Exclusive: Taliban leader vows safe exit of New Zealand nationals and ex-Afghan interpreters from Kabul

A senior Taliban leader has vowed the safe exit from Kabul of any New Zealand nationals, as well as any interpreters who worked with Kiwi soldiers, while the Islamist group seeks strong ties with the New Zealand government as it rebuilds war-torn Afghanistan.

The Taliban, who stormed into capital Kabul on Sunday and took full control of the country, says it’s willing to put two decades of war with New Zealand behind it as it seeks a harmonious relationship with Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern’s government.

In an exclusive interview with the Herald, Suhail Shaheen, a member of the Taliban’s negotiations team based in Doha, said although it’s battled with Kiwi troops for years – with 10 New Zealanders dying during the 20-year war – they hope it can be put behind them.

“For us, for Afghan people, it was a very horrendous and also hard period of occupation, suffering and bloodshed,” he said.

“But now that this chapter is going to be closed, we want cooperation. We do not want to continue any kind of hostility with any country. We want to turn that hostility to good relations with New Zealand and other countries.

“Past history, that cannot be changed, but the future we can change and make it a good relationship.”

Shaheen also gave assurances that any New Zealander trying to leave the country will be given safe passage by the Taliban, who control checkpoints in the city and leading into the airport where there have been desperate scenes and reported deaths this week.

“Our people need your country’s assistance in the reconstruction of the country,” said Shaheen, speaking from Doha where he is also the group’s political office spokesman for international media.

“Your nationals who are in Afghanistan, their security is maintained – that is our commitment.”

He further guaranteed the safety of any interpreters and other Afghan civilians who formerly worked with New Zealand Defence Force (NZDF) troops.

“They are Afghans and they are no more working with any occupation force so they are needed. We need their capacity, their talents, for rebuilding our country.”

But if they want to leave the country, they will be allowed to do so, Shaheen said.

If their paperwork is in order, then he said they would be able to travel safely inside Kabul airport.

“It is up to them,” he said.

“We would like them to stay in Afghanistan because if everyone leaves the country, who will build the country?

“But still, if they choose to leave and have the proper documents like passports, visas issued by your country or embassy, then we have no problem with that. That is their right.”

The Taliban welcomed yesterday’s announcement that the New Zealand government is giving $3 million in humanitarian assistance to the International Committee of the Red Cross and the United Nations (UN) Refugee Agency in Afghanistan.

Foreign Minister Nanaia Mahuta said the aid will help provide life-saving humanitarian support.

“We also call on those in positions of power to ensure the rights and freedoms of women and girls are protected as this humanitarian crisis deteriorates,” Mahuta said in making yesterday’s announcement.

Shaheen saw it as a positive step while the Taliban seeks to forman “inclusive” government which will include women.

“The main thing is that the people of Afghanistan who need it, receive that aid,” he said.

“All those countries who were here in Afghanistan have a moral obligation to participate in a new Afghanistan, in the rebuilding of Afghanistan … and show they can contribute positively to the people of Afghanistan. Because they also have part in the destruction of the country.”

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