Acting US Ambassador to New Zealand Kevin Covert says Afghanistan situation 'not how we wanted this to end'

The acting United States Ambassador to New Zealand says the current situation in Afgahnistan is "not how we wanted this to end".

Twenty years on from the 9/11 attacks that led to the War on Terror, the central Asian nation invaded by US-led forces in 2001 is back under Taliban rule. The Islamic fundamentalist group was deposed in 2001 after it refused to hand over al-Qaeda leaders based in Afghanistan who plotted the attacks. 

As foreign forces withdrew earlier this year, having spent much of the last two decades training the Afghan army, the Taliban began its march back to power, taking provinical capitals and then the country's capital of Kabul. It forced a massive evacuation process of foreigners and Afghan nationals who had assisted other countries, fearful of reprisals.

Heart-breaking images emerged from Kabul's airport of people rushing to planes, some clinging on to the outside hoping to escape. A suicide bomb attack perpetrated there by ISIS-K killed more than 180. In the end, not everyone who wanted to get out could

The Taliban have since announced an interim government including key figures from before 2001. It includes Sirajuddin Haqqani, the head of the Haqqani network who is wanted by the FBI.

Speaking to The AM Show on Friday, Kevin Covert, the acting US Ambassador to New Zealand, said it was a horrible situation. 

"I have friends and colleagues who were in Kabul, as recently as two weeks ago, and it's heartbreaking. I'm not gonna lie to you. It's painful to watch," he said. "The human suffering. It's painful to watch the tragedy of Afghanistan. It's not how we wanted this to end."

But Covert said he's also inspired by how his colleagues have worked alongside military forces from around the world to get people out. 

"We carried out one of the most ambitious and complex air lifts in human history, and we were able to evacuate 124,000 people from Afghanistan in just over two weeks and get them to a place of safety, so I'm very proud that we were a part of that effort."

He told The AM Show that terrorism has affected the entire world, noting the attack in Christchurch in 2019 and, just last week, in west Auckland. 

"It's something that has hit home here in Aotearoa and it's something that has affected the United States in Afghanistan as recently as last month, when there was a terrorist bomb at the airport that killed dozens of Afghans and 13 USservicemembers.

"I think the lesson there is that we must stay together, that we must work together, we must remain vigilant, and that this is a global effort and it's going to take a global partnership."

He said the anniversary of 9/11 was one of remembrance, sorrow and solemnity.

Covert was serving in Cairo, Egypt at the time and remembers watching the first plane hit the North Tower at the World Trade Center in "shock and disbelief". 

"We were immediately sent home. We remained in shelter at home for three days during the events as a security precaution," he said. "I remember just watching in horror and shock as this terrible tragedy unfolded."

"But I also remember when we were able to return to our workplaces and return to our neighborhoods, how our neighbors, Egyptians, Palestinians, Arabs and Muslims, embraced us and welcomed us and expressed sorrow and compassion. That was a very powerful experience."

New Zealand heeded the call of the US in 2001 and followed it into the war in Afghanistan. Aotearoa also sent a plane to Kabul last month to assist with evacuation efforts. 

Covert told The AM Show that the US and New Zealand share a strong relationship.

"We are strong partners and we have a strong and enduring partnership. We are friends, and we always will be. We stand shoulder to shoulder," he said. "We share the same values, and I think when we talk about a War on Terror, what we're talking about is upholding and uplifting our common values, our open society, our democracy, our embrace of diversity and religious freedom. I mean that's what brings us together and we're very proud to stand with our Kiwi friends in that effort."