Editorial: We owe these people

Last updated 05:00 13/11/2012

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OPINION: Afghan translators who helped New Zealand troops and contractors must not be abandoned to the vengeance of the Taleban.

The Government is offering resettlement packages - the choice of coming here or being paid three years' salary to relocate elsewhere in Afghanistan - to those 23 interpreters employed by the Provincial Reconstruction Team last month, when the decision was made. It extends, of course, to their families.

But former interpreters, whose hides are no less on the line, have not received this offer. They can apply to come here as refugees, and Prime Minister John Key says their cases would be viewed "a little bit more" sympathetically than others.

That just isn't good enough. It's too airy a commitment when lives are at stake.

In that respect it is concerning that Mr Key seems to draw a considerable distinction between the personal risk faced by past and present interpreters. Those who may have left the PRT have, he says, already made the assessment themselves that it's okay for them to re-integrate into Afghan society.

It's far from that clear-cut. For one thing there's the case of Mustafa Ahmadi, 26, who was forced to leave the PRT and go into hiding with his wife and 4-month-old son after receiving death threats from insurgents who already had him identified and targeted.

On top of which there's been a rotation practice under which an interpreter serving our soldiers might, at the time of the resettlement decision, have been put into equally valuable, perhaps equally hazardous, service for non-military private contractors, after which they might well have been rotated back.

In any case, past-or-present status will matter little to the Taleban once the international troops are gone. The identities of those who have helped New Zealanders are hardly secret in a society where the Taleban has a great many eyes. Its threats against them and their loved ones are explicit and credible.

Critics say the Government's package is lean compared with other countries, such as Britain and Canada, and could permanently scar New Zealand's reputation. That may be so, but in any case people's lives matter a great deal more than our reputation.

It shouldn't be about reputation. It should be about conscience.

Twelve former interpreters, each of whom has more than five years of service for the PRT, have pleaded to the New Zealand Defence Force to extend the resettlement offer to them before next April's pullout.

One, Ahmad, has seen five of his own townspeople who had worked for Americans been moved out and now living safely in the United States, while he languishes.

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It may be that these people are needlessly worried, and that the Kiwi tendency for understatement has kicked in. The promise to translators for the British has been that "people who have put their life on the line for the United Kingdom will not be abandoned". This does sound rather more reassuring than the message their counterparts formerly of the New Zealand camp have been getting, which is effectively "we'll see what we can do".

Actions trump words, but even by those standards ours have been sluggish. We have a debt to these translators. We must honour it.

- The Southland Times

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