WELLINGTON — New Zealand pledged Monday to withdraw from Afghanistan as quickly as possible after three of its troops were killed in a roadside bomb attack, but insisted it will not "cut and run" from the conflict.
Prime Minister John Key said three soldiers, two men and one woman, died instantly when an "enormous" blast destroyed their humvee Sunday morning as a New Zealand convoy was on patrol in Bamiyan province.
The attack was the deadliest experienced by New Zealand forces in Afghanistan and brings to 10 their total fatalities since deploying in Bamiyan in 2003, with five recorded this month alone.
Key described the deaths as a huge loss and revealed that New Zealand was now looking at withdrawing its 145-member provincial reconstruction team (PRT) in Bamiyan in early 2013, rather than late next year.
He said discussions about an early exit began before August 4, when two soldiers were killed and six wounded in a gunfight northwest of Do Abe, near the site of the latest attack.
"The timing of the withdrawal has not been affected by the loss of the five soldiers we have endured," he told reporters.
Key said he understood the recent deaths had stirred debate in New Zealand about the country's role in Afghanistan but the military could not manage an orderly transition to local authorities in Bamiyan if it left too early.
"In terms of the argument about should we cut and run and leave this afternoon, that is neither practical nor sensible, nor is it the right thing to do," he said.
He added: "There's probably no question we're coming home now on the fastest time path that is possible, but we can't move quicker than we are and do it in a professional way."
New Zealand's troops were originally due to leave Bamiyan in 2014 but the government announced in May that the date had been moved forward to late 2013.
At the time, Foreign Minister Murray McCully said the earlier withdrawal "reflects the outstanding work that New Zealand PRT personnel have done to prepare the province for transition to local control".
Key emphasised after the August 4 deaths that the attack would not hasten New Zealand's departure from Afghanistan.
He said Monday that the latest fatalities "underscore the gravity of the situations New Zealand's soldiers face daily in Afghanistan".
"The three brave soldiers paid the ultimate price for their selfless work, and my thoughts are with their families and friends as they mourn their loved ones," he added.
The New Zealand Defence Force said the three troops were in the last vehicle of a convoy that was hit by an an improvised explosive device at 9:20 am Sunday (0450 GMT). No other soldiers were injured in the attack.
Defence force chief Rhys Jones said the Taliban had claimed responsibility for the attack and were targeting Bamiyan as it was seen as a province where reconstruction efforts had made a positive impact on the local population.
The opposition Labour Party said the New Zealand deployment was no longer necessary, as Al-Qaeda not a threat any more and the conflict was becoming a civil war between the Taliban and President Hamid Karzai's regime.
"We have done our best over nine years but without a government that can win the support of its own people we cannot win the war there," Labour leader David Shearer said.
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