By HANK SCHOUTEN – The Dominion Post

When it comes to war nothing focuses public and political minds more than the sight of the families weeping beside the coffins of their young sons.

The images underline the costs of war and challenge all to reconsider the validity of the cause and the prospect of its success.

The death of Lieutenant Timothy O’Donnell inevitably raises the question as to why New Zealand lives are being risked and how long the Government will continue to put them on the line for a war that’s half a world away, in a country where we have few direct interests, where soldiers have been committed for longer than World War II and a territory where some of the world’s most powerful military have been humiliated.

There is uncertainty about the ultimate outcome and no guarantee that the coalition of forces which New Zealand is working with, will prevail.

Every casualty saps confidence and has the potential to bring down governments. And there is growing international concern about the progress of the Afghan war which continues to claim many lives in coalition forces propping up a corrupt regime.

The Dutch Government collapsed this year in a debate over whether to continue its commitment to the war in which 24 of its soldiers have been killed. Its 1950 troops began pulling out of Uruzgan province this month, with soldiers playing The Animals’ song We’ve Gotta Get Out of This Place.

Although the Netherlands is just one of the 52 nations involved in the International Security Assistant Force in Afghanistan (Isaf) it is a portent of a weariness among those involved. Public opposition has also grown in Germany, and in New Zealand the public don’t fully support our efforts in the war.

This was no doubt in Prime Minister John Key’s mind when the Government agreed to a US request to send SAS troops to Afghanistan, that it was conditional on an exit strategy under which all New Zealand troops would be withdrawn in five years and replaced by civilians working in health, education, agriculture and police training.

Polling this year found that 77 per cent wanted Special Air Service troops withdrawn from Afghanistan, a dramatic turnaround from a similar poll in the middle of last year in which 47 per cent favoured sending troops.

But there was substantially more support – 61 per cent – for the work of our biggest continuing effort in Bamiyan province where six-monthly rotations of up to 140 troops have been responsible for provincial security since 2003.

Otago University international relations professor Robert Patman said opposition to the SAS deployment reflected deeply held concerns about the welfare of New Zealand troops.

However, stronger public support for the Provincial Reconstruction Team (PRT) probably reflected the fact it was primarily a humanitarian role and had been relatively trouble-free so far.

“But the reason for that stability in Bamiyan was that other countries were shouldering a lot of the hard stuff outside Bamiyan and the SAS role is complementary. If you didn’t have groups like the SAS active in some of the more troublesome areas the pressure would intensify on Bamiyan.”

Professor Patman said that though politicians might be worried there could be a steep decline in public support, people were quite capable of accepting there were going to be setbacks.

“Given this was New Zealand’s first casualty since we were involved after 9/11 they will give it the benefit of doubt at the moment. Many members of the public realise there are no painless options.

“All the signs are the New Zealand military have done a very good job and … we have every reason to be proud of what they’ve been doing.”

“If you were to leave on the basis of one combat casualty it would undermine all the efforts made in the past.”

He acknowledged there was growing international nervousness about the course of the war – casualties were rising as the Obama Administration was escalating the war and taking the fight to the Taleban. Nato-Isaf coalition members, including New Zealand, needed to keep their nerve. “We certainly shouldn’t cut and run – our interests don’t end at our border and small countries like New Zealand have a lot to gain minimising instability in the world.”

Defence Minister Wayne Mapp said Lieutenant O’Donnell’s death had not affected his thinking on the Afghanistan deployment. “When we make deployments, especially to Afghanistan, we know there are risks.

“Obviously this [death]is a sobering reality of the cost of deployments. It’s one thing to talk about potential costs and another thing to have it happen.

“The fundamental reason we are there is to protect New Zealanders from international terrorism. Afghanistan has been the home of al Qaeda and if the Taleban were to gain control without some sort of settlement, al Qaeda would regain a base.”

In his view the commitment had been successful and had ensured security to the vast majority of the 600,000 people in Bamiyan.

THE Cabinet was committed to keep the SAS there until March and the PRT was committed until September next year. Beyond that the plan was to further reduce numbers in the PRT.

