The news yesterday that another three New Zealand soldiers
had been killed in Afghanistan was shocking and sickening.
Still reeling from the deaths in a gunfight a fortnight ago
of Lance-corporals Pralli Durrer and Rory Malone, the army
and the nation have taken another heavy blow. The latest
deaths - of Lance-corporal Jacinda Baker (26), a medic,
Private Richard Harris (21) and Corporal Luke Tamatea (31) -
happened when their Humvee was hit by a roadside improvised
explosive device. Lcpl Baker was the first New Zealand woman
to die in war since the Vietnam conflict. Their deaths took
the number of New Zealand soldiers killed in Afghanistan to
A widespread reaction two weeks ago, including this
newspaper's editorial response, was New Zealand should see
out its commitment and stay the distance - expected to be
until the end of next year - as planned.
Whatever the imperfections of the mission and the fears for
its aftermath, New Zealand should be good for its word and
its international undertakings and should honour what the
soldiers had died for.
But the death of another three soldiers and uncertainty about
what lies ahead puts Prime Minister John Key and the
Government in a dilemma. What happens if the violence, in
what was once considered a relatively safe part of
Afghanistan, continues to escalate?
What happens if deaths among this small country's contingent
of 140 in the Provincial Reconstruction Team in Bamiyan
become frequent; if the tragedy of five deaths in two weeks
is more than just a terrible blip?
Will the price of blood spilt in some foreign field in which
New Zealand has next to no direct interest be too high?
The body bags returning to the United States in a seemingly
unwinnable war destroyed that country's resolve in Vietnam,
and has done the same for Afghanistan. The impact of death
and serious injury spreads far beyond the army family and
into the lives of many households and communities. So it is,
too, for New Zealand. Every death, as well as having a
national impact, spreads personal ripples of grief and
concern across the land.
When a populace feels right is on its side, or when threats
are direct, feelings are mobilised which enable societies to
send many of its young to face possible death. But
democracies do not cope with mounting casualties when the
cause is at all suspect. That is what the insurgents in
Afghanistan are targeting as they pressure the local
Government and its foreign supporters, and as they work for
position post withdrawal.
Increased violence was predicted for when coalition and Nato
troops came to depart, and so it is proving to be.
Mr Key yesterday said the Government was still deciding the
"exact time" troops would leave the war-torn country, and he
seems to have shifted somewhat to indicate it is possible
that it will now be early next year.
"To leave early wouldn't be sensible. It wouldn't be
practical and it wouldn't be right," he said yesterday.
"It's not a simple thing to say we're leaving tomorrow ... To
just turn around this morning and say we're leaving as a
result of these three deaths, it wouldn't honour the three
people that we've lost ... and it's not the way New Zealand
That is well and good, and the sentiments are honourable. It
is notable, however, that Mr Key seems to want New Zealand
soldiers out of there as soon as he can, with dignity and
Yesterday morning, without saying anything about bringing
dates forward, "the end of ", "later", or "sometime next
year" had morphed into early next year. Labour Party leader
David Shearer, in shifting his party's position, does say
troops should be withdrawn as soon as practically possible.
While still vague, he does talk of bringing forward the
timetable. Mr Key, meanwhile, will be hoping New Zealand
personnel in Afghanistan can get through the next several
months relatively unscathed. He must, indeed, dread those bad
news calls he receives from the military - not just
personally but (especially if the deaths continue)