Gordon Campbell on what comes next in Afghanistan

Under its current operating rules, the New Zealand forces in Bamiyan have already been given authority by Cabinet to cross over into neighbouring regions such as Baghlan – the province from which the attackers responsible for the recent deaths among New Zealand troops are believed to have originated. In the light of recent events, it would be plainly unwise for them to do so. Over the next few days (according to Defence Minister Jonathan Coleman on RNZ this morning) Defence chief Lieutenant General Rhys Jones will be briefing Coleman and his advisers about the plan for a response to the recent attacks, and the logic behind it. In the meantime, the withdrawal date for the PRT force has been brought forward from September 2013 to April 2013.

It is hard to see how Jones could possibly justify any kind of ‘hot pursuit” role for the PRT troops – or for the SAS either, if restricted to a non-combat role – and the cross-border patrols that this would involve. In the public mind, there has always been a clear division. The SAS troops have done the ‘locate and destroy” work in rural and urban situations alike. The PRT role was supposed to be one of aid and reconstruction – schools for kids, education opportunities for women – in order to assist the local Hazara population, and other residents. We’ve always told ourselves that we’ve been doing great work in Bamiyan. Yet the influx of insurgents into northern Bamiyan has seen the PRT force engaging in patrols with a far more active combat dimension. Presumably, our PRT patrols have been sent out to augment the work of special forces teams from other ISAF countries. It is this intelligence-gathering role that has led to the recent casualties. It would be interesting to know how this change of role came about.

The PRT troops clearly have had their hands full in patrolling north Bamiyan as it is. To expect them to extend those patrols into territory that seems even more hostile to their presence – and in vehicles plainly unable to protect them adequately from IEDs – would be foolhardy. Such work looks more like the role carried out by the SAS a good few deployments ago – ie, when it was doing long range patrols in the south of the country, before being re-deployed to do urban counter-terrorism work and related training on the streets of Kabul.

In the current conditions, dispatching PRT and/or SAS troops into Bamiyan’s neighbouring provinces to help detect the insurgents and their bomb-makers would increase the likelihood of more casualties. In practice, the Kiwi troops would be little more than live bait to encourage the insurgents to show their hand, so that special forces can deal with them. If our troops are going to be used as lures for the Taliban, at least they should be put in vehicles able to protect them from IEDs. The simple reality is that our PRT forces are not being adequately armed or trained for the job at hand. One can easily see why the government is considering the use of the SAS for this ‘intelligence gathering’ work in north Bamiyan and Baghlan – but, Coleman and Prime Minister John Key insist, they will not be doing the actual fighting. Yeah, right. If the SAS locate the bomb-maker, it’s hard to imagine them radioing back to the ISAF for someone else to take it from there.

There are other options, of course. Reportedly, we are picking up the slack on these deadly patrols because the Hungarians won’t do it. Well, we don’t have to volunteer. The patrols currently being carried out in north Bamiyan and beyond could be handed over entirely to other ISAF nations and to their special forces, preparatory to our departure. This departure should be in October, when the current PRT deployment ends and a fresh influx of New Zealand troops are sent in to replace them. Frankly, it’s hard to see how a full departure would be all that much more difficult to organize than the rotation already envisaged. We’re talking about fewer than 150 troops, all up. There is no valid reason why they shouldn’t be home by Christmas, with their families.

If April, however, is to be the final departure date…then in the meantime, our troops should behave much as our engineers squad did in Basra when things went south in Iraq. Namely, they should wait out the remaining time in barracks. In which case, any involvement by our PRT troops in patrols in north Bamiyan should be officially suspended, and our troops put to work full time building schools and roads, digging wells etc. That’s the kind of aid and reconstruction stuff that the New Zealand public thought we were there to do, originally.