A case for 'No, thanks'

No doubt at the National Party conference this weekend, delegates will be quietly probed for their views on whether the John Key-led Government should commit the Special Air Services to a further deployment in Afghanistan.

Cabinet must soon make a decision on the latest of many such requests from the allied forces operating against the Taliban under the group umbrella of Nato. The SAS was last in service there in 2006, its third deployment as part of the International Security Assistance Force.

The latest request is being considered at a time when many New Zealanders have found offensive the clumsy remarks of the United States ambassador to Nato, Ivo Daalder, in its support.

Dr Daalder reportedly said New Zealand should consider not just its relations with the United States, but with other allies, particularly Australia. "God forbid there be a threat directly to New Zealand. Wouldn't it then be good for a country like Holland or Canada or Slovakia or the US to be there 'for you'?"

Technically, New Zealand could quite easily ignore the request. It is not, after all, a member of Nato and therefore has no chartered obligation to it.

However, on a practical basis New Zealand has had a long-term commitment to support the counter-insurgency in Afghanistan, based on the nearly nine years of assistance agreed by the Clark government.

Apart from the previous deployments of the SAS, the New Zealand provincial reconstruction team has been helping win "hearts and minds" since 2003. Dr Daalder wants not just the SAS, but more troops, more aid, more police and army trainers as well as civilians with suitable expertise.

He seems to be unaware that this country already has defence force personnel committed to peacekeeping operations or supporting military services in Timor-Leste, the Solomon Islands, the Sinai Peninsula, Israel, Syria and Lebanon, Sudan, Iraq, the Republic of Korea and the United States.

Although the Government must take into account in making its decision wider diplomatic and strategic matters, there are more pressing concerns that ought to be given priority. Chief among these is whether the SAS is even a suitable force to send.

The Clark government's rationale was the need to carry the fight to the al Qaeda terrorists allegedly using Afghanistan as a base. But, over the years, the nature and purpose of this conflict had changed to a counter-insurgency against the Taliban, which wishes to reassert its control over the country.

The ISAF is now also training Afghan troops to take over the fighting and there has been criticism of their ability to assume the lead aggressive combat role. The overall Western strategy in Afghanistan has also been the subject of concern, even among the Nato partners, with no obvious plan to exchange a military advantage with political and economic progress.

Typically, the successful recent British-led incursion into Taliban-held territory is now changing into a "holding operation". But what will follow?

The Government also appears to be debating the wider issue of precisely what form any future commitment should take. The Prime Minister says he wants to withdraw the Provincial Reconstruction Team, which is committed through to September next year, at the end of its deployment.

It "sucks up a lot of resources", he said, and he wants to see an "exit strategy". The cost of sending the SAS must also be considered in these straightened times, as well as whether the detachment would actually achieve anything.

It is a highly trained special forces unit, not a reconstruction assistance or training unit, and, if sent, would likely be engaged in the "sharp end" of the conflict with New Zealand having the final decision on engagement.

The risks to the troops involved would be very high indeed, and the potential domestic political risks must therefore also be taken into consideration by Mr Key and his colleagues. The Prime Minister has, interestingly, appeared to lay the groundwork for a possible negative decision.

He said this week "We don't answer to America" and that the New Zealand public, and nobody else, was entitled to know what the Government's decision will be.

Given New Zealand's long, honourable and steadily incremental service in Afghanistan - a country with which it has no national interest associations whatsoever - and the many worsening problems of its near-neighbours, such as Fiji and the Solomons, there is a strong case for declining the request for more combat troops.

Such a decision would also be consistent with New Zealand's non-nuclear policy and the conviction that peace-keeping need not be carried out at gunpoint.



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