After cutting out of a Middle East trade mission to attend the funerals of three airmen last week, Prime Minister John Key has renewed his military connections by visiting New Zealand troops in Afghanistan.
Immediately after attending the Anzac Day commemoration at Gallipoli, and heading home, Mr Key returned to the Middle East late last week and then flew to Kabul on a trip that was kept under media wraps.
He met Afghan President Hamid Karzai and General Stanley McChrystal, International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) commander.
From Kabul, Mr Key was taken for a meeting with New Zealand Special Air Services members and on Sunday went to Bamiyan to meet troops in the Provincial Reconstruction Team.
Speaking to reporters outside the British Embassy in Kabul, where he stayed while in the capital, Mr Key said the intense security around him made him feel safe but; "in the end everybody's at risk," NZPA reports.
"This is a dangerous place and I am asking New Zealanders to come here and ... andput their own lives on the line. I am not prepared to send people to a destination I am not prepared to come myself."
The New Zealand delegation wore body armour and helmets while travelling in armoured vehicles accompanied by armed troops and Mr Key's vehicle moved in a motorcade.
Mr Key said another motivation was to come and make his own assessment of the work of the 70 plus SAS team due to leave in March and the 140 troops in Bamiyan whose rotation ends in September. He is considering extending both.
The trip was planned months ago but news of it was kept under embargo until after it was completed, as is common with VIP visits.
"The reason for that is just around my personal security and the security of the people that travel with me [such as] the chief of the defence force [Jerry Mateparae]. Even you as journalists would be at greater risk if people knew that I was here because we would be a juicy target. And on that basis that is the standard that's applied to any sort of dignitary that comes here."
Former prime minister Helen Clark visited under a shroud of secrecy and more recently US President Barack Obama did the same.
Mr Key said President Karzai was grateful for New Zealand's contribution to ISAF.
"He was very engaging and extremely appreciative of the efforts by New Zealand to rebuild Afghanistan."
President Karzai is increasingly unpopular and is organising a peace jirga to get tribal leaders together to muster support.
"From what we can see through his peace summit he's clearly trying to reach out and achieve a popular mandate for his leadership," Mr Key said.
"I think it's very important that the people of Afghanistan can believe in their government and to do that they have to be sure it's free of corruption and has their best interests at heart.
"In this environment leaders have to constantly demonstrate that they hold those principles dearly."
Keen to return
Mr Key said the world could not ignore the threat of Al Qaeda and letting Afghanistan fail would give them back a base to plan international terrorist acts and reinstall a Taleban regime.
"The enemy is al Qaeda really. The Taleban is a domestic focus, they may be a very torrid and horrid regime but in terms of the real enemy that's al Qaeda and it's al Qaeda's capability to plot the equivalent of 9/11 or the London bombings or the Bali bombings.
"The intelligence we have is the work that we are doing here in Afghanistan has stopped them from being allowed to use Afghanistan to plot that sort of global terrorist effort."
In radio interviews this morning from Dubai, Mr Key said while he was unable to join the trade mission – the most important ever to the Middle East – he was keen to return later this year.
New Zealand is set to sign a free trade agreement with the six-member Gulf Co-operation Council, but the largest country, Saudi Arabia, is understood to have outstanding issues that have yet to be resolved.
Nevil Gibson and NZPA
Tue, 04 May 2010