial Force as a rifleman before being accepted into the SAS.
He has spent almost 11 of the last 24 months serving in Afghanistan as an advanced medic.
Jones said the amount of time Smith had spent in Kabul was a reality of a small Defence Force pulling its weight.
"There is a need to put people with certain skills into Afghanistan to meet our mission requirements."
Defence Minister Wayne Mapp said the role of the SAS was obviously dangerous.
He conceded there was a "substantial combat component."
Smith was described as a sincere and genuine man by his family who have asked for privacy.
His body would be bought back to New Zealand next week, General Jones said.
Smith's family had not yet decided on funeral arrangements.
Jones said operations such as the one Smith was on were the result of thorough intelligence and preparation.
Ninety five per cent of the time shots were not fired.
Jones earlier said Smith was one of 15 SAS and 50 Afghan soldiers from its local crisis response unit, which was mentored by the New Zealand elite soldiers, involved in operation against insurgents believed to have been planning a bombing attack in Kabul.
Jones said he personally met Smith a few weeks ago in Afghanistan.
He said he was a bright and brave man who fully understood the dangers of his job.
Jones said he had spoken to Smith's parents, who were naturally devastated.
Smith was single with no children. He lived in Auckland.
He is survived by his parents, two brothers, and his grandparents. His relatives live in Wellington and Tauranga.
Smith's family said he was proud to serve with the SAS.
"He believed in what he was doing and we supported him in what he did."
Smith was loved by his family and comrades. He was a wonderful grandson, son, brother and friend to many.
The family asked for privacy.
The death of Smith hit his family in the Wellington suburb of Johnsonville hard, neighbours said today.
Smith was the youngest of three brothers, and his combat death had devastated them, Harriet Fowler said.
When Fowler saw army personnel visiting the Smith's home yesterday she feared the worst, having heard news a New Zealand Special Air Service (SAS) soldier had been killed in Afghanistan.
''I said to my husband I don't think it's good news, I think it might be Leon,'' she said.
Smith grew up next door and Fowler remembered him as a quiet child, who grew into a pleasant man.
''He used to steal cabbages out of my garden,'' she laughed.
Formerly in the navy, Smith had joined the SAS seeking a fresh challenge.
Darren West, who worked with Smith as a lifeguard at Johnsonville Pools, said he was the kind of man who always looked out for others.
He last saw his friend six months ago when he bumped into him on the street.
He said Smith was "an all-round good dude" who always leapt at any opportunity that came his way.
"He lived at home then [when they worked together], just down the road from the pools, and I know he was really close to his family, he looked after them."
West said his friend was a good guy to have around in a stressful situation.
"He was pretty good to me, one time I had to rescue a little girl who almost drowned, me and a couple of other guys. It was pretty traumatic and he hung around after, to make sure we were all OK.
"I guess that kind of thing was probably why he was good for the military."
West knew that Smith had joined the Navy but did not know he had become part of the SAS.
"When he was leaving it was about the same time I was leaving to join Corrections. He was in his 20s and not really sure about what he wanted, and then it was like 'boom' and he knew what he wanted to do."
SECOND SAS CASUALTY
Smith was New Zealand's second SAS casualty in a month in Afghanistan and brought this country's military toll there to four. Another four New Zealanders have died fighting with other countries' forces.
Defence Minister Wayne Mapp said the SAS were "substantially in a combat role" in Afghanistan.
He said the mission helped protect New Zealanders from international terrorism.
Political leaders were yesterday questioning whether it was time for New Zealand to bring its troops home after a 10-year involvement, but Prime Minister John Key defended the deployment.
''They are brave, resourceful and resilient and they are making a valuable contribution in Afghanistan. [The dead soldier] paid the highest price for his service to this country and we will mourn his death.''
His stance was backed by the family of Lieutenant Tim O'Donnell, who was killed in Bamiyan province in August last year.
His mother, Mary-Anne, said to back out now would mean both her son and Smith had died in vain.
The United Nations recently published a report noting a big jump in Afghan attacks, with Wardak one of the more dangerous areas in the northeast.
NZ'S AFGHANISTAN ROLE
While Labour's policy was to pull the SAS out, but leader Phil Goff has said now was "not the time to talk about the rights and wrongs" of the SAS presence there.
Maori Party co-leader Tariana Turia said it was time to review New Zealand's role in Afghanistan.
"I'm not a great supporter of our soldiers fighting in countries where in fact I don't believe that we understand enough about the regimes that are running those countries."
Green co-leader Russel Norman said the war in Afghanistan was a civil war and was no longer – if it had ever been – about the war on terror. The latest death should send a clear message that getting involved in a civil war was only going to cause further pain. "In order to avoid more tragedies, I think it is time to bring them home."
UnitedFuture leader Peter Dunne also said it might be time to bring the troops home.
Author Nicky Hager, who recently published a book on New Zealand's involvement in Afghanistan, said the latest death was a tragedy waiting to happen.
When National sent the SAS back to Afghanistan in 2009, they were deployed in much riskier roles than previously.
"They sent them into hair-raisingly dangerous roles. People die ... it was just a matter of time before we were going to start to look like other countries who had bodies coming back."
The mentoring role was dangerous, but in fact the SAS were often having to lead the fighting, he said. They were standing alongside the CRU as they were "wrestling with suicide bombers; they're in the front line of attacks".
Jones said similar operations happened weekly and 95 per cent of the time an arrest could be made without incident.
"The fact that this group fought back indicates they had the intention to fight it out in Kabul and were ready to inflict damage and death on their target."
He said the Taleban insurgents deliberately based themselves in houses among the population "so that there are those collateral injuries".
Meanwhile, three international troops were today killed in a roadside bombing in eastern Afghanistan, Nato said.
HELLHOLE HAS TAKEN ITS TOLL
Wardak province has been one of the deeper hellholes in Afghanistan since war broke out there in 2001.
Last month it was the scene of the worst death toll in a single incident for international forces in Afghanistan, with 31 United States special forces personnel and seven Afghans killed when a helicopter crashed trying to take off during a firefight.
The International Security Assistance Force joint command this week called the Taleban "a disorganised and demoralised enemy" after a series of operations that have killed about 40 insurgents this year. However, Fairfax national affairs editor Vernon Small, who was in Afghanistan last month, said Wardak was known for its strong Taleban presence.
"Our guys didn't talk about it, but the overall impression is that it's pretty lawless and one of the more dangerous areas in the northeast."
Meanwhile, a former Afghan politican says the SAS should not have been involved in a night raid as it simply alienated locals and achieved very little.
Otago University senior lecturer and former Afghan cabinet minister Najibullah Lafraie said yesterday's incident was the first time he had heard of the SAS taking part in such raids.
"The United States forces have long been going to people's houses in the middle of the night. It's very disturbing because it has been criticised very strongly around the world."
Although New Zealand troops did some good work in Bamiyan, the SAS presence in Kabul was "just risking the lives of young Kiwis without any hope of a positive contribution".
Additional reporting by Danya Levy, Kevin Norquay, Shabnam Dastgheib and Stacey Wood.