Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern is being branded as "staggeringly cruel" by National leader Judith Collins over the pace of the Government's response to the Afghanistan crisis.
The Prime Minister responded by saying she would "really push back" on the Opposition leader's comments, insisting her Government is doing everything it can to help.
Ardern announced on Monday plans to send a C-130 Defence Force plane with about 40 troops to the region to bring back an estimated 53 Kiwis and 37 Afghan nationals who have assisted New Zealand, along with their families.
It 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, in desperate attempts to be evacuated.
The Taliban has 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 was considering revisiting 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 was preparing for her announcement.
Collins believes the Government could have acted much quicker. Canada announced last month it would resettle Afghans who worked with them, and the first group had already touched down on Monday.
"While our Five Eyes partners mobilised over the weekend, the Labour Government all but said, 'we will get to it on Monday.' The Taliban wasn't willing to wait for business hours," Collins said on Tuesday.
"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.
"For a Prime Minister who has built a brand of 'kindness', this is staggeringly cruel. Either Labour is unkind or tragically incompetent across foreign policy, defence, and immigration."
Ardern, responding to Collins' remarks on Tuesday, said the Government acted as fast as it could with the information it had.
"I'd really push back on that," she said of Collins' criticism.
"I would just simply point out that people we're bringing into New Zealand whose lives are at risk are individuals who weren't eligible in 2012 when the National Government first implemented the ability for some interpreters to come."
Ardern announced on Monday Cabinet agreed to an in-principle decision to 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.
Ardern said the reason the recent requests for assistance from Afghans was refused is because they did not meet the old criteria established by the former National Government.
"Over the last three to four weeks we've had contact from those who would not have fallen in the category set by the previous Government seeking assistance... The decisions by Cabinet have now overridden that completely."
Ardern said the situation in Afghanistan has deteriorated much quicker than expected - a sentiment shared by US President Joe Biden in his address to the nation.
"Everyone in the international community had an expectation that Afghanistan would hold longer than it has. This has happened very quickly. There are even reports in Afghanistan of people being surprised by how quickly it has fallen," Ardern said.
"The important thing is we are doing everything we can to get New Zealanders out, and to get those who are at risk who supported New Zealand out.
"Look around the world: every country is in exactly the same position as New Zealand right now, everyone is surprised by how quickly this has happened in Afghanistan, but everyone is working to respond as quickly as possible."