PM: April pullout from Afghanistan 'likely'
VERNON SMALL AND TRACY WATKINS
New Zealand troops are set to pull out of Afghanistan in April, after the deaths of three more soldiers in a roadside bomb attack in the dangerous northeast of Bamiyan province.
But it is understood plans are in place to pull out of the troubled northeast region even sooner, maybe by November before the severe Afghanistan winter sets in.
The soldiers killed were named yesterday as Corporal Luke Tamatea, 31, Lance Corporal Jacinda Baker, 26, and Private Richard Harris, 21. Corporal Baker is New Zealand's first female combat casualty.
Ten Kiwi soldiers have now died in Afghanistan, eight in combat.
Prime Minister John Key said the latest deaths, coming two weeks after Rory Malone and Pralli Durrer were killed by insurgents in the same area, had not affected the timetable for withdrawal.
But as recently as May Foreign Affairs Minister Murray McCully said the provincial reconstruction team would be pulled out "later in 2013".
Key said the Cabinet's preference was to pull out in April, rather than next September which would have been a "worse-case scenario".
The earlier date also suited a coalition partner that New Zealand had to work in with, Mr Key said.
"Therefore, April is likely to be the date," he said.
The Government is under mounting pressure to pull out even earlier, but Mr Key said New Zealand would not "cut and run".
"We made a commitment."
Labour spokesman Phil Goff said it was not a case of cutting and running, but there was nothing further New Zealand could do in the province.
"I understand sacrifice, but to warrant it you need an obtainable objective."
The Government had missed the chance to pull out sooner. It was important now to organise an orderly withdrawal but that would take "no longer than the early part of 2013".
The three soldiers were killed on Sunday when their Humvee was hit by a "massive" improvised explosive device on the road between the Kiwi forward bases at Do Abe and Romero.
Key said although that particular road was suitable for the more heavily protected light armoured vehicles, the Humvees were used because they could access areas not open to the LAVs.
The bomb was estimated to have more than 20kg of explosives.
"The capacity of this bomb would have torn apart any vehicle," Mr Key said. The troops would have been killed instantly.
The Chief of Defence Force, Lieutenant General Rhys Jones, had told him the troops had the best equipment and support. But he had asked him to look again at whether the New Zealand soldiers had the right equipment.
The blast was attributed to bomb makers who were part of a new insurgent group that had set up in the neighbouring Baghlan province, prompting approval from ministers for New Zealand forces to cross the border to target them.
Key said troops had not yet crossed the border and were working with Hungarian forces in Baghlan - a contrast to his comments critical of the Hungarians a fortnight ago.
He said some SAS troops could be sent to provide support and planning, and to link with other special forces, but not in a combat role as the public would understand it.
Key said if he thought the SAS would make life safer there, "I'd do that in a heartbeat" but that was not the issue.
All three soldiers were deployed to Bamiyan in April and were from the 2nd/1st battalion royal infantry.
Their bodies were evacuated by helicopter and an Australian military aircraft would take them back to Australia from where they would be flown home probably late this week.
Key, who is due to leave for the Pacific Forum in Rarotonga on Wednesday next week, said it was likely the funerals would be held before then. If they were not, he would miss the forum to attend.
General Jones said it was quite possible there would be more Kiwi casualties.
Key said the soldiers' sacrifice would not be forgotten.
"Every time I get a phone call from the Defence Minister or the chief of the Defence Force about this, it is a gut-wrenching experience. I want our boys and girls to come home."
- © Fairfax NZ News
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