CHRISTCHURCH, New Zealand » U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton said Friday that she hopes New Zealand will extend the mission of its special forces soldiers in Afghanistan. She also said she wants to leverage enhanced U.S.-New Zealand ties to promote human rights, democracy and environmental issues across the Asia-Pacific.
Visiting the South Island city of Christchurch, Clinton praised the work of New Zealand’s 40 Special Air Service elite combat troops in Afghanistan and said she would like them to stay beyond the end of their current tour of duty early next year. But, she said the decision would be up to the government.
“They are very highly regarded,” she told TV New Zealand in an interview. “They work extremely professionally.”
“We have a high regard for New Zealand and the troops that you deploy there, of course we would like them to stay as long as you have them stay,” Clinton said.
She said she had discussed New Zealand’s military presence in Afghanistan, both the special forces and a 140-strong provincial reconstruction team of troops in Bamiyan, in talks with Prime Minister John Key in the capital of Wellington on Thursday. She would not say if she had asked him to keep the troops in Afghanistan.
“It’s a decision of the government and people of New Zealand but I certainly praised their performance and expressed to the prime minister how grateful both our military and civilian officials are at the work that is being done by the troops from New Zealand,” Clinton said.
The troops in Bamiyan had been expected to end their seven-year deployment in September. But Key said earlier this year that the posting will continue for another year with a drawdown starting as civilian specialists are introduced. The Special Air Service troops in Afghanistan are due to wind up their tour of duty in March 2011.
Clinton’s comments came a day after she signed a document that aims to fully repair U.S.-New Zealand relations that have been bedeviled for the past 25 years by a nuclear dispute. The so-called “Wellington Declaration” intends to boost cooperation between the two countries and envisions the full restoration of ties, including military exchanges.
It sets the stage for deeper, more regular dialogue on challenges ranging from regional security to clean energy, disaster response and development.
In addition to lavishing praise on New Zealand’s contributions in Afghanistan, Clinton on Friday lauded the country for its role in the Asia-Pacific, particularly its work in helping to ensure the rights of indigenous populations are respected, particularly on South Pacific islands.
She said she hoped that a new era of U.S.-New Zealand cooperation would take advantage of New Zealand’s “credibility” in dealing with rights issues by marrying it with the reach of the United States.
Clinton also congratulated U.S. and New Zealand scientists for work they are doing in Antarctica to investigate climate change and praised speedy local efforts in Christchurch to rebuild after a magnitude 7 earthquake that hit the in September.
“It’s hard to imagine for someone like me coming in now that a quake of the magnitude of 7.1 could have hit just two months ago,” she told a town hall meeting of several hundred students, professors and civic leaders after driving through town from the airport.
The Sept. 4 quake damaged some 100,000 Christchurch area homes, ripped a 19-mile (30-kilometer) open gash in nearby farmland but did not kill anyone. Since then there have been about 3,000 aftershocks — some inflicting fresh impact on damaged buildings and a few causing people to flee outdoors in panic.
Officials have estimated that 50,000 homes in the city need major repairs from the original quake, with some 1,200 houses to be demolished and rebuilt. They estimate that the full bill for quake damage could reach $2.9 billion.