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New Zealand|Politics

Afghans who worked with NZ fear deadly reprisals as Taliban closes in

Kurt Bayer

NZ Herald reporter based in Christchurch

A group of 38 Afghan civilians who helped the New Zealand war effort in Afghanistan - including an interpreter, carpenters, electricians, mechanics, cleaners, and female kitchen worker – are fearing deadly reprisals as the Taliban resurfaces now the Kiwis, Americans, and other Nato allies have abandoned the country. Herald senior journalist Kurt Bayer reports on a civil war erupting on soil soaked in New Zealanders' blood.

A modern Afghan adage, often attributed to stony-faced Taliban fighters, goes, "You have the watches, we have the time."

For two decades, they have bided their time, fighting a patient guerrilla war that began after the 9/11 terror attack on New York's Twin Towers, which was plotted by Osama bin Laden's al Qaeda in Afghan caves.

But when the US suddenly pulled out of Afghanistan this month, in dramatic scenes reminiscent of their evacuation from Saigon in the final throes of the Vietnam War, with hundreds of vehicles and armaments left behind, just two months after New Zealand's final troops went home, the Taliban seized the moment they had long awaited.

Since May, when New Zealand ended its 20-year involvement in a far-off conflict that cost 10 Kiwi lives and $300 million, the Taliban has rampaged across the vast landlocked country.

According to the Afghanistan Analysts Network (AAN), an independent non-profit policy research organisation, the Taliban has already gained control of around half of Afghanistan's 400 districts - most of them since mid-June - and muscled into provincial capitals, port towns, remote rural zones, border checkpoints and highways.

"The advance of the Taliban in recent weeks is undeniable and significant," the AAN says.

Reports of atrocities and massacres are filtering back to the capital, Kabul, including masked gunmen killing more than 100 people in the Spin Boldak district of Kandahar two weeks ago.

The number of civilians killed and injured in the first six months of 2021 is back to the record highs of 2014 to 2018, according to the United Nations Assistance Mission in Afghanistan (Unama). The United Nations' refugee agency, UNHCR warns of a looming humanitarian crisis.

The Taliban continue to wage war in Afghanistan. Photo / Getty Images
The Taliban continue to wage war in Afghanistan. Photo / Getty Images

Even the relatively peaceful, mountainous, ancient province of Bamyan, renowned for its ancient Buddha statues, has been strategically-targeted.

And Bamyan was our patch.

Deployments of the New Zealand Provincial Reconstruction Team (NZ PRT) were based in Bamyan – and it was where eight lives were lost, including Lance Corporals Rory Patrick Malone and Pralli Durrer, both killed in the fierce Battle of Baghak, and a fortnight later on August 19, 2012, Corporal Luke Tamatea, 31, Lance Corporal Jacinda Baker, 26, and Private Richard Harris, 21, who all died when their Humvee hit a 20kg roadside improvised explosive device.

Now it faces being cut off as the Taliban looks to control the major roads, including the highway to Kabul.

Lance Corporal Rory Malone and Lance Corporal Pralli Durrer were killed serving in Afghanistan. Photo / NZDF
Lance Corporal Rory Malone and Lance Corporal Pralli Durrer were killed serving in Afghanistan. Photo / NZDF

Armed insurgents stormed into Kahmard district – less than 10km from where the Battle of Baghak took place in the Shikari Valley - on July 12, and the next day took over the Saighan district briefly before a counterattack by government forces drove them away.

Several thousand families are believed to have fled Bamyan in the first two weeks of July, including locals who worked with the NZ PRT team. They now fear for their lives.

A group of Afghan civilians who worked with NZDF forces in Bamyan Province during the war are calling for the government to protect them from the Taliban who are on the offensive. Photo / Supplied.
A group of Afghan civilians who worked with NZDF forces in Bamyan Province during the war are calling for the government to protect them from the Taliban who are on the offensive. Photo / Supplied.

Bamyan father-of-four Basir Ahmad worked as an interpreter for several NZ PRT rotations at Kiwi Base in the 2000s, going on several dangerous patrol missions.

In the past few weeks, Ahmad and several other civilians who worked for the Kiwis, including a female kitchen worker, have abandoned their homes. They've fled into remote mountain areas, crossed borders into other districts, or sought safety in Kabul.

Speaking to the Weekend Herald this week from a secret location, Ahmad said they were surrounded by militant extremists who were "very close".

"If they find me, where I am speaking right now, they will kill me," said Ahmad who was rejected by New Zealand immigration authorities last year.

Basir Ahmad, a former interpreter for the NZ PRT, has fled his village and says he's surrounded by Taliban, fearing for his life. Photo / Supplied.
Basir Ahmad, a former interpreter for the NZ PRT, has fled his village and says he's surrounded by Taliban, fearing for his life. Photo / Supplied.

"We have been identified and targeted but fortunately we have survived. It is a really bad situation.

