New Zealand soldiers bring hope

16:00, Nov 14 2009
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New Zealand soldiers seize a Taliban ammunitions cache.

DEFENCE Minister Wayne Mapp has put his life on the line to see at first-hand the work of our crack SAS troops in Afghanistan.

Mapp was shocked at the conditions they work in and by the constant danger they face.

"I went to the Ministry of Transport and the building had no windows in it because they had all been blown out two weeks earlier," he told Sunday News.

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Taliban insurgents hide out in the mountains and fire missiles at coalition forces.

"It was a bit surreal. It is not something that you customarily expect when you visit someone, `By the way, sorry about the windows. They got blown out'."

He spent four days in Afghanistan with the 230-strong joint New Zealand Defence Force's provincial reconstruction team which is based in the Bamyan province.

He had two nerve-wracking days in the capital Kabul, the scene of ongoing bloodshed.

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A contingent of SAS troops, believed to be about 50-strong, has been sent to Kabul, to help train the Afghan police force.

"When you go to Kabul, it is obviously a dangerous place. You just could not come away with any other view," said Mapp.

"Whereas at least Bamian feels like a town that is making progress, Kabul does present a different feel.

"You are very much aware of the tensions. There are road blocks everywhere, there is security everywhere and large military patrols and escorts."

Afghanistan might not register on many people's "must visit" lists, however, the minister said travelling there was the "right thing to do" to show his support for our brave servicemen and women.

A qualified pilot, he said nothing could prepare him for his bumpy arrival.

The flight path from the United Arab Emirates saw the RNZAF Hercules share air space with a formidable B1B Lancer bomber, transport and refuelling aircraft.

"I suppose it is the busiest military air space in the world," Mapp said. The approach to Khandahar, Afghanistan's second largest city, saw the flight crew switch on the Hercules' anti-missile system. "They then descend and go in with tactical flying as they go around the mountains," he added. "There are some quite high G turns and some people got sick during that time. And when you got into Afghani airspace, you had to put on the body armour.

"I was told there was one case where the Australians were taking their soldiers in that a soldier was killed by a stray bullet in the aircraft."

His first stop was Bamian. The area used to be a tourist mecca with 65,000 tourists visiting annually to see the ancient giant statues of Buddha carved into the cliffs. They were destroyed on the orders of the then Taliban leader Mullah Omar in 2001.

"Seeing the blown-up Buddhas really brought home to you the extraordinary level of cultural vandalism of the Taliban," Mapp said.

"It brought home to you just how disconnected the Taliban were from the norms of civil society.

"At the hospital they also showed me a graveyard and said that in there were 5000 buried by the Taliban," Mapp said.

But progress is slowly being made from the blood, sweat and tears of our troops.

They have been instrumental in the construction of roads, hospitals and schools. "You got a sense this was a community that was getting better. The town felt peaceful."

Sunday News