29 Aug 2021

Government urged to lobby for safe passage of those wanting to flee Afghanistan

6:05 am on 29 August 2021

The government is being urged to push for the safe passage of anyone who is eligible to get out of Afghanistan but is stranded there, now the Taliban have taken control.

An RNZAF C130 landed in Kabul Afghanistan today and safely evacuated a number of New Zealanders and Australians.

The last evacuation flight organised by New Zealand left Kabul Hamid Karzai International Airport on Thursday, but New Zealanders in Afghanistan are now being told not to travel to the Kabul airport. Photo: Supplied / New Zealand Defence Force

On Thursday, New Zealand made its last evacuation flight out of Kabul following the bomb attack at the airport which killed scores of people.

It has been estimated there are likely to be hundreds of people who are New Zealand citizens or visa holders and their families still in Afghanistan and who are now facing reprisals from the Taliban for their connections with New Zealand.

People who have assisted foreign countries over the last 20 years are being targeted.

A senior lecturer at Massey University's Centre for Defence and Security Studies, Dr Anna Powles, said the government should, as much as possible, lobby, through the United Nations and other international organisations for safe passage for people wanting to leave.

''New Zealand has a moral obligation to continue its focus on what is happening in Afghanistan, beyond the news cycle, as we so often see, and we should be taking more refugees. We need to be having that conversation.

''New Zealand applying as much of its moral authority, as much of its soft power, to this situation is going to be incredibly important. Not necessarily that it will sway minds amongst the Taliban, but that it will keep the focus on the issues.''

Powles said what the Taliban government will be facing will be incredibly difficult.

''There is a triple threat. Decades of conflict, a severe drought, Covid and now an increase in security as a consequence of terrorist attacks.''

A senior lecturer at Massey University's Centre for Defence and Security Studies, Dr Anna Powles

The Taliban government in Afghanistan has multiple complex issues on its hands, Dr Anna Powles says. Photo: Supplied

She said there is a growing humanitarian crisis unfolding in Afghanistan.

''There is a growing number of internally displaced persons, the population is growing significantly, there's Covid, aid organisations lacking funds to do what they need to do.''

Powles said the World Food Programme alone said it needs $200 million today in order to be able to procure food.

''There are enormous challenges ahead and you have this novice, factionalised Taliban government, a banking sector which has largely been frozen, and the currency has dropped, so this is very much a sense of an unfolding, enormous disaster for Afghanistan.

''Obviously, New Zealand needs to play some part in protecting the Afghan people.''

ISIS-K, a breakaway group from ISIS, claimed responsibility for the bomb attack at Kabul airport.

Powles said it seems likely there will be more terrorist activity in the country.

''Many of these groups don't fit into a natural box in terms of who they belong to, so there is a great deal of blurred lines between many of these groups, but also some clear tensions between Taliban and ISIS-K, as well as within the Taliban itself.''

Fear of 'significant reprisals'

Waikato University international law professor Alexander Gillespie said there is not a lot of evidence that the Taliban has changed its ways since last being in control 20 years ago.

No caption

Professor Alexander Gillespie Photo: Alexander Gillespie

''Especially in terms of human rights and restraints on the population that are now captive and if past practices are what you can go on, you can expect significant reprisals on those who would be considered traitors.''

Gillespie said the mistake made by the West was that in assuming the Afghan government could hold out for longer than it did, which was a complete intelligence failure.

''Whether it was corruption or complicity or ferocity on part of the enemy, they got it all wrong and this meant they collapsed with such speed that no one could see what was happening.''

He said the focus now on refugees.

''The numbers of people that are internally displaced is in the hundreds of thousands.

''As the Taliban consolidates its grip as a sovereign power you can expect those people to surge and so what we saw with the Syrian conflict in 2014/15 we may see in Afghanistan in the coming year.''

He said some of the five countries bordering Afghanistan will try and prevent refugees flooding in.

''The appetite for more refugees is not great in any country right now.''

Gillespie said it is most likely refugees will go towards Iran because that would be the shortest route going towards Europe.

''The tolerance of the Iranian regime towards the refugees is unlikely to be positive right now.''

He said the relationship between Iran and the Taliban is tense.

''The willingness for Iran to go to turn to conflict if things go bad with the Taliban I think would be relatively high within the next couple of years.''

He said a big question facing governments, such as New Zealand, is whether they recognise the Taliban as the legitimate sovereign government of Afghanistan.

Until recently the Taliban was considered, by designation of the UN Security Council, to be a terrorist organisation.

''They lost that designation as part of the negotiation process at Doha. Those negotiations ultimately failed, but they are no longer considered a terrorist organisation.''

He said countries will need to decide what conditions they consider basic before deciding if the Taliban are legitimate and they can enter the international stage.

Gillespie said New Zealand needs to start thinking about expanding its quota of refugees from Afghanistan.

He argues New Zealand should because the last time this country was involved in a conflict and ended up on the losing side was in Vietnam.

''From the mid 70s there was a flow of refugees we used to call boat people. New Zealand put its hand up and said we will take more people because of our responsibility for being in this conflict and we took 1500 people at the end of the 1970s.

''I think based on that precedent we should do the same again and accept an additional 1500 people on top of our standard refugee quota.''

A crisis 18 years in the making

Robert Patman is Professor of Politics and Director of the International Studies at Otago University.

No caption

Professor Robert Patman Photo: Provided

He said the problems in Afghanistan did not come out of a clear blue sky, as it has been 18 years in the making.

''The United States and its allies haven't really been prevailing, with some exceptions, in Afghanistan since 2003 when Mr [George] Bush made his very fateful decision to invade Iraq and effectively the invasion of Iraq allowed the Taliban to regroup and re-emerge as a potent force by 2006. They were basically let off the hook when they were on the ropes.

''The stage was set for the current debacle.''

He thinks New Zealand's contribution to Afghanistan was significant and important.

''We weren't there simply to do the bidding of the United States. It wasn't 20 years wasted. We helped transform Afghanistan in many respects.''

He said there are historical problems in Afghanistan which cannot be quickly fixed, such as ethnic rivalry and corruption.

''While at least it went down the process of democratisation, I would say the last two governments have probably been fraudulently elected and clearly there were problems in commanding the loyalty of the Army.

''The Taliban, to some extent, battle hardened and highly motivated have capitalised on the situation, but

it's one thing to overthrow an elected but corrupt government, it is quite a thing to run a country that has been transformed in the intervening period.''

Patman said one of the lessons from the war on terrorism is that it cannot be fixed by a superpower, or a superpower with a coalition of the willing behind them.

"The Taliban do have international links, so them winning power in Afghanistan is not just a catastrophic situation for many Afghan citizens, it is also an international problem.''

He said the international community can be quite hard nosed and quite demanding of the Taliban about protection of its own citizens and should also demand it ends any connections it has had with international terrorism.

''Whether they will be responsive to that is another matter.''

He said the Taliban has its work cut out by simply running Afghanistan.

Get the RNZ app

for ad-free news and current affairs