New Zealand is to withdraw its troops from Afghanistan earlier next year than planned, prime minister John Key said today.
He said the move was not prompted by the deaths this month of five New Zealand soldiers, including three who were killed by a roadside bomb yesterday.
August’s deaths account for half of all fatalities suffered by the small contingent of New Zealanders in the nine years they have been stationed in central Bamiyan province, which was comparatively stable until a recent upswing in violence.
Mr Key said that the remaining soldiers from the contingent of 145 would be withdrawn in early 2013. He said discussions for the earlier withdrawal began before the five deaths this month.
Murray McCully, New Zealand’s foreign affairs minister, had announced in May that the troops would be withdrawn “in the latter part of 2013”.
Mr Key said he wanted to bring home the troops as fast as practicable within a timetable that fit in with the coalition partners.
“We’ll do it as fast as we can, and we’ll do it in the way that protects our people as best we can,” he said.
He rejected calls to end the operation immediately.
“Yes we need to make it the shortest timeframe we can now logistically, but we have to do it with our partners. If we don’t, then the message we send to the rest of all of Afghanistan is that it’s time to run for the exits,” he said.
“And if we do that, then the thousands of people who have lost their lives have been in vain. And I just don’t think that reflects the values and principles that underpin New Zealand.”
The move is likely to be popular among many New Zealanders, who have increasingly questioned the country’s role in the conflict.
The New Zealand troops were sent there ostensibly as a reconstruction team, with the mission of helping to rebuild and protect Bamiyan province’s infrastructure and social systems. In recent months, however, that role has increasingly given way to combat operations, as violence in the region has increased.
The latest incident yesterday also marked the first time a New Zealand woman had died in the conflict.
Lance Corporal Jacinda Baker, a 26-year-old medic, was killed in the explosion, as were Corporal Luke Tamatea, 31, and Private Richard Harris, 21.
According to defence force officials, the three were travelling in a convoy of four Humvees to escort a soldier suffering from a medical condition back from a visit to the doctor when a roadside bomb exploded, destroying the vehicle and instantly killing the occupants.
Lt Gen Rhys Jones, chief of the defence force, said the Taliban had admitted responsibility for the attack.
Earlier this month two New Zealand soldiers were killed and another six injured during a gun battle with insurgents in the same region.