The Interview: New Zealand's Prime Minister John Key
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The Interview: New Zealand's Prime Minister John Key

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The Diplomat's Zachary Keck spoke with New Zealand's Prime Minister John Key concerning nuclear security, Afghanistan, relations with the United States and China as well as the Trans Pacific Partnership.

New Zealand is often seen as “punching above its weight”. One area where this is certainly true is on nuclear non-proliferation issues. What are some of the things your government has been doing as part of nuclear security summits, and do you anticipate a future for this forum after the initial four years are over in 2014?

New Zealanders are proud of this country’s long record of advocacy on nuclear disarmament, and our strong support for the vision of a nuclear-weapon-free world.  New Zealand views nuclear security as part of our broader and longstanding commitment to nuclear disarmament and non-proliferation. 

We contribute regularly to the International Atomic Energy Agency’s Nuclear Security Fund.  We are an active member of the Global Initiative to Combat Nuclear Terrorism and we funded a workshop by the World Institute for Nuclear Security on securing radioactive sources in South East Asia in early 2012.  Since 2004 we have provided over NZ$6 million towards G8 Global Partnership projects aimed particularly at securing nuclear materials in the former Soviet Union. 

The Nuclear Security Summit process has been useful to focus high-level international attention on this important issue and to build an international consensus on the steps needed to combat the threat posed by unsecured nuclear material.  It’s not yet clear what the future of the process will be but we hope that it will lead in time to a more coherent international nuclear security framework and a strengthened role for the International Atomic Energy Agency.

You have said that the most difficult decision in your tenure as Prime Minister was recommitting troops to Afghanistan. Then, in announcing an accelerated drawdown of troops stationed in Bamiyan Province last August, you noted the new date of withdrawal was needed to airlift the troops out of the area in light of the dangers of traveling to Kabul by road. With the U.S. and other NATO-led ISAF forces now also accelerating their drawdown, do you still believe the war has been worth fighting? Where do you see Afghanistan in say the next five to ten years?

International headlines on Afghanistan, which primarily focus on security incidents and fatalities, make it easy to forget what has been achieved since the international community became involved there following the events of 11 September 2001.  The truth is that Afghanistan has made tremendous progress over the past eleven years.  Most importantly, the country is no longer a haven for international terrorists. Al Qaeda, a substantial threat to international security in 2001 and the reason for our initial military involvement, has been significantly weakened and largely driven from Afghanistan.   Furthermore, with the assistance of the ISAF coalition, the Afghanistan National Security Forces are becoming increasingly capable of continuing the fight against the Taliban after the ISAF mission concludes next year.

Thanks in part to international efforts, Afghanistan also now has a functioning, albeit Afghan-style, representative democracy.  State institutions are in place, and there is a thriving civil society not seen in Afghanistan for a generation.  Despite ongoing challenges, millions of Afghans now enjoy human rights they were denied by the Taliban. In short, quality of life for ordinary Afghans has significantly improved. 

While New Zealand, which has been present in Bamyan Province for ten years, will be withdrawing our PRT in April, we leave a lasting legacy. In the Hazarajat region, which includes Bamyan, 84% of people in last year's Asia Foundation survey said that they rarely or never fear for their own or family's safety.  The PRT has also directly contributed to an increase in local capacity and quality of life.  New Zealand’s role was gratefully acknowledged by the leadership and people of Bamyan during my visit to the province in May 2010. 

These gains in Bamyan and across the country as a whole have not come without cost.  New Zealand has had ten fatalities since it began its involvement in Afghanistan; for many other ISAF nations, the toll is much higher.  Those sacrifices have not been in vain.  Yes, significant challenges remain.  But it is important to remember just how far Afghanistan has come since 2001, and what has been achieved.

Challenges remain, but we believe that with good leadership, transparency and accountability, the Afghan Government should be able to sustain the gains of the last ten years.  The international community, including New Zealand, will continue to do what it can to support these efforts, but ultimately Afghanistan’s fate rests with its people.    

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