Military email exchanges from the early days of Afghanistan’s fall show that talk of a New Zealand evacuation mission into Kabul went from “not feasible” to imminent within days – a sign of the volatile situation on the ground

As Kabul collapsed to the Taliban in mid-August, countries around the world struggled to keep up with the situation on the ground – New Zealand included.

While Immigration Minister Kris Faafoi had in July brushed aside the idea of extending assistance to Afghan interpreters who had helped the NZ Defence Force during our time in the country, by August 19 a RNZAF Hercules was en route to the Middle East to help evacuate locals and New Zealanders stranded in the country. 

But internal NZDF email exchanges obtained by Newsroom under the Official Information Act show that barely a week earlier, the idea of deploying into Afghanistan was described as “not feasible” – a sign of how military officers themselves were forced to change their thinking at pace.

Securing the necessary passports and visas were also described as a potential “showstopper” for any mission, while the military’s role in guarding MIQ facilities was cited as one factor to be considered before heading into the Middle East.

On August 12, an unnamed NZDF member outlined the options available for Afghanistan operations in an email to Rear Admiral Jim Gilmour, the commander of joint forces, and Air Commodore Shaun Sexton, the military’s air component commander.

The first option – a deployment “into theatre” (i.e. Afghanistan itself) – did not appear to be preferred, with the email saying it was “not feasible to prepare for a threat environment within the proposed timelines” and citing the risk associated with reduced aircraft back in New Zealand.

The second option – providing “backfill” into the wider region by replacing other personnel who were deploying into Afghanistan – was said to have the same risk of reduced aircraft affecting New Zealand operations, while disruption to work in Antarctica, and at MIQ facilities as part of Operation Protect, was also cited as a potential factor.

The third option – backfilling the Australian Defence Force in Australia to allow its soldiers and aircrew to backfill into the Middle East – was described as “more feasible and less risk” given the geographical closeness, although there were “Covid implications”.

An email sent the following day outlined the main issues which would need to be overcome to deploy to Afghanistan, including diplomatic clearances to stop in or fly over various countries en route.

Qualified crews and availability were also mentioned, along with Covid considerations, while securing the necessary passports and visas was mentioned as a potential “showstopper????”.

‘Prudent to prepare’

By August 16, Air Force officers were being told that “given trending events, it is prudent for Base Auckland to commence preparation for a [Hercules] C-130 deployment” to Al Minhad Air Base in the United Arab Emirates.

Later that day – after Chief of Defence Force Air Marshal Kevin Short met with Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern, who then announced the Afghanistan mission – preparations had moved to reviewing security requirements and considering how command and control would function.

As there was no time to conduct pre-deployment training, an NZDF official said via email that “a key risk reduction consideration” would be choosing personnel who were at an appropriate level of readiness.

The NZDF declined to release any intelligence reports produced by other nations, citing their classified status, but said there were no early intelligence indications of such a rapid decline in the situation within Afghanistan.

“The speed at which the Taliban swept across provincial capitals and seized Kabul was unforeseen by the international community.”

Responding to questions from Newsroom about the email correspondence, an NZDF spokeswoman said it “was just part of the usual process of internal discussions and planning a possible deployment” at a time when information on the potential mission and the conditions in Afghanistan was still coming in.

The comments about deploying into Afghanistan were not a formal conclusion from the NZDF, “and so there was no ‘decision’ or ‘change in decision’,” the spokeswoman said.

“As is evident, the mission assessment and planning later developed and we successfully conducted the mission (as has been widely reported).”

Speaking about the “showstopper” reference to passports and visas, the NZDF spokeswoman said that was simply about ensuring personnel had the right documents to enter other countries: “Not having the required documentation would be problematic.” 

Defence Minister Peeni Henare says the Government “worked with the best intelligence we had at the time decisions were made” regarding Afghanistan. File photo: Lynn Grieveson

National Party defence spokesman Chris Penk said it was “hugely frustrating” to see Operation Protect cited as a potential constraint for the NZDF as it weighed its options for Afghanistan.

“It is farcical that the New Zealand Government was employing highly trained service personnel as hotel managers and security at the very moment that real operational manpower was needed to save Kiwi lives overseas,” Penk said.

NZDF members had been “sounding the warning siren” for months about the opportunity cost of the military’s MIQ duties, given they were already “a bare bones operation at the best of times”.

“The fact that the evacuation operation took place at all is testament to the courage, comradeship and commitment of the men and women of the NZDF,” Penk said, while expressing concern that Defence Minister Peeni Henare had not pushed hard enough to avoid defence personnel being spread too thin.

Henare said the fall of Afghanistan to the Taliban “occurred far quicker than any intelligence predictions”. 

“New Zealand, along with the international community and partners, worked with the best intelligence we had at the time decisions were made.”

Henare said the Government had responded to the crisis as quickly as it could, adding: “The security situation became more secure following the influx of US and UK troops enabling many countries to conduct evacuation flights – but the situation was still volatile.”

Sam Sachdeva is Newsroom's national affairs editor, covering foreign affairs and trade, housing, and other issues of national significance.

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