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Tom Clonan: The Irish Army Ranger Wing face a treacherous Kabul - but they are highly trained

The security expert says every person evacuated from Kabul by the ARW will represent a life transformed, free of Taliban persecution.

Tom Clonan Security specialist and columnist, TheJournal.ie

THE TALIBAN HAVE set a deadline of 31 August for the complete withdrawal of all US and allied forces from Afghanistan. Taliban representative Suhail Shaheen has stated that this deadline is a ‘red line’ and that any attempt to extend this date would be an ‘extension of the occupation’.

This gives US and allied forces exactly one week to evacuate – by air – almost 10,000 troops and diplomatic personnel along with an estimated 30,000 civilians fleeing the Taliban. As this window for escape closes, 36 Irish citizens and dependents are trapped in the chaos.

With just seven days to go, Minister for Foreign Affairs and Defence, Simon Coveney has sent nine members of the Army Ranger Wing (ARW) – along with two diplomats from the Department of Foreign Affairs (DFA) – to coordinate the repatriation of Irish citizens.

Challenges

This was no doubt a difficult decision for the Minister, but it may prove to be a game-changer for 36 of our citizens and a further 230 Afghans who have been granted Refugee Status.

Reports are emerging of the summary execution of Afghan civilians by the Taliban and further oppressive measures against the general population – women and girls in particular. As the clock winds down on the desperate airlift at Kabul, every man, woman and child evacuated by the Irish Army and Irish diplomatic team will represent a life transformed – saved from the brutal and murderous regime of the Taliban.

Such is the desperation of ordinary Afghans to escape the Taliban onslaught, over 20 people have been killed in the crush and armed confrontations at the airport perimeter in recent days. The Army Ranger Wing and diplomatic effort is taking place in a fast-moving and fraught environment. The stakes are extremely high and the behaviour of the Taliban in the coming week will determine the outcomes of an emerging human catastrophe.

To begin with, Hamid Karzai International Airport is completely surrounded. Kabul fell – unexpectedly – to the Taliban on Sunday 15 August. In the nine days since then, the Taliban have tightened their grip on the capital city. Thousands of Taliban fighters now control the main routes to Kabul Airport. Airport Road and Tajikan Road – roads that run parallel to the airport perimeter are controlled by heavily armed checkpoints. Any movement into and out of the airport is strictly controlled by the Taliban.

Western troops that leave the airport to pick up US and European citizens stranded in the city – including members of the UK Parachute Regiment who have rescued British and Irish citizens in recent days – have done so with the permission of the Taliban at their strongpoints around the airport.

In addition to the situation on the ground, Kabul Airport is surrounded by high ground on all of its approaches – with hills and mountains dominating the low-level take-off and landing routes of any military or civilian aircraft involved in the evacuation. The Taliban possess a large number of weapons – including anti-aircraft guns and surface to air missiles – that are capable of taking out western aircraft in their vulnerable approach and departure phases of flight.

In addition, the Taliban possess a large number of heavy weapons and artillery systems that can be deployed in the direct-fire role to destroy – at will – western aircraft on the ground or at low altitude in the environs of the airport. In the last nine days, the Taliban will have consolidated and reinforced their heavy weapon positions in the high ground around the airport and in the dense urban environment that overlooks its runways.

Therefore, the continued airlift can only continue in its present form with the permission of the Taliban. In short, for now, the Taliban hold all of the cards in relation to the evacuation of western citizens and Afghan refugees.

Irish efforts

It is into this hostile environment that the Irish Army Ranger Wing (ARW) team have been deployed. It is reported that there are nine members of the Defence Forces team. They have a number of key skill sets. For this mission, they have four main priorities. The first is security, providing armed support and protection to the two Department of Foreign Affairs staff as they liaise with their international counterparts at the airport.

These personnel are highly trained in close protection and carry small arms for this purpose. They are also trained snipers who will be in a position to cover Irish personnel – or citizens – as they arrive at and enter the febrile airport perimeter.

The ARW team are also communications specialists. They will be in a position to assist in setting up secure and reliable communications with Irish citizens sheltering in place in Kabul or in other locations away from the airport. These lines of communication are vital for arranging and coordinating the safe – and timely – passage of Irish citizens to the airport.

These communications links will assist Irish citizens by directing them on the correct route to the airport – through agreed checkpoints – and to the correct location at the airport perimeter for entry to the secure area. The communications element of the team will also maintain a direct rear link to Irish consular officials in Abu Dhabi and to Irish Foreign Affairs and military contacts in Dublin.

In addition to these roles and skillsets – the ARW team will have advanced paramedic skills to assist arriving Irish citizens and dependents with any injuries or other medical issues arising from their precarious and stressful exfiltration to the airport.

The ARW personnel will also have a command and control element. In other words, there will be at least one senior officer among the group – with sufficient rank and seniority to meaningfully engage with their US and UK military counterparts at the airport in order to effectively liaise and secure seats on international aircraft departing Kabul.

Race against a deadline

With only a week to go before the Taliban have threatened to intervene in the evacuation effort, time is of the essence. The combined efforts of the ARW and DFA teams will doubtless save lives in the coming week. They are a hands-on team deployed to the heart of the airport to secure escape for Irish citizens – and hopefully Afghan refugees.

What could not be achieved remotely – by Irish consular staff at Abu Dhabi – can hopefully be achieved by this Irish team in Kabul. The ARW team are very highly trained for missions such as this and have participated in the repatriation of Irish citizens from hostile environments in the recent past.

As the situation in Kabul intensifies, the attention of the world’s leaders will be focused on negotiating an extension of the evacuation date with the Taliban. Britain called an emergency meeting of the G7 Summit but it now appears the US deadline of 31 August is cast iron and US President Joe Biden is refusing to push for an extension of same. The behaviour and actions of the Taliban in the coming week will ultimately determine the outcome of this crisis. Any escalation could result in massive loss of life in the Afghan capital.

In the coming week, the Irish people ought to be focused on the bravery and selflessness of our troops and diplomatic staff – along with their families – as they put their lives on the line in order to rescue Irish citizens and Afghan refugees in extremis. Whatever the outcome, whilst this is a difficult decision for all involved, Minister Coveney is to be commended for his leadership on this matter.

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Dr Tom Clonan is a former Captain in the Irish armed forces. He is a security analyst and academic, lecturing in the School of Media in DIT. You can follow him on Twitter.

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About the author:

Tom Clonan  / Security specialist and columnist, TheJournal.ie

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