The Nato-Isaf mission strategy was to be able to hand back control to a functional Afghan government by 2014 and “we certainly see that Bamiyan province is heading towards the ability to transfer earlier than that”.

A former commander of the Kiwi contingent in Bamiyan province, retired colonel Richard Hall, said the timing of troop withdrawals were contingent on progress made in strengthening local government in the area and particularly the local police force being trained to take over responsibility for security.

“I think there are a number of things that are to our advantage. One is that the local Hazara people loathe the Taleban which provides a very stable security environment.

“The other is the role of Governor Sarabi, who from what I saw was one of the better governors in Afghanistan.

“What do we have to do to get out of Afghanistan? Clearly the local police have to manage the situation and I understand their reaction to the incident [last week’s ambush]was pretty good, but there’s clearly more training and particular leadership training needed in the police.”

The ability of the governor to govern the province was an area where a lot of investment had gone in from the US as well as NZAid.

Col Hall said a distinction had to be made between withdrawing the military and the provision of continuing aid and other support.

Colonel Hall said a clear timeline was important to domestic constituencies in troop-contributing countries as well as the Afghan Government who were on notice that they needed to step up.

It was also important to the Afghan people who had a history of reluctance to accept foreigners.

“By putting out a withdrawal date you are sending a signal that we are not intending to take over the country, we’re not intending to do what the Russians tried to do, and that we are in a supportive role and will be withdrawing.”

Progress had been made particularly in Bamiyan. “I said to Isaf when I was there that Bamiyan was one of the provinces we could potentially hand back early as a signal of success. And since then a lot more work had been put in on the local police and other things to support the provincial government.”

The cost of New Zealand’s long-running commitment to the war in Afghanistan was underlined as never before by the funeral services this week for Lieutenant O’Donnell.

The decorated young soldier was killed in the blast when his armoured Humvee was hit by a improvised explosive device or roadside bomb.

The four-vehicle patrol he was leading was winding its way slowly up a narrow road in the northeastern corner of Bamiyan province. It was routine but dangerous – New Zealand soldiers had narrowly escaped similar attacks in the same area in previous years.

While the rest of Bamiyan province – where New Zealand’s provincial reconstruction team has been based since 2003 – is regarded as one of the most benign areas of Afghanistan because its Hazara population welcome protection from the Taleban, this corner of Bamiyan borders more dangerous territory.

And the gorge they were driving up, overlooked by towering cliffs puts anybody on that road at an overwhelming disadvantage.

Troops are vulnerable and their armour-plated vehicles provide only limited protection.

The blast that killed Lieutenant O’Donnell also injured the three others in his Humvee. The blast was powerful enough to immobilise a second vehicle in the convey, an armoured Toyota Hilux ute.

The convoy then came under a barrage of rocket propelled grenades – which are reportedly difficult to aim with any degree of accuracy from more than 50 metres – and small arms fire as the troops leapt out of their vehicles firing to provide cover as they retreated to a building further down the road.

It was described as a sophisticated attack – certainly more so than previous incidents where bombs have been detonated too early – but as many foreign forces have found to their peril, insurgents in this part of the world have had a lot of practice.

WHY ARE WE IN AFGHANISTAN?

The first New Zealand troops were sent to Afghanistan in December 2001, just three months after the 9/11 terrorist attacks on New York.

A contingent of crack Special Air Service troops were sent to help US-led efforts to find and destroy the al Qaeda terrorist group based in Afghanistan.

The SAS was sent again in 2005 and last September the Government committed three more rotations of up to 70 SAS troops to be deployed there till next March.

New Zealand’s main commitment is to Bamiyan province where 16 six-monthly rotations of up to 140 troops have been deployed as a provincial reconstruction team. Their job has been to maintain security by patrolling the province and to support local government and civilian aid efforts, including the construction of schools, roads and police training.

At this stage they are only committed till September next year but the Government expects smaller numbers of troops may still be needed there after that.

The process of shifting the focus of our efforts in Bamiyan has begun with the reconstruction team now being led by a civilian. New Zealand police and aid workers have also been in Bamiyan.

The cost of our commitments runs to about $400 million.

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