Afghanistan: New Zealand Defence Force deployment en route to Middle East with twice the number of troops

The New Zealand Defence Force Afghanistan deployment, which has been given an exemption from the COVID-19 lockdown, is en route to the Middle East with twice the number of troops. 

Defence Minister Peeni Henare says due to the developing situation, up to 80 personnel are being deployed - double the number he said would be sent when the mission was announced on Monday.

"We will be working alongside partner militaries, such as our ally Australia, as we respond to this rapidly evolving humanitarian situation," Henare said in an update on Thursday.

"This means that we may see some individuals bound for New Zealand, returned on Australian/partner's assets, and vice versa, as partners look to cooperate wherever they can to safely expedite the evacuation."

Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern canvassed plans on Monday to send a C-130 Defence Force plane to the Middle East to bring back an estimated 53 Kiwis and 37 Afghan nationals who have assisted New Zealand, along with their families. 

The following day, Ardern plunged the country into lockdown after COVID-19 was discovered in the community. She confirmed the deployment would go ahead, with an exception for the troops written into law. 

"We have had an explicit conversation on this. All orders that are being drafted for the 11:59 alert level 4 will give an exclusion to the New Zealand Defence Force as it relates to the deployment of the C-130 into Afghanistan," Ardern said on Tuesday. 

"So we do not expect that to be affected by this alert level change."

Troops being sent to the Middle East will be vaccinated but may need to provide proof of a negative test result before their return. 

"Our New Zealand Defence Force, for the most part, are double vaccinated, particularly those where there may be a risk at any point of them being deployed for an emergency, so I expect those individuals being deployed will be vaccinated," Ardern said. 

"We know there are rates of COVID in places they are going. We'll think about the health considerations on their return, but we would have done that anyway."

Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern and Defence Minister Peeni Henare.
Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern and Defence Minister Peeni Henare. Photo credit: Getty Images

The mission is expected to take a month. The contingent will include aircrew and maintenance staff, a medical team, operational support staff, logistics personnel and force protection, among others.

"New Zealand has had a long-standing relationship with the people of Afghanistan, particularly in Bamyan Province," Henare said. "Because of this, we are joining our partners in assisting with the evacuation of those who are in the greatest danger."

Bamyan is where New Zealand had a base during the 20 years it had a military presence. The Defence Force lost 10 personnel during that time from a deployment of more than 3500, and $109 million in official development assistance to the people of Afghanistan.

Why is NZ getting involved?

The latest deployment came after the militant Taliban, which ruled Afghanistan from 1996 to 2001 and was accused of aiding Al-Qaeda, captured the capital Kabul, forcing thousands of Afghans to flee to the airport in harrowing scenes, desperate to be evacuated. 

The Taliban had been making significant advances in Afghanistan for weeks, after the United States under former President Donald Trump signed a deal with the insurgents, promising to withdraw after 20 years in exchange for security assurances. 

As the situation worsened, the Government indicated last week it would revisit a 2012 policy initiated by the previous National-Led Government, which oversaw 140 Afghans - interpreters employed by the Defence Force and their family members - relocated to New Zealand. 

But by the weekend, the Taliban had already taken most of the country, and the safety of Kiwis on the ground - as well as those who had helped New Zealand during its deployment - was looking precarious. By Monday morning, Kabul had been captured, and Ardern made her announcement. 

New Zealand will assist in evacuating Afghan nationals who worked directly with the Defence Force, New Zealand Police, or the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Trade (MFAT), or provided material assistance to the Operation Burnham inquiry

By comparison, the UK has announced it will take up to 20,000 people looking to exit Afghanistan as part of its resettlement scheme, with 5000 due to be accepted in the next 12 months.

Australia's first evacuation mission to Afghanistan rescued just 26 people, but Prime Minister Scott Morrison says he hopes it will ramp up, with a promise to resettle about 3000 Afghan nationals. 

The situation on the ground is murky. The Taliban has promised to be fair to women and no retribution against soldiers, but witnesses say armed Taliban members were preventing people from getting into the airport compound