New Zealand’s elite Special Air Force soldiers could be back in Afghanistan within months.
An official request by the United States is understood to have been lodged with New Zealand just hours before a meeting in Washington between Foreign Affairs Minister Murray McCully and American Secretary of State Hillary Clinton this month.
The request comes as New Zealand reviews its deployment to the long-running war, including the possible early withdrawal of nearly 140 Kiwi troops from Bamyan province, an engagement which is taking a mounting toll on strained defence resources.
The Government recently rolled over the Bamyan Provincial Reconstruction Team’s deployment for another year from September but sources confirmed yesterday that an earlier withdrawal was on the cards as the deployment neared its seventh year.
The US is understood to have delivered its request to the Foreign Affairs and Trade Ministry. It would normally be considered unusual for an official request to be lodged before the US had informal indications of a positive response.
But Government sources said yesterday that no decision had been made and other factors had to be weighed up.
They are likely to include a firm timetable for withdrawal, both for the SAS and the Bamyan team, amid growing concerns about the ability of New Zealand’s already stretched defence forces to respond to flash points closer to home, including the Pacific.
Soundings are already being taken over the prospect of another country’s troops stepping into the gap left by the withdrawal of New Zealand’s Bamyan team.
The SAS first left for Afghanistan in 2001. The deployment was shrouded in secrecy after the then Labour government at first refused to confirm the move after a US request.
That deployment lasted 12 months and there were two subsequent deployments of six months each. As many as 65 of the crack soldiers were deployed each time, working alongside other special forces as part of the US-led joint special operations taskforce.
In 2004 the SAS received a US Presidential Citation for “extraordinary heroism” but it was not till 2007 that New Zealand honoured SAS trooper Willy Apiata with a Victoria Cross for heroism during a battle with Afghan insurgents.
The US is understood to have specifically requested the SAS in its recent approach.
WHO DARES WINS
The New Zealand Special Air Service was formed in 1955 and was originally modelled on the British Special Air Service Regiment.
It is the top combat unit of the NZ Defence Force.
Its numbers are a secret, but there are believed to be up to 160 members.
It is also involved in counter-terrorism.
The elite unit is highly rated internationally.