16 Aug 2021

Afghanistan deployment by Wednesday earliest - Defence Minister

From Checkpoint, 5:09 pm on 16 August 2021

Defence Force personnel could be deployed as nearly as Wednesday to help New Zealanders and their families evacuate from Afghanistan, as well as at-risk Afghan nationals who have helped state agencies.

The country has fallen quickly under Taliban control since the US' evacuation of the Bagram airbase at the beginning of July.

An RNZAF C-130 Hercules aircraft with 40 NZDF personnel is scheduled to be deployed. But it has not been confirmed yet whether it will land in Afghanistan.

"We can deploy as early as Wednesday morning," Defence Minister Peeni Henare told Checkpoint.

"There are a number of logistics we're working through with our Australian counterparts. But that is what I've been advised as the earliest time we could deploy."

Henare said the 40 NZDF personnel to be deployed include engineers, medical people, "as well as what the Chief of Defence Force described as 'security'."

He could not disclose if personnel would be fully armed and authorised to act in their own defence.

The criteria for Afghan nationals seeking asylum in New Zealand has been expanded to include people who helped the NZDF, Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Trade, police, or gave assistance to the Operation Burnham inquiry.

"This is a multinational operation," Henare said. "We've already spoken to our counterparts in Australia and they are aware of who our people are, and will look towards assisting us.

"Our job is simply to show that we are here and able to respond. We know that there are many aircraft that are headed into the area to support with the evacuation, but we've got to be smart about this too. There's no point sending our plane into Afghanistan if when it's just not needed there, and it might be needed outside or on the fringe.

"All of those details to be worked through with our Australian counterparts in the first instance, in the coming hours.

"It might mean at some point in time we might have to go in, we might have to transport people, either from Afghanistan or in surrounding areas. Right now, we're quite clear that we're heading up there to play our role, and it might mean that our partners carry our New Zealand citizens and Afghan nationals.

"But what it might also mean is that our plane is used to carry other nationals from other countries as well. It's just part of a broader multinational effort."

Henare said for security reasons he could not say exactly where NZDF personnel might go, but he said there will be more detail in the coming days.

But he could not rule out that New Zealand may have "boots on the ground" in Afghanistan.

"This is an emergency evacuation process… My understanding is that a lot of the process work for these people, is done in a third country."

Henare said the details of those Afghan nationals seeking asylum in New Zealand would be verified by MFAT and Immigration NZ.