New Zealand may be a nation of warriors when it comes to football codes. But such courage does not extend to elected politicians in Wellington, whether they be conservatives or social democrats.

Last week John Key, New Zealand’s National Party Prime Minister, revealed he had rejected a request from Kevin Rudd – made in about mid-May – to assist the Australian Defence Force contingent in Afghanistan. Australia has some 1500 personnel within Afghanistan as part of Operation Slipper. Rudd asked Key for between 20 and 50 troops to assist Australian operations in the Oruzgan province in southern Afghanistan.

Like Australia, New Zealand is a member of the NATO-led International Security Assistance Force in Afghanistan. It has about 225 personnel in the country – some at the command headquarters in Kabul and others in central Afghanistan where the threat from Taliban forces is relatively light.

Rudd wanted Key to send up to 50 troops to assist Australia in Oruzgan where it is training the Afghan National Army and engaging in reconstruction projects. Clearly Key does not want to risk New Zealand lives in Oruzgan province, where international forces are experiencing casualties. Rather than make the announcement with an address to Parliament or a considered written statement, he decided to announce his rejection of Australia’s request on Radio New Zealand in somewhat undiplomatic language.

Key told Radio New Zealand listeners: “I don’t think we need to be embroiled further in a war which will not be won if the local government there continues to be corrupt and not to win the hearts and minds of its people”.

This is a particularly unhelpful statement. Right now the US President, Barack Obama’s, surge strategy is about to be put into effect. It may or may not work. But it is worth a try. The New Zealand Prime Minister’s statement is not helpful to the US, which is leading the military effort.

It’s much the same with Australia. The Netherlands has announced that from next month it will begin withdrawing its forces, which have been working with the Australians in Oruzgan. The Defence Minister, John Faulkner, announced on June 23 that the Dutch would be replaced by a new multinational command structure. Faulkner also pointed out NATO and Australia hoped the new government in The Hague would consider a continuing commitment in Afghanistan.

If the new Netherlands government takes any notice of Key’s assessment, it is unlikely to recommit forces to Afghanistan. His comments are at best indiscreet. If New Zealand does not want to pull its weight in NATO and the Western Alliance, that’s New Zealand’s business. But Key does not need to rationalise his country’s isolationist tendency by criticising a commitment in which his country has played only a scant role.

Certainly there are concerns about corruption in the government in Kabul led by Hamid Karzai. But the Karzai government is the only viable administration that Afghanistan has right now. There are many instances where the Allies have supported flawed governments during times of conflict – most notably Joseph Stalin’s communist dictatorship in Moscow when the priority was to defeat Adolf Hitler and Nazism.

Whatever its faults, the Karzai government offers more hope for both Afghans and peace than an Islamist dictatorship run by the Taliban. Also, under Karzai, Afghanistan is unlikely to become a base for the export of Islamist terrorism of the kind that led to the murder of Australians and New Zealanders, among others, in such places as New York, Bali and London.

The Western Allies – especially the US, Britain, Canada, the Netherlands and Australia – have borne a heavy burden in Afghanistan on account of their willingness to engage the enemy in the field in southern Afghanistan. Now a conservative prime minister in New Zealand has rejected a modest request for military support by a social democratic leader in Australia.

Key’s line about winning hearts and minds will no doubt go down well among his fellow New Zealanders. Yet he knows that there will be no security in Afghanistan until the Afghan National Army is trained and deployed. This is one task that the ADF is currently undertaking which Key has declined to assist.

It was known that key figures in John Howard’s Coalition government believed that New Zealand under Helen Clark’s administration was not pulling its weight on national security. However, Howard and Clark, despite their different political orientation, had a good working relationship. Moreover, Clark was invariably professional and was careful not to be heard criticising Australia’s foreign and national security policies.

Now Key has not only rejected a request from Rudd but appears to have queried Australia’s Afghanistan policy. The New Zealand Prime Minister’s comments on Radio New Zealand were made just a week after Julia Gillard, in her inaugural media conference as Prime Minister, said that Australia relied on our troops, “to keep us safe”. She specifically praised Rudd for having had the “foresight to reinforce” Australia’s commitment in Afghanistan.

An Australian academic, Hugh White, a critic of Australia’s Afghanistan commitment, has praised Key’s “political courage” in this instance. Yet it takes no particular courage for a New Zealand political leader to appeal to that nation’s isolationist tendency and its considerable left-wing constituency. An act of real political courage by the National Party would be to increase its commitment in the dangerous areas of Afghanistan and to announce that New Zealand was rejoining the ANZUS Alliance, which it baled out of two decades ago.

The shemozzle that occurred when Clark and her fellow leftist Margaret Wilson effectively forced then New Zealand Labour prime minister David Lange to junk ANZUS over the issue of US naval visits is well documented in Michael Bassett’s Working with David: Inside the Lange Cabinet.

The US Navy still does not have untrammelled access to New Zealand ports. New Zealand does have a navy but no effective air force. It has a proficient army, which the Conservative Prime Minister does not want to deploy to assist an ally. Once were warriors, indeed.