New Zealand's troops in Afghanistan will pull out five months early starting in April because withdrawing later would be "too dangerous" for the 150 remaining "Kiwis," said New Zealand Prime Minister John Key.
Pentagon officials on Tuesday said the formal withdrawal announcement by Key should not be seen as a sign the coalition in Afghanistan is unraveling. The officials stressed that the allies' strategy for putting the Afghan National Security Forces in control in 2014 was making steady progress.
Key confirmed earlier speculation that the New Zealanders would fly out of the relatively peaceful Bamiyan province in April, five months earlier than had been planned. April was the latest the Kiwis could leave by air, since the Bamiyan airport would be undergoing reconstruction.
Leaving later, and driving New Zealand forces to Kabul, was not an option, Key said Monday.
"We've been considering for some time the options really, whether April or September, but because of the runway being upgraded, we don't have the capacity to fly out after April and we need that because it's too dangerous to take our people on the road down to Kabul," Key told the Australian Broadcasting Corp.
At a Pentagon briefing, chief Pentagon spokesman George Little repeated what Defense Department officials have said about previous withdrawal announcements by coalition partners. Each ally "is going to make their own decision" on how their troops are used and when they will be withdrawn, Little said.
He did not comment directly on the dangers of driving from Bamiyan to Kabul.
"Yes, we are fighting a determined enemy" in the Taliban, Little said. "But if you look overall at what is happening in Afghanistan, the Afghan security forces are stepping up to the plate."
Ten New Zealand troops have been killed since the Kiwis entered Afghanistan in 2003, but five of those casualties came last month.
At the same time, U.S. troops suffered a spike in insider attacks by Afghans in army or police uniforms that forced the U.S. to freeze training and re-evaluate the Afghan National Security Forces' vetting process.
"Either the Afghan security forces are deeply infiltrated [by the Taliban] or the Afghan security forces have other reasons" for attacking U.S. troops, said Andrew Bacevich, a Boston university professor and military analyst.
"Whichever, the green-on-blue has to be seen as an indication of failure" for the coalition, said Bacevich, a West Point graduate and Army colonel in Vietnam.
"NATO is no longer engaged in serious counter-insurgency," Bacevich said. The attacks by supposed Afghan allies on U.S. troops "undermines the narrative of an orderly withdrawal."
About 40 New Zealand Special Air Services commandos were withdrawn from Afghanistan over the summer, and the departure of the remaining 150 troops from Bamiyan was the result of long-term planning, New Zealand Defense Minister Jonathan Coleman said.
"The time-table announced today reflects weeks of careful logistical planning, especially since news that the Bamiyan airport will not be available to (C130) Hercules flights after April 2013, due to a major upgrade of the runway," Coleman said.
The coalition has about 120,000 troops in Afghanistan, more than 80,000 of them American. France has already announced that the majority of its 3,500 troops would leave next year.
The decision by the New Zealanders to leave in April, rather than drive to Kabul was a wise one, said Jeffrey Dressler, a military analyst with the Institute for the Study of War.
The Kiwis don't have MRAPs (Mine Resistant, Ambush Protected vehicles), Dressler said, and "driving from Bamiyan would probably not be a smart move. The Afghans would know what was going on and the Taliban would get wind of it."
Dressler said that the withdrawal of the New Zealanders would have little effect on the progress of the war "but symbolically it's important. It's another coalition ally withdrawing earlier than they said they would. It can have a snowball effect that I think can be dangerous."
Australian Prime Minister Julia Gillary said she had discussed the withdrawal by New Zealand with Key at a forum of Asian leaders on the island of Rarotonga over the weekend, but Australia's 1,400 troops in Afghanistan would stay put.
"What transition means is we are increasingly handing security leadership over to local Afghan forces, and we will see that mission through," Gillard said, according to ABC News (Australia).