Parliament's call

John Key
John Key
It is likely that when Prime Minister John Key met United States President Barack Obama and other high-ranking US officials he was pressed to extend New Zealand's commitment to its mission in Afghanistan.

The Americans have been claiming progress in defeating the terrorist insurgency that was the original target, although in the context of years of conflict in the country this must be regarded as another phase in a longer story.

The next phase will be largely in the hands of the Afghans themselves, and it is by no means certain they will restore a unified peace to their country any more successfully than previous attempts.

Among the claims by General David Petraeus, the retiring US commander of international forces in Afghanistan, is violent attacks have fallen 14% in the past year.

Another is the Taliban has less capacity to take the insurgency directly to the Afghan people for it has fewer combatants able to mount attacks, the first time this situation has occurred in five years. The United Nations, however, has a different perspective.

Its officials speak of a 15% increase in civilian casualties in the preceding six months, with the deadliest month of the war for civilians since 2007 being as recently as May.

Some 80% of these have been attributed to anti-government elements and have been caused by attacks such as the recent Hotel Inter-continental incident, suicide bombers and roadside explosive devices. Clearly, the Taliban remains a dangerous and effective enemy.

If these deaths were significant in themselves, some 14% of all civilian deaths are attributed by the UN to pro-government forces such as the Afghan national security service and international divisions, which include New Zealand's SAS.

The effect of these statistics in Afghanistan is to reinforce beliefs the war can never be won and civilians cannot be safe from any of the armed forces in the country. Furthermore, the apparent intention of international forces to continue until the final pull-out the US-determined strategy of special forces raids, robotic bombing strikes and the like will mean more civilian deaths.

Indeed, the conflict is beginning to look far less like a conventional war and much more like the kind of paramilitary subversion that took place in Northern Ireland over decades.

In Afghanistan, the intention is to meet the ambitions of the government to take full responsibility for restoring peace before the end of 2014, whether its forces are ready or not. The continuing withdrawal of some Nato forces is designed to meet this goal, increasing rapidly in the next two years.

Some parts of the country are far more stable than they were, including Helmand, where the British have been based, and Bamyan, where the New Zealand Provincial Reconstruction team has been for some time.

There is evidence of normality returning to these parts of the country where local police and local control are having a beneficial impact. There is even some hope endemic corruption at all levels of society in these provinces may be diminishing.

There are reasons for optimism in several parts of Afghanistan that within the next two and a-half years the local police and national army will be strong enough to restore normality, although the country may never be rid of terrorism or the source of much funding for it - the opium trade - let alone finding a solution to the bald fact that neighbouring Pakistan harbours Taliban members.

The creation of the withdrawal timetable has created problems for provincial reconstruction teams in parts of the country. It is already obvious the transition has meant increased danger for both New Zealand's SAS, which seems to have been involved in many more engagements in Kabul than initially thought likely, and the PRC teams in Bamyan.

The SAS' recent role, particularly, seems hardly compatible with the Prime Minister's description of it being "mentoring". Mr Key, however, is still sticking to the Government's intention to withdraw the 38-man unit next March, and the PRC teams in 2014. But he has not been quite definite, pointing out the SAS wants to remain.

Should the Government accept its case - unlikely given the length of time the unit has been in Kabul and it is has already had one extension - it is a decision only Parliament should confirm on its recommendation.



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