John Key in secret trip to Afghanistan

  • Breaking
  • 03/05/2010

By Duncan Garner, in Afghanistan

Prime Minister John Key has just completed a highly secretive 3 day visit to Afghanistan that can only be reported now because Key has left the troubled country and is on his way home.

Key flew into Kabul on a NZ C-130 Hercules late Saturday NZ time. He spent a day and a night in Kabul and then flew to Bamyan Province to visit the 140 Kiwi troops serving there.

Asked why he went he said, “I’m not prepared to send troops to places that I’m not prepared to go to myself.”

This trip has been in the planning for months and 3 News was part of a select media group chosen to attend. We signed an agreement with the New Zealand Defence Force that banned us from doing any stories or reporting on the trip until Key left the country this morning – for obvious safety reasons.

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On arriving in Kabul he was whisked away by US Blackhawk helicopter to meet the 70-80 Kiwi SAS troops in a private location in the city.

Media were banned for security reasons. Key says he took photos with the troops and talked to them about their current mission which ends in March next year.

As a result of the visit Key says the SAS troops have asked for their deployment to be extended. Key says he will now consider that. It’s likely if Key agrees to an extension for the SAS only a small number will stay in Kabul – the rest will come home. It’s a tricky and highly sensitive political issue in what will be election year.

The SAS troops personally guarded and protected Key and the Kiwi contingent during the stay. They are impressive soldiers. Sure, they are intimidating but also surprisingly frank and friendly.

It emerged they were responsible for busting 5 insurgents 2 weeks ago and securing a “small warehouse” of small arms, including; grenades and rockets. In an interview the NZ media secured with the man in the charge of this war, US General Stanley McChrystal, the General was glowing in his praise of the SAS troops.

Off camera afterwards, he said they were fantastic and up there with the best in the world.

I spoke to some of the SAS soldiers during the trip. Sure, it was never really about operational matters, but they spoke openly about home, about Willie Apiata, about where they come from in New Zealand, and they were keen to know about people’s feelings towards them at home.

They love their job. They want to be in theatre. It’s clear they believe they are making some progress here. It’s clear they want to stay.

We also met and had dealings with the NZ spy based in Kabul. We understand he’s from the NZ SIS. He ushered the contingent around and dealt with the media in a frank and open way – he was unassuming, friendly and professional.

Key also met President Karzai at his presidential palace and met with the local Afghani civil society.

He then flew to Bamyan. It was one of the roughest flights I’ve been on, and I live in Wellington. It’s only a 30 minute flight from Kabul, but you must clear 19,000 feet of mountains and then drop into the valley, 9,000 feet below.

The Prime Minister was welcomed onto the NZ base with a moving powhiri and a haka. The clouds opened up during the service – and it poured down, drenching everyone.

Next he had dinner with the local Governor. He also went and looked at the NZ Aid projects in the area - including a local school for girls. This school never existed under the Taliban. The local hospital has a new building, built by Kiwi troops – and paid for by New Zealand aid money.

Key was also taken to a local market – called a bazaar and mixed with locals – he gave his black Kiwi cap to a young boy in the market.

Bamyan is considered much safer than Kabul.

It is beautiful in parts, but seriously backwards – like most of the country. These people have nothing. The country is seriously poor – its people though appear spirited and friendly in many places.

Key then departed and is now heading for home.

But this trip has thrown up many questions.

Will Key roll over the SAS to stay longer?

The other 140 troops in the Provincial Reconstruction Team in Bamyan are expected to be rolled over just once more and will stay until September 2011.

That means NZ will have been up here for almost 10 years.

But Key accepts a smaller contingent will remain in Bamyan for years to come. How long? Will this war and New Zealand’s contribution ever end?

Then what will this troubled country look like? Will the Taliban reappear as a force?

And all this raises perhaps the most central question of all. Who is winning this war and is there progress?

Both McChrystal and Key are frank about this – both say the coalition of 46 countries is not winning.

But McChrystal is quick to add that the insurgents aren’t winning either. The occupying forces have been in Afghanistan for 9 years and still can’t get on top of the 10,000 to 20,000 Taliban that are still causing trouble in the country.

There are also other splinter groups and insurgents. No one really knows who the enemy is anymore.

McChrystal told the NZ media the enemy is anyone trying to cause disruptions to the Karzai Government. He says it’s anyone who opposes peace - anyone who opposes the Government – anyone who basically is an insurgent.

Key says the enemy remains Al Qaeda, but some reports suggest just 100 operatives remain in Afghanistan. So on Key’s theory nearly 100,000 international troops are fighting these 100 Al Qaeda. Surely that’s not right – or really credible – despite it being the central reason why the US invaded Afghanistan in 2001.

The enemy is still the Taliban too. It’s strong in the south of the country – which is why the US are pumping 20,000 more troops down there in a new offensive over the coming weeks.

But their influence doesn’t end there. There are numerous suicide bombers still in and around Kabul – some apparently with links to the Taliban, or paid by the Taliban – others are just opportunists with nothing to lose, but their lives.

US reports out last week show that the Taliban are gaining some influence again in the south of the country. They are apparently offering locals ‘social services’ – whatever that looks like – and help resolving disputes.

The Taliban are exploiting people’s frustrations with President Karzai’s Government – which is still seen as corrupt, the courts in some parts are dysfunctional, the jails are not secure, officials are still looking after their mates and the Taliban is riding into some towns offering themselves as a solution.

And US commentators, and indeed the latest Pentagon report, says a big part of the problem is Karzai – who has become so frustrated he recently joked he should just "join the Taliban". Imagine how that went down in Washington, who are investing hundreds of billions of dollars into backing him and effectively protecting him.

He’s seen as widely unpopular. The Pentagon report shows just one in four locals support him. Of 121 key districts in Afghanistan, just 29 backed Karzai and his Government, 48 were seen as sympathetic to the Taliban, the rest were effectively ‘neutral’ and up for grabs.

But he is the elected leader and the US and others have to work with him – McChrystal made that clear on this trip.

He also made it clear to Key that the country may yet go backwards before it goes forwards. What the coalition is looking for is progress on many fronts.

And from a personal perspective being here -progress is not always that obvious.

But we’re told it is there. Kids roam the streets. So do women. Commerce has returned to the bustling markets. A Kiwi solider based in Bamyan told me he used to work for the British army in Kabul in 2002 and 2003. He says the place is unrecognisable now.

Back then he said it was all “bombs and body bags”. Now he says it’s all about commerce, markets, social freedoms and women on the streets with their children. But still, unfortunately, random insurgents and opportunists with suicide bombs roam the streets.

So, yes there has been progress. But so many children still don’t go to school. People are dirt poor. The pollution is overwhelming. There are generations of uneducated people.

From a western point of view and western standards, it’s seriously depressing.

So this war, this occupation doesn’t look like ending anytime soon. And Key’s visit here may have just put him into a tighter spot.

He knows our troops are needed here. He knows they are doing good work. He knows the US want them to stay on.

Now he must make a decision – to bow to the demands of the US and leave them in place – or pull them out of a war that’s 9 years old – and still no one can say what victory looks like – or if victory is even close.

3 News

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