No reason to change course

The tragic death of NZSAS Corporal Doug Grant in Kabul, Afghanistan, on Friday is a matter for profound regret, national sorrow, and immense sadness for his family, friends and army colleagues.

It is also a reminder that members of the various branches of the New Zealand Defence Force on deployment in that troubled country are on dangerous missions in which the threat of death is ever present.

That there has been only one SAS death to date in that elite and specialised combat service's role of mentoring an equivalent local force in Kabul must be put down to great skill, good leadership and a degree of luck.

Only seven weeks ago, at the end of June, the force was involved in a dangerous combat mission to repel insurgents who stormed the Intercontinental Hotel in the Afghan capital. Two soldiers were wounded on that occasion, and there have doubtless been other, lesser publicised incidents in which action has been seen and lives put at risk.

The reality is that a career as a soldier, in particular in a force such as the SAS, is dangerous and from time to time, however limited the scope for direct engagement with opposing forces, casualties are to be expected.

As Defence Force chief Lieutenant-general Rhys Jones said: "The events of Friday in Kabul reinforce to us all that ours is a dangerous profession, whether on deployment or in training and while we accept these risks the death of a colleague, friend and father is always difficult to take." A statement released yesterday by Cpl Grant's family likewise suggested the dangers and risks were well understood. This, however, will not lessen their grief nor compensate in any way for the loss of a husband for his wife and a father to two young children.

The death of Cpl Grant (41) occurred when his unit was called upon to assist in repelling insurgents and rescuing hostages at the British Council cultural centre which had been attacked by Taliban insurgents. More information will doubtless be forthcoming in due course, but official information indicates he was shot in the chest and died en route to an American military hospital. The action lasted up to nine hours and resulted in a total of 12 deaths, including those of four insurgents and one member of the SAS-mentored Afghani Crisis Response Unit.

As well as questions over the exact circumstances of the SAS fatality, the incident will raise - indeed has already raised - questions as to the value and validity of the presence of New Zealand troops in Afghanistan.

The former will be addressed by a Defence Force review. The SAS's tour of duty is due to finish in March next year and Prime Minister John Key, while expressing condolences to the widow and her family, said the loss was not a good reason to pull the troops out. The SAS, he said, was "working to give the people of Afghanistan hope for their country, and they are working to make the world a safer place from global terrorism".

There are sound perspectives from which to take issue with the second part of Mr Key's statement: is the Taliban genuinely a threat to global peace and security?

If so where is the evidence? And if it is, does the ongoing presence of foreign troops in fact exacerbate rather than ameliorate that risk?

But Mr Key is correct to say that the loss is not an appropriate basis on which to change course. However painful for the families of lost soldiers, death is the natural corrollary of war. Policy needs to be formulated outside of that particular theatre and with the understanding that casualties will most likely occur.

The best chance for Afghani stability is for there to be a well-trained local defence force and this has been and will continue to be the SAS's main role. Elsewhere in the country - in Bamiyan - the Provincial Reconstruction Team continues its efforts to build both confidence and infrastructure towards a peaceful functioning country, post-conflict. This team is not due back until 2014 and given much of its work is in the aid rather than strictly military category, there is no good reason why its deployment should not continue as well.

 

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