4 May 2010

PM still intends to reduce Afghan troop numbers

6:09 pm on 4 May 2010

Prime Minister John Key says he still intends to reduce New Zealand troop numbers in Afghanistan after visiting the country over the past three days.

Mr Key says over time, troops will be withdrawn and more emphasis will be put on civilian reconstruction and development work.

SAS troops, however, could stay in Afghanistan longer than expected, Radio New Zealand's political editor reports.

The SAS is due to end its latest deployment to Afghanistan next March but Mr Key has left open speculation that it might extend its stay.

Nor has the possibility been ruled out by Foreign Affairs Minister Murray McCully, who says the question of extending the SAS deployment will be discussed when Mr Key returns to Wellington.

Secret flight for security reasons

Mr Key flew to Afghanistan in secrecy for security reasons. During his stay he visited New Zealand troops in Bamyan, SAS troops in Kabul and met President Hamid Karzai and the commander of the International Security Assistance Force General Stanley McChrystal.

The provincial reconstruction team, comprising about 120 soldiers and other support staff, has been in Bamyan province since August 2003. It is largely responsible for maintaining security but also helps with reconstruction efforts. The present deployment has been extended until September this year.

Mr Key says the New Zealanders are doing a good job, but the plan is to gradually reduce the number of troops.

"There's about 140 people in the Bamyan province from a military perspective and about 80 in the SAS component in Kabul. We'd like to reduce those numbers over time.

"I think there will be a military component for quite some time in Bamyan, simply because we'll need to provide support for the civilian component, but we are going to reduce our numbers."

Afghan leader 'appreciates' NZ's work

The Prime Minister says the visit gave him a good opportunity to see the conditions the New Zealanders face, but the situation in Afghanistan requires an ongoing international programme of security and development assistance.

Mr Key told Morning Report on Tuesday that Mr Karzai appreciates the work New Zealand is doing in Afghanistan and the strategy to build up civilian security forces is one both the leaders agreed on.

"When that's in place, then you can build the component parts of the economy which are going to be so crucially important if people are going to transition to a peaceful democracy. And Hamid Karzai's very much in line with that view."

Meanwhile, Foreign Affairs Minister Murray McCully has announced that Neville Reilly had been appointed New Zealand's first ambassador to Kabul and Dick Newlands the first civilian director of the provincial reconstruction team in Bamyan.

But just how much civilian work can be done will depend on the security situation. Mr Key says General McChrystal made it clear this is a very important year for the coalition forces in Afghanistan to prove they are getting on top of the situation.