New Zealand is racing to get its remaining citizens out of Afghanistan, and will deploy troops to assist with their evacuation after the Taliban swept to power overnight.
Prime minister Jacinda Ardern said on Monday that the country would also try to evacuate a number of Afghan nationals and their families who worked with the New Zealand deployments or in-country operations, many of whom are now in hiding and fear they will be targeted by the Taliban.
All commercial flights have been suspended from Kabul airport, which is currently the only way out of Afghanistan. The Taliban control all land crossings.
Ardern called on the new Taliban administration to allow people to leave the country freely. “The whole world is watching. The Taliban is making claims about the kind of administration they wish to be … we would implore them to allow people to leave,” she said.
“Demonstrate that you are going to be an administration that takes into account the wellbeing for instance of women and girls, the ability to be educated, all those things the international community have been calling on for some time, because the whole world will be watching.”
Ardern said the government was working with 53 New Zealanders to evacuate them from Afghanistan, and was also aware of 37 Afghans who may have worked alongside the New Zealand Defence Force (NZDF) that they would try to help evacuate along with their families. The country would deploy about 40 troops to assist with the evacuation. At this stage, those troops are expected to be in Afghanistan for up to a month.
Earlier this year, some Afghans who worked or volunteered for New Zealand forces in Afghanistan made public pleas to the government for resettlement, saying they faced death if they were identified by the Taliban. Previously, they were told they were not eligible.
Ardern said on Monday that the situation had changed, and New Zealand would try to assist with evacuating them. Chief of defence Kevin Short said the 37 already identified who worked with the NZDF plus their nuclear families came to a total cohort of about 200.
Ardern defended the government’s decision not to resettle those Afghan nationals earlier. “You will have seen from the reaction of the international community, there simply was not an expectation that we would see the security situation in Afghanistan deteriorate as quickly as it has … It has happened rapidly and so we have responded rapidly,” she said.
New Zealand has had a long term presence in Afghanistan, with 3,500 troops and personnel sent to the country over the past 20 years – one of the country’s longest deployments. Ten New Zealanders died while serving. In February, New Zealand announced it was ending its military presence there.
New Zealand’s presence in Afghanistan has not been without controversy. In 2017, the book Hit and Run, by two investigative journalists alleged that a number of civilians, including a three-year-old girl named Fatima, were killed in a botched raid called Operation Burnham. A subsequent government-commissioned inquiry disagreed with a number of the book’s allegations, but found that the Defence Force misled senior leaders and ministers about the incident, and confirmed it was “likely that a female child approximately 8-10 years old (whose identity remains unknown) did die as a result of the operation”. The inquiry could not determine if four other people killed were civilians or insurgents.
Ardern said that Afghans who had assisted with the Operation Burnham inquiry would also be included in the cohort New Zealand is now attempting to get out of the country.
On Sunday, New Zealand joined 60 other countries calling on the Taliban and other parties to allow people to leave the country: “Afghans and international citizens who wish to depart must be allowed to do so; roads, airports and border crossing must remain open, and calm must be maintained.”