New Zealand to withdraw troops from Afghanistan by April 2013

WELLINGTON, NEW ZEALAND (BNO NEWS) -- The government of New Zealand on Monday announced it plans to withdraw most of its troops from Afghanistan by the end of April 2013, at least five months earlier than expected but apparently unrelated to the recent deaths of five Kiwi soldiers.

New Zealand Foreign Affairs Minister Murray McCully and Defense Minister Jonathan Coleman said the country's Cabinet has agreed the New Zealand Provincial Reconstruction Team (PRT) will be withdrawn from Afghanistan after the expected transition of security responsibility to Afghan forces.

"Over its 10-year deployment, the New Zealand PRT has contributed to international counter-terrorism efforts, improved security, and the development and governance of Bamyan province. Our success is reflected in Bamyan's position as a leader in the transition process," Coleman said.

The ministers said the announcement follows months of planning and is part of an orderly and sequenced plan for transition by the NATO-led International Security Assistance Force (ISAF). But some media reports have indicated that the recent deaths of five Kiwi soldiers may have contributed to the decision.

"We should not underestimate the challenges Afghanistan will continue to face. We should also acknowledge the courage and sacrifice of those who have lost their lives while on active service in the province," Coleman said. "The timetable announced reflects weeks of careful logistical planning, especially since news that the Bamyan airport will not be available to Hercules flights after April 2013, due to a major upgrade of the runway."

According to the new timetable, the transition of security responsibility to local Bamyan forces is expected to be completed at the beginning of October. All but several of the New Zealand forces, which are currently more than 150, will then leave the country by the end of April 2013.

But McCully said the withdrawal does not mean the end of New Zealand's commitment to Afghanistan, noting that a small number of New Zealand Defense Force (NZDF) trainers will remain in Afghanistan to provide training at the Afghanistan National Army Officer Training Academy. New Zealand will also continue an on-going presence at ISAF headquarters in Kabul and make financial and development contributions to Afghanistan.

There are currently more than 129,000 ISAF troops in Afghanistan, including some 90,000 U.S. troops and more than 9,500 British soldiers. U.S. President Barack Obama previously ordered a drawdown of 23,000 U.S. troops by the end of this summer, and foreign combat troops are due to leave Afghanistan by the end of 2014.

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