"If the Taliban comes to our area, they will slaughter all people who worked for New Zealand PRT. They are very committed to kill those people who worked with foreign troops."

Nowroz Ali, who volunteered to help at the front gate of Kiwi Base in 2010, has also managed to escape.

"There was no one left in Bamyan centre and it was about to fall ... so I escaped the village," said Ali, speaking from Kabul.

"I managed to get out but it is shocking. On the highway from Bamyan [to Kabul], for 5-10km, you could see Taliban everywhere. If they stop you, search you, they put your finger on a biometric machine – they have that now - and they will find everything on you. And what will happen to you and your family? Your head will be cut off."

New Zealand and US soldiers remember Nowroz Ali as a friendly face. Photo / Supplied
New Zealand and US soldiers remember Nowroz Ali as a friendly face. Photo / Supplied

Thomas Ruttig, AAN senior analyst, says that although most of Bamyan is currently under government control, there are regular attacks in the Shibar Pass at the provincial border of Parwan and Bamyan on the Kabul-Bamyan Road.

The Institute of War and Peace Studies (IWPS), a non-profit think tank based in Kabul, says Bamyan's neighbouring Daikundi province has witnessed a fierce Taliban onslaught, where massacres are alleged to have occurred. It's alleged that children were killed in boiling water, the men of the area murdered, and the women taken hostage.

And in Bamyan itself, there has been evidence of Taliban insurgents invading houses and demanding lists of widows and women, according to IWPS founder Enayat Najafizada.

"This shows that the Taliban have not changed – they are the same Taliban as back in the 1990s," Najafizada told the Weekend Herald.

"They are very similar to Isis. The same crimes they committed in Iraq and Syria are happening here. Isis and the Taliban are the same group but with different flags.

"God forbid if they take control of the whole country. The return of a Taliban Islamic emirate is a lose-lose for everyone; for Afghans, regional countries, Russia, Iran, India, Turkey and the whole world. Because if the Taliban win militarily, without coming back to the negotiation table and finding a peaceful solution to the Afghan conflict, then ... these Islamic radicals will be emboldened. They will look at the Taliban and think they can win too."

New Zealand spent 20 years in Afghanistan before pulling out in May this year. Photo / File
New Zealand spent 20 years in Afghanistan before pulling out in May this year. Photo / File

The US this week pledged to continue with airstrikes supporting Afghan government forces facing Taliban attacks.

"The Government of Afghanistan faces a stern test in the days ahead ... The Taliban are attempting to create a sense of inevitability about their campaign," US Marine General Kenneth "Frank" McKenzie says.

Afghan government and Taliban negotiators have met in Qatar's capital, Doha, in recent weeks but there appear to be few signs of meaningful process since peace talks began last September.

Defence Minister Peeni Henare is watching developments in Afghanistan, including Bamyan, with concern and is considering further aid contributions.

"We expect these will be channelled through multilateral organisations with a focus on initiatives to protect the most vulnerable, particularly women and girls," Henare told the Weekend Herald.

"We call for an end to the ongoing violence, respect for human rights in Afghanistan and progress in the intra-Afghan peace negotiations. New Zealand has a long-standing relationship with Afghanistan and will continue to support this Afghan-led peace process and the people of Afghanistan going forward."

But as the Taliban close in, those who worked for the New Zealand war effort feel forgotten and left to die.

The US has vowed to evacuate thousands of civilians who helped its military efforts, with President Joe Biden saying they "are not going to be left behind".

Britain is accelerating its relocation process for around 3000 Afghan workers and their families, to join the 1400 who had already been settled in the UK, with Defence Secretary Ben Wallace saying it was "only right" to speed up the process and avoid the "risk of reprisals".

Australia has granted special visas to about 1500 Afghans since 2013 and another 100 are nervously awaiting tickets out.

On the eve of New Zealand's planned withdrawal in May, a group of 20 Afghans who worked directly with the New Zealand Defence Force in Bamyan, calling themselves the "forgotten New Zealand military allies ... left behind for almost a decade", jointly wrote to Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern, pleading for help.

"The local communities see us as traitors of the country and Mujahidin/Taliban has always announced bonus [sic] for finding us and killing us brutally," says the letter, hand-signed with each man's name, former role with NZDF, and a blue ink fingerprint.

"When they catch us, they never see if we have worked as a gate assistant, carpenter, cleaner, driver, electrician, mechanic, caretaker or as a kitchen hand, but they kill us brutally without asking [these] kind of questions."

Nowroz Ali says the New Zealand government should be accountable for his safety. Photo / Supplied
Nowroz Ali says the New Zealand government should be accountable for his safety. Photo / Supplied

Since then, their fears have only amplified, and they have had to go into deep hiding, or escape to other regions.

When Nowroz Ali volunteered at Kiwi Base in 2010, during the hottest period for the New Zealand soldiers, his whole village knew about it.

The insurgency photographed him at his post and threatened him, calling him an apostate whose head must be cut off and his body thrown to the dogs.

