Kiwi soldiers' Afghan assistants and their families deserve asylum.

If ever refugees deserved to be welcomed to New Zealand it is the Afghans who have been acting as interpreters for our soldiers in their country. Support for their case has come from nearly all shades of opinion since their plight was publicised on Sunday. If the Government is prevaricating in public it is probably for the safety of the interpreters and our troops in the meantime. It would not be wise to let the Taleban know for certain the "collaborators" will be out of reach when the New Zealanders leave.

The public plea issued for the interpreters and their families was made by a 19-year-old former translator who now lives in the relative safety of Christchurch. The fact that he was given asylum for his service suggests the arrangement is routine. It is not clear why he believes his colleagues, who include his older brother, might be abandoned when the troops pull out.

If he believes he was allowed to come here only because the Provincial Reconstruction Team needed more Afghans to risk their lives, and that the last interpreters will be left to their fate when the soldiers have no further need of them, then he has not been in this country very long.

With the team in Bamiyan province expected home by the end of April barely six months remain for our military and immigration authorities to make arrangements for the safety not only of Afghan assistants who have been living at our army base but also of any and all family members who might be exposed to reprisals.


The Prime Minister says: "We want to make sure they are safe as best we can, but we need to assess the risks - whether the risks are real and genuine to them."

That is standard practice for all asylum-seekers, as is the policy of absolute secrecy around the circumstances of those accepted. Neither the nature of the threat to their lives nor details of their new lives in New Zealand are made known unless they choose to talk about them.

They almost never do, which suggests New Zealand's admission of relatives is fairly limited and loved ones remain vulnerable in the refugee's country of origin. A more liberal policy might need to be adopted for the families of those who contributed to our military effort in Afghanistan. Vengeance there is religious and tribal.

The plea for the interpreters is of course an admission of the failure of the military effort but does not discredit it. New Zealand has contributed to an attempt to repair a failed state that harboured an active training base of global terrorism. If the Taleban now regain control they know the world will not tolerate those activities again.

That is no comfort to those inside Afghanistan, particularly women, who know what the return of religious rule would mean for their rights and freedoms. Many Afghans besides those who actively assisted Western forces will be anxious to leave with them. A desperate, disorderly flight looms, reminiscent of the last days of Saigon, unless arrangements are quietly made for as many refugees as countries such as ours can absorb. We should certainly fill our quota in the coming year.

The 26 translators are obviously educated and speak adequate English, as will many more of the Bamiyan people who must have been receptive to the Western effort. But they have more than six months to make their plans, the interpreters and their families do not.

All those who need the personal protection of New Zealand's soldiers, who made it possible for them to do their job, should come home with them.

They have earned a future here.