Taliban blocking Afghan evacuations 'worrying development', New Zealand troops 'up against it' with US deadline - commander

The commander in charge of New Zealand's Defence Force operations has described the Taliban's refusal to allow Afghan nationals access to Kabul's airport as a "worrying development" as he says our troops are "up against it" ahead of a looming deadline.

Kabul's airport remains a chaotic site as nations attempt to extract their citizens from Afghanistan, which fell the Islamic fundamentalist Taliban earlier this month. Forces on the ground are also trying to evacuate Afghan interpreters and others who worked with their countries' troops and may now be the target of Taliban reprisals. 

New Zealand sent 80 personnel and a C-130 Hercules aircraft to assist efforts with partner nations to get Kiwis home and re-locate those who assisted our country during our troops' deployment in Afghanistan since 2001. The first group of New Zealand citizens returned on Monday afternoon while our Hercules made its first airlift of evacuees from Kabul on Tuesday.

But on Tuesday, Taliban spokesperson Zabiullah Mujahid said the road to the extraction site was now only accessible to foreigners and that Afghan nationals must stay and keep their expertise in their home country.

Speaking to The AM Show on Wednesday, Rear Admiral Jim Gilmour, the Commander Joint Forces New Zealand, said he would "concede that is a worrying development if it is true". 

"We would be seeking to facilitate the requirements of our Government by having those people present themselves safely at the gates of the airport so our people can verify their credentials and move them further on," he said.

"Outside of the gates, we have almost no control over what the Taliban does in regards to access. So, yes, that is a worrying development."

While the Taliban now has hold of Afghanistan after capturing most of its provincial capitals in rapid succession, the United States has control of the international airport. 

However, the US wants its troops out by August 31, a deadline that has caused immense frustration among ally nations relying on US assistance. At a G7 meeting overnight, the United Kingdom and others put pressure on President Joe Biden to extend the timeframe and allow more people to be safely evacuated.

That was to little success, with Biden on Wednesday morning repeating that he wanted his forces out by August 31, citing the ongoing risk to troops in Kabul of "an attack by a terrorist group". 

Speaking on Tuesday, Biden's Press Secretary Jen Psaki said the completion of the mission by August 31 was dependant on "continued coordination with the Taliban", including continued access "for evacuees to the airport". It's unclear if the Taliban's decision to block Afghans leaving the country will affect that. Psaki said Biden had asked for contingency plans to be drawn up in case the timeline needed to be adjusted. 

But the Taliban spokesperson on Tuesday said it would not allow evacuation flights past August 31 while one militant said "we will fight to our last breath" if the foreign troops do not leave by the deadline. 

It's putting pressure on New Zealand. 

"As far as we are tracking, [August 31] is going to be the last moment that any Coalition or partner nation forces or troops will be allowed to be on the ground in Kabul," Gilmour told The AM Show.

"So, practically, we are working back from that. If the extract of forces needs to happen a couple days before that, then we are really up against it now with a matter of days in which we can move people so we are flat out trying to get as many people out of Kabul as we can in that time."

Joe Biden has come under pressure to extend the deadline.
Joe Biden has come under pressure to extend the deadline. Photo credit: Getty Images.

Prior to New Zealand deploying personnel, the Government said it would try to evacuate the more than 37 Afghans who helped our country's operations in Afghanistan.

Basir Ahmad, an interpreter who helped our military for four years and now represents about 35 translators who previously assisted the New Zealand provincial reconstruction team in Bamyan and other areas, told The AM Show on Tuesday that he was worried about missing out on a flight.

He said he had been in communication with the Government and his group had been promised seats on a flight that left Kabul on Monday. 

"First we were told it will happen very soon. Unfortunately some other people, they were able to convince the Government and they have been evacuated," Ahmad said.

"As I understand, we were told that they will evacuate us with New Zealand citizens, but it doesn't seem to be the case anymore. I know some people, that they are the family of Afghans who are in New Zealand - they have been evacuated. But we are left behind. Every day, our group members - I represent these people - in Bamyan, they said the Taliban are searching their [homes]."

Responding to that on Wednesday, Gilmour said he couldn't provide details about individuals.

"This has been multi-agency approach, so the criteria which gets applied to those who attempt to get into Kabul assisted by our personnel is something that is determined outside of the Defence Force," he said.

"Our people are then provided with information so they can contact those who are outside of the gates and provide them advice and facilitate them inside the airport."

He urged them to continue to try and make contact. 

On Monday, Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern said she couldn't promise everyone would be evacuated.

"The window to evacuate people out of Afghanistan is, unfortunately, very limited, and despite our ongoing efforts we cannot guarantee we can assist all those who are seeking to evacuate," she said.

"We are monitoring the situation and continue to work urgently with our international partners for the safe return of New Zealanders and those who have supported New Zealand."

The refusal by the US to commit to an extension to evacuation efforts has angered those in the UK. One senior MP told The Guardian that US-UK relations were about to enter their lowest point in many decades, while a minister said Biden's America had decided to just back off when it needed to step up.