A sinister "night letter", written in Pashto, was posted on his front door, detailing how he needed to be murdered for his work with the infidels.

"The letter was unsigned but had the seal of the Taliban," Ali says, who now wishes he never worked for the New Zealanders.

"I would not have risked myself and my family. We are totally at risk," he says.

"It's impossible for us to live here in Afghanistan anymore. Everyone knows us, knows that we worked for the PRT. And if the Taliban comes, the spies will say we worked with the foreigners and they will kill us.

"The US is taking thousands of interpreters, locals, everyone, because of security. But why is New Zealand not taking care of us?"

Ali has been rejected for residency in New Zealand.

His latest attempt to escape, pleading as part of the 20-strong group who wrote to Ardern, again appears to have failed, snuffed out in a July 5 response from Immigration Minister Kris Faafoi.

The Bamyan Province where eight New Zealanders were killed is under threat again from the Taliban. Photo / File
The Bamyan Province where eight New Zealanders were killed is under threat again from the Taliban. Photo / File

"New Zealand has recognised the critical role that many Afghan citizens played during the international deployment in Afghanistan," says Faafoi in a one-page letter, obtained by the Weekend Herald.

In 2012-13, the New Zealand Government offered a resettlement option for Afghan interpreters who worked in Bamyan, resulting into 44 former employees and 96 immediate family members being resettled in New Zealand.

"New Zealand is not seeking to extend that assistance package," Faafoi told the desperate group.

Faafoi yesterday (Friday) told the Weekend Herald that there are "no plans, at this time" to repatriate any existing Afghan nationals, but added: "Immigration, along with other agencies, is monitoring the situation."

Major (Retired) Craig Wilson, who was the senior officer during the Battle of Baghak, New Zealand's biggest combat battle since Vietnam, is saddened by the Taliban's resurgence, especially in his old district of Kahmard.

The heavy impact on women, especially the vastly-reduced freedoms and lack of education for girls, is especially upsetting for Wilson, who blames poor governance for the relative lack of opposition to Taliban moves.

"Kahmard was always part of [neighbouring] Baghlan and unfortunately Baghlan Province has become heavily-aligned with the Taliban," says the ex-NZSAS troop commander.

"And when [locals] aren't receiving the benefits of any sort of good governance, when a new crowd comes in, there's no will from the people to fight them. Without that, it's very difficult to go in to fight."

Major (Retired) Craig Wilson is saddened that the district he worked in during Operation Crib 20 in 2012, during which five New Zealanders were killed, has fallen to the Taliban. Photo / Supplied
Major (Retired) Craig Wilson is saddened that the district he worked in during Operation Crib 20 in 2012, during which five New Zealanders were killed, has fallen to the Taliban. Photo / Supplied

However, Wilson who left the Army in 2018 after a decorated 20-year career, is angered that those interpreters and others who signed up to work alongside the Kiwis in Afghanistan are being left behind by the New Zealand Government and are vulnerable to deadly reprisals.

He believes New Zealand has a moral responsibility for their safety, even after we've gone.

"These people have been seen and worked with our own troops and that should count for something," says Wilson.

"To me, that's the ultimate in hands-off, overly-bureaucratic behaviour, which really frustrates me as someone who served and could vouch for these guys. They are partners of our country in some shape or form, and I believe they should get better treatment than they do.

"It wouldn't hurt our country either, it would actually benefit us to have them here because they're bloody good people."

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Former Defence Minister Gerry Brownlee said it's "tragic to see what is unfolding" in Afghanistan.

"With the loss of life of New Zealand soldiers in Afghanistan, it certainly makes it a very big sacrifice that has been made. Now of course the question is, what was it all for?" Brownlee said.

"We don't want countries around the world harbouring terrorists who would come and perpetrate evil acts against countries like ours. It's pretty simple. But was it worth it? That can only be answered in time."

Asked whether New Zealand should be doing more to protect the safety of Afghan civilians who previously worked with the NZ PRT, Brownlee said the line has to be drawn somewhere.

"We were there to help that country, they assisted us in giving them that help. I don't think that creates an obligation on us," he says.

"While that may seem a little harsh, there is a question about how far do you go. They were always opposed to the Taliban; they didn't just become opposed to the Taliban organisation simply because New Zealand was there."

NZDF's contribution to Afghanistan

• More than 3500 NZDF personnel deployed, mainly based in Bamyan

• New Zealand deployed the SAS in 2001 and Willie Apiata later won the Victoria Cross

• Four separate NZ SAS deployments

• NZDF spent around $300m

• Ten soldiers died in Afghanistan: Lieutenant Tim O'Donnell; Private Kirifi Mila, Corporal Douglas Hughes, Lance Corporal Pralli Durrer, Lance Corporal Rory Malone, Corporal Luke Tamatea, Lance Corporal Jacinda Baker and Private Richard Harris all died in Bamyan Province. Corporal Douglas Grant and Lance Corporal Leon Smith from NZSAS died in Kabul.