Defence Minister Peeni Henare in Parliament yesterday stoutly defended the government’s actions in Afghanistan — even though an estimated 375 people were left behind when evacuation flights were halted.
Critics contend that if Cabinet hadn’t taken the weekend off, many of those 375 might have been airlifted out.
Henare brushed aside questions about why the Immigration Department had turned down resettlement applications in July.
He did claim, however, there had been “an exceptionally fast response” on August 19 when he and a ministerial colleague approved the deployment of an NZDF C-130 Hercules aircraft and up to 80 NZDF personnel, some to operate on the ground at the Kabul airport and the remainder to be based out of an airbase in the United Arab Emirates (UAE).
During the deployment, the NZDF C-130 Hercules and crew made three evacuation flights to and from Kabul airport, succeeding in evacuating a number of civilians from Afghanistan, as part of the wider coalition effort.
Henare said he wanted specifically to commend the bravery, tenacity, and resilience of NZ ground forces who operated from the heart of Afghanistan at the Kabul airport throughout the deployment.
“The threat of terrorist attack was also a factor in the decision to conclude our activities out of Kabul airport when we did. Sadly, that threat materialised in the early hours of 27 August with the heinous act of terror perpetrated by the Islamic State in Khorasan Province that we witnessed outside the Kabul airport mere hours after the NZDF presence had withdrawn. We condemn this despicable attack on the innocent trying to flee to a better life.”
Henare said it was important to recognise the close cooperation and partnership with NZ’s closest defence partners throughout this deployment, including the US, Australia, the UK, and Canada.
“I must especially recognise the true comradeship and partnership between our NZDF deployment and the Australian Defence Force deployment. We have jointly provided airlift for each other’s evacuees, supported each other on the ground in Afghanistan and in the UAE, and we have benefitted hugely from this cooperation. This deployment has shown that the Anzac spirit is alive and well.”
Henare insisted NZ was was not the master of the time frame and the government had done
“… all that we could do to evacuate people within the time that we had. We knew this was a risk, given the short time frame of the international evacuation….
“We are not turning our backs on those still in Afghanistan; we will continue to see how we can support those seeking to leave Afghanistan. However, that will no longer be a military-led effort which the NZDF will feature so prominently in. It will also be within a much larger international effort that New Zealand will be a part of.”
Henare acknowledged the bravery and service of the Defence Force personnel who had conducted this deployment under incredibly difficult circumstances.
Opposition Leader Judith Collins said a humanitarian crisis of historic proportions was happening in Afghanistan, and it was concerning that the government seemed to have been caught so unprepared.
“It is a stain on our work in Afghanistan. The political situation in Afghanistan has moved quickly but it should have been no surprise that something like this would happen.
“The Prime Minister here indicated in February this year that NZ would withdraw our forces from Afghanistan. The people left behind may well be the drivers, the labourers, the interpreters, the cleaners, and the cooks—innocent people to whom we owe a debt.
“Some wrote directly to the Prime Minister in May this year, and it’s been reported that the Immigration Minister rejected many of the applications to come to NZ as recently as July.
“The lives of these people are now at risk but the government hasn’t explained why those pleas were rejected.
“Other countries have been evacuating these people for months and it seems we we’ve waited too late. So there are some questions that deserve an answer from the Minister. Why was the evacuation not completed weeks ago given the withdrawal of troops was signalled early this year?”
Hansard records the response and follow-up questions:
Henare: With the international community and partners, we worked with the best intelligence we had at the time decisions were made. We have responded to this unfolding humanitarian crisis as quickly as we could.
Collins: How many Afghan people who supported our Defence Force were unable to be evacuated?
Henare: The numbers that were evacuated from the airport in Kabul are currently still being processed. We’ll have a clearer indication of those final numbers in the coming days, I’m sure. With respect to those who we know worked with the Defence Force, we have continued to stay in touch with them. We know that, for some, even getting to the airport was particularly difficult and weren’t even in the vicinity of the airport. In fact, some had already reported to us that they were still in the Bamyan Province. The Prime Minister made it clear that our commitment is still to those people, and we’ll continue to do what we can as a country to support the efforts to evacuate more people out of Afghanistan alongside our multinational partners.
ACT leader David Seymour, too, thought there were questions for the government to answer:
When did it plan to evacuate NZ citizens and those who helped our Defence Force?
What is the pathway forward?
Will there be special exemptions so that those who do manage to escape Afghanistan can live lawfully in NZ?
Will there be a refugee exemption for those who helped the NZ Defence Force and to help restore our international reputation with them and others we may encounter in the future?
And does the Minister take any responsibility for any failings of the government in this regard or is it the fault of other Ministers, such as Immigration?
Henare: Resettlement was offered to interpreters as they were considered to be at the highest risk of Taliban retribution and reflected the service this group provided to the NZ government during that time.
The opportunity to resettle to NZ was also extended to the interpreter’s spouse and dependent children. Financial support was also provided to local staff….NZ agencies and those of our partners had seen an increase in inquiries from locally employed contractors seeking resettlement outside of Afghanistan in recent months.
Might I also note that there were also offers of financial support to allow some of those who were involved either directly or indirectly with the New Zealand Defence Force resettlement packages within Afghanistan, which I understand a number of them took.
Another part of the question made by the member was around the decision to start evacuating people. Commercial flights still operated right up until the time when the US troops decided to close down the airport to use only for the evacuation efforts of a multinational evacuation operation.
So any assertion from that member that we sort of turned the switch on only to make evacuations at that point in time are completely untrue. Evacuations and commercial flights continued up until the time the US troops secured the airport.
Seymour: I’d make one brief comment: the Minister has attempted to interpret my comments as denigrating the reputation of the NZ Defence Force.
I think it is fair to say that that reputation is legendary. Kiwi soldiers in a range of theatres have been recognised as more trusted and humane than from other countries on many occasions.
It is not my intention to in any way denigrate them. My point was that the abandonment and plight of those who helped the NZ Defence Force in this case won’t have helped that reputation. I ask the Minister: does he believe that the reputation of the Defence Force has been damaged by that abandonment, and, if so, what is his plan to fix it?
The National Party this afternoon released a press statement headed Labour rejects National’s request for Immigration Minister to front on Afghanistan situation
Labour’s decision to reject National’s motion for the Minister of Immigration to front the Education and Workforce Select Committee to answer questions about his and Immigration New Zealand’s role in how so many of our Afghan allies and their families who requested visas were left behind in Afghanistan is appalling, says National’s Immigration spokesperson Erica Stanford.