Jacinda Ardern says New Zealand’s deployment in Afghanistan wasn’t a failure, as the country and its allies scramble to get its nationals back home.
As Afghanistan woke up to life under Taliban rule, the Prime Minister said the Defence Force’s “immediate” priority was to get Kiwis out through its capital Kabul. They will also be assisting Afghans who had worked with New Zealand forces , and their immediate families.
Ardern said the Government wasn’t yet sure how many people this would include, but estimates as of Tuesday were at about 200.
As to when the actual evacuations would occur, she said it was hard to say given how quickly the situation was changing.
“We are doing everything that we can,” Ardern said.
“We may carry the foreign nationals of other countries, and they may carry ours. The most important thing is that we get in as soon as we can and get people out.”
She said the evacuation of people from Afghanistan would be an international “joint effort”.
It comes as Australia’s Defence Minister Peter Dutton pledged it would help evacuate New Zealanders in Afghanistan, but only when it was safe.
On Tuesday, National leader Judith Collins accused the Government of “astounding apathy” towards Afghan translators who worked with the NZDF.
“Just last month Immigration Minister Kris Faafoi refused help to a group of 38 Afghans who worked for our Defence Force. These people are now being hunted by the Taliban for aiding Western troops and highly likely will face violence or death,” Collins said in a statement.
“The Government must act with urgency, now. It may already be too late, but the apathetic snail’s pace they have operated at thus far is unacceptable when the costs are so high.”
Responding to Collins’ comments, Ardern said New Zealand and its allies had all been caught off guard at the speed the Taliban had taken control.
“Everyone in the international community had an expectation that Afghanistan would hold longer than it has,” she said.
“When you have even [a] suggestion that those in Afghanistan have been surprised how quickly things have fallen, I think it would be surprising to suggest that New Zealand, somehow, would have known more than those in [the] country themselves.”
Ardern said her Government had extended the number of people eligible under the scheme, as Afghan interpreters continue pleading that their families also be allowed in to New Zealand .
She also said she didn’t immediately believe the Taliban’s claim that it was now more moderate .
“I don’t think anyone is taking anyone at their word.
“What will matter is the actions, particularly around human rights and, particularly from New Zealand’s perspective, we’ll be looking to see how women and girls under a Taliban regime will be treated.
“That’s been a particular focus for us in our presence and the time that we have been there.”
Ardern also didn’t think there was a need for an inquiry into New Zealand’s time, as a whole, in Afghanistan.
Another inquiry into Operation Burnham and the actions of NZSAS troops in Afghanistan was completed last year.
When asked whether New Zealand’s deployment in the Middle Eastern country was a failure, Ardern said: “It would be unfair, because of these more recent events, to then say that contribution from our defence force didn’t matter. It did. It made a difference for those people living in Afghanistan in their daily lives.”
She said New Zealand’s leaders from the past 20 years made the decisions they thought were best with the information they had on hand at the time.
Ten New Zealand troops lost their lives in Afghanistan. Over 20 years, more than 3500 New Zealand troops and officials were involved in the conflict, and it cost an estimated $300 million.
The New Zealand Provincial Reconstruction Team in the Bamiyan province undertook projects in areas like health, education, agriculture, governance, and human rights. However, following the team’s withdrawal in 2013, the relative stability in the region diminished.