Time to put date on troop return

The day started with Labour's Phil Goff calling for an early withdrawal from Afghanistan while Prime Minister John Key pledged not to "cut and run".

But within hours the two were on the same page - more or less.

Despite the political rhetoric, both Labour and National now acknowledge that leaving Bamiyan province "as soon as possible" means in the first months of 2013; roughly at the end of the six-month rotation - the 21st - now preparing to fly over.

Mark it on your calendar: New Zealand troops will be out of Afghanistan by April 2013.

As recently as May Foreign Minister Murray McCully had put the exit date as "later in 2013".

But Mr Key could not have been clearer yesterday that that had been brought forward, though he denied it was a response to Kiwi deaths.

What is also clear is that the Taleban is stepping up its attacks in Bamiyan, not least because it is one of the first provinces to make the transition to local security control.

The chief of of the Defence Force, Lieutenant General Rhys Jones, called it "the tall poppy syndrome" with the insurgents trying to prove they can reach into even the safest provinces.

August has also proved the deadliest month. New Zealand has now lost five soldiers to insurgent activity this month. Prior to that in Bamiyan Lieutenant Tim O'Donnell was killed in August 2010.

The Government and the Defence Force will not want our troops there in August 2013, when they would face another "fighting season" in the northern summer.

A pullout from the dangerous northeast before winter, quitting the Do Abe and Romero bases and withdrawing to the relative safety of the south and east around Bamiyan township, would reduce the chances of further casualties. Its predominantly ethnic Hazaras are Shia, hostile to the Sunni Taleban.

From there the Kiwis could sit out the harsh Afghanistan winter - when the threat is low - pack up the equipment that needs to be shipped out, tidy up the loose ends of any aid projects and hand over the main Kiwibase to local forces.

Mr Goff argues that planes can land at the Bamiyan airstrip, next to Kiwibase, in winter, allowing an earlier exit. But at that point the difference between a National and Labour timetable comes down to a matter of weeks.

But without dishonouring the dead - or giving the insurgents detailed information on troop movements - it is time for the Government to make clear the withdrawal date it has marked on its calendar. Expect an announcement within days.

The Dominion Post