Afghanistan: our options are limited

The death in Afghanistan of two New Zealand soldiers this week, in a firefight that wounded six more, has inevitably returned the public debate to whether we should stay the course or leave early. But there are more useful questions to be asked, both from the point of view of the people in Bamiyan province and for New Zealand's reputation.

Such as how we leave, and what we leave behind. In any case, since the decision has been made to quit next year, the options are limited.

The next six-month rotation is due to head for Bamiyan in a month or so.

It would be a major - make that nigh impossible - task to pull the plug on that now, arrange a final handover to the local security forces, and get the light armoured vehicles (LAVs) and other equipment out. In practical terms, that leaves the options of a pullout in April or October next year to end the 10-year deployment.

A panic exit would send all the wrong signals, and would hardly be in the best interest of the locals. They are trying, with New Zealand help, to train a ready-reaction force. While the Afghan national police and the paramilitary-cum-secret police, the NDS, are armed, there are no Afghan army units stationed in Bamiyan.

The province's governor, Habiba Sarabi, her spokesman Abdul Rahman Ahmadi, and chief of police General Juma Gilki Yardam all made the same point in interviews with me last year, and in recent reports: the 1000-strong police force does not have the weapons or the equipment to resist the Taleban insurgency.

As the security situation in Bamiyan has deteriorated, that lack of equipment was driven home only last month: in two separate incidents massive improvised explosive devices (IEDs) killed nine local police officers in Bamiyan - the first police deaths there since 2008.

The Afghan police do not have the sophisticated jamming equipment available in the Kiwis' LAVs and Humvees that creates a "bubble" around a convoy to protect them against remote- controlled roadside bombs.

This week Chief of Defence Lieutenant General Rhys Jones said an increase in IED attacks, likely from a new Taleban unit that had come up from the south, had so far been thwarted by the New Zealanders. Not so for the local police.

That is not to say the Kiwis should leave sophisticated equipment or even LAVs when they leave - there are too many dangers in that.

And yes, there is a sewer of corruption and incompetence running through the Karzai regime in Kabul.
But the question now for the Key Government is whether the right option is to pull out in disgust or use the limited time till the final 2013 pullout to do the best - and leave the best legacy - New Zealand can. For now, though, it is wrestling with more pressing short-term problems: how to protect the New Zealand contingent till exit day.

Ministers this week gave approval for Kiwi troops to range into neighbouring Baghlan province to disrupt the insurgents involved in the attack that killed Lance Corporals Pralli Durrer and Rory Malone; it's reported locally that the a group is led by Taleban commander Khwaja Abdullah.

Bamiyan had been an oasis of relative peace. But as the first province to "transition" to local control, it is both the poster-child for the Nato and US pullout and a magnet for the Taleban.

As General Jones put it, there was a sense in the insurgent community that the local insurgents were letting the side down and not making a big enough impact. Faced with this new threat from across the border in Baghlan, where the Hungarians are nominally in control, General Jones sought approval to extend patrols into the region.

He has a reputation as a tactician and the Government was inclined - almost obliged - to take his advice and allow it.

But it would be a surprise if there was not some disquiet around the Cabinet table. Is there any guarantee that in the mountainous Hindu Kush the bomb-makers will not just back off another valley or two? Will it further dilute the efforts of the New Zealand troops, and lead to requests for more troops and more LAVs?

At a time when the focus should be turning to how and when New Zealand leaves, it looks more like "mission creep" than a blueprint for withdrawal.