National | Afghanistan

‘Lives are at risk’ Mahuta’s high stakes Afghan mission

Roughly 1000 kiwi lives are on the line as Foreign minister Nanaia Mahuta embarks on the highest stakes leg of her first international tour, to secure safe passage for nationals, visa holders and translators trapped in Afghanistan, as the security situation in the war-torn country worsens.

Mahuta touched down in Qatar Friday for talks with the country’s foreign minister, its government was amongst the first to establish diplomatic ties with the Taliban following the fall of the Afghan government and return to Taliban rule in August.

Despite no diplomatic mission with Qatar, the tiny nation was instrumental in securing safe passage as Kiwis and Australians battled to get to Kabul airport and onto Flights in the days and weeks that followed.

769 kiwis have got out of the country since August, under half of the roughly 1800 that were believed to be there. Mahuta says one of the big issues is the government has no idea of the well-being of the 1000 left behind nor if they’ve managed to make their own way out, be it through the airport, or neighbouring countries like Pakistan.

‘We have had around about 150 staff working tirelessly since the 16th of August to process applications and where possible gain a sense of where these people are. It’s much easier if they have been registered with safe travel but if not, the numbers kind of, we’re still working on firming up the numbers.’ Mahuta told Te Ao Māori news in the UAE on Friday.

Mahuta’s bid to recover kiwis comes amid increasing insecurity in the region. After a period of relative stability, terrorist group ISIS-K, notorious for the suicide bomb attack that killed at least 170 civilians and 13 U.S. soldiers outside Kabul airport during the chaotic withdrawal, has reportedly developed a presence in every major region of the country. The group is seen as highly unpredictable and anti-west.

Mahuta wouldn’t detail exactly what support she is seeking from Qatar, but the tiny nation is seen as amongst the most trusted diplomatic partner of the new regime. Qatar’s state media Al Jazeera was integrated and live-streamed Taliban militia storming the country’s presidential palace in the days after the American military abandoned their 20-year operation and the country’s president fled to the United Arab Emirates.

‘It’s difficult for me to discuss to a level of high detail the nature of the arrangements, because ultimately lives are at risk and we’re mindful of that. We’ve appointed a special representative who will be working with other special representatives in the region to ensure that the multiple pathways that we are establishing to enable safe passage of those permanent residents, visa holders and nationals who are eligible to return back to New Zealand can be facilitated to do so.’ She said.

The Taliban has a notoriously poor reputation for human rights and the rights of women, children and minorities with reports girls’ schools setup under the previous government having been shuttered under new Taliban rule, but super powers including Russia and China have signalled their willingness to work with the regime.

Having fought a 20 year war to eradicate the group Western leaders including U.S. President Joe Biden have faced criticism for saying it was 'possible' they could work with the group.

Mahuta stopped short of signalling any formal relationship with the Taliban going forward. Asked if New Zealand still sees the Taliban as a terrorist organisation, she responded ‘We continue to’.

Mahuta said establishing a formal diplomatic mission with Qatar was not a priority for her visit, but didn’t rule out closer ties with the oil-rich nation.

‘Obviously because they have helped us during the period of responding to the emergency evacuation to of Afghanistan we want to signal our thanks and appreciation for that and also gain a sense of understanding around the issues of supporting people to come back to New Zealand. It’s a very practical oriented visit.’

From Qatar, Minister Mahuta will visit Ontario for discussions with the Canadian foreign minister, from there she goes to Washington DC for arguably the highest profile discussions of her trip, meeting with U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinkin.

Mahuta didn’t rule out discussions over the country’s chaotic withdrawal from Afghanistan, but said strengthening trade ties and China’s incursion into the South China seas, would likely be on the cards.

‘What I can say is that in general what New Zealand wants to achieve in my visit is to reaffirm the close relationships that we hold… and we also want to be able to be able to signal the issues that have got priority to New Zealand outlining some of the opportunities and the challenges.’ She said.