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Tom Clonan: 'Scenes of desperation at Kabul Airport speak to the barbarity of the Taliban'

The events of the next 48 – 72 hours in Afghanistan are being shaped in a highly fluid and febrile environment, security expert Tom Clonan writes.

Tom Clonan Security specialist and columnist, TheJournal.ie

CHAOS. THIS IS the only word that can adequately describe the situation over the past 24 hours at Kabul’s Hamid Karzai International Airport.

In military terms, the operational situation in Kabul is dire. The airport is completely surrounded by heavily armed Taliban forces equipped with weapons – primitive but highly effective rocket and anti-aircraft systems – capable of destroying commercial and military aircraft.

As of yesterday, the only way out of Afghanistan for thousands of desperate westerners and Afghans – including up to 23 Irish citizens – is by air. Given the Taliban have the firepower to destroy civilian and military aircraft on the ground at the airport (or in their vulnerable take-off and landing phases) the Taliban are literally and metaphorically calling the shots on what happens in the next 72 hours.

Evacuation

Until the weekend, US and NATO intelligence estimated a window of approximately two weeks to evacuate all military and civilian personnel from Kabul by 31 August. So confident were they in this timetable that the US and UK abandoned their massive air-base at Bagram in July, in an overnight withdrawal that surprised their international NATO and EU partners.

The Afghan National Army commander of the base was not informed of the move until two hours after the base was abandoned by US forces. In the following weeks, morale and leadership within the Afghan National Army and Air Force completely collapsed and these forces capitulated to Taliban offensives on provincial capitals across Afghanistan. The subsequent lightning speed of the Taliban’s capture of Kabul has triggered the crisis unfolding at the airport.

The US and British have reacted in a mad dash to the airport. They have abandoned their embassies and have scrambled to get all citizens to the airport. Not all have made it.

Late yesterday afternoon, the US Embassy in Kabul issued a statement advising US citizens to seek refuge ‘in place’ as the situation had become so unstable – the Taliban had overrun the capital. This morning, UK Defence Secretary Ben Wallace stated in an at times emotional interview on the BBC that not all UK citizens “would make it home”.

In military terms, the US is putting in place a massive airlift. It has deployed 6000 personnel to Hamid Karzai Airport in a desperate attempt to protect its citizens. Spearheaded by the 82nd Airborne Combat Brigade and reinforced by units of the Marine Corps, the US is using elite units to secure the military part of the airport and to establish an outer perimeter to defend this precarious position.

In Operation ‘Pitting’, the British government has deployed the UK 16th Air Assault Brigade to assist its US allies in securing the airport, and if necessary, beginning an air evacuation under fire. Italy, Denmark, Spain and France have also committed military personnel to this joint effort.

As the troops are deployed, military aircraft from bases all over the world are being mobilised to assist in this effort. Many US aircraft have travelled through Irish airspace in the last 48 hours and have re-fuelled at Shannon Airport en route to and from Afghanistan.

On the civilian side of Kabul International Airport, there are few if any hangars for commercial aircraft. There are a number of civilian passenger jets left – in an exposed condition – on some of the 20 aircraft aprons available at the airport.

At time of writing, all civilian flights to and from the airport are suspended. Disturbing footage is emerging from this part of the airport of thousands of Afghan civilians desperately trying to escape the Taliban advance.

Shocking video has emerged of Afghan civilians desperately clinging to the undercarriage of large military jets as they taxi for take-off. Some footage purports to show people falling to their deaths from aircraft as they take off from the airport.

Next 48 – 72 hours

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These distressing images and these scenes of intense desperation speak to the barbarity of the Taliban regime which – almost overnight – has wrested control of Afghanistan from President Ashraf Ghani’s government and the western NATO allies. It is in this highly fluid and febrile environment that the events of the next 48 – to 72 hours will be shaped.

Both the US and UK government have stated that they hope to complete their air evacuation and withdrawal within a time frame of two to three days. Agreement with the Taliban, for a cease fire and peaceful evacuation, however humiliating, would be the optimum outcome for the US-led military alliance.

This will require a huge amount of discipline and restraint on the ground among US and UK troops. Reports of shootings and fatalities within the airport, amid the chaotic scenes of men, women and children desperate to escape the Taliban speak to the risk of major bloodshed there.

Unconfirmed reports of skirmishes between nervous Taliban fighters and members of Britain’s Parachute Regiment underline the absolute requirement to avoid escalation to a ground assault or artillery exchange with Taliban forces. In such a scenario, with so many civilians confined in such a small space, the death toll would be very high.

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As for the Irish citizens trapped in this mayhem, questions need to be asked of the Irish government’s plan to get them out. In 2011, as Libya was convulsed in civil war, a large number of Irish citizens sought refuge and evacuation at Tripoli’s international airport. Ten years ago, the Irish government and Department of Foreign Affairs dispatched a Crisis Management Team and an Irish Air Corps CASA aircraft to Valetta in Malta to effect their rescue. The Irish Air Corps aircraft flew to the besieged Tripoli airport on two occasions to assist Irish citizens trapped there.

In the current situation, it is not clear what assistance can be given to the dozens of Irish citizens trapped in Kabul. Presumably, the Department of Foreign Affairs will seek assistance from our UK or EU neighbours. Thankfully, some Irish citizens appear to have escaped via Pakistan.

This is not Saigon – in some ways it is worse

As the situation in Kabul spiralled out of control, US Secretary of State Antony Blinken was quoted as saying, “Let’s take a step back. This is manifestly not Saigon”. Blinken was referring to the defeat of the US military in Vietnam and the evacuation by helicopter of US personnel from the roof of the US embassy in the Vietnamese capital – iconic images of the failure of US foreign policy in Asia.

Tragically, the situation in Kabul is in some ways worse. The war in Afghanistan has been longer than Vietnam – the longest in US history. There is no embassy to evacuate from: it has been over-run by the Taliban. The principal victims in all of this, the principal targets of Taliban violence, are the approximately 19 million Afghan women and girls that will have to endure the coming regime of Islamist extremism.

The US and her international allies – including Ireland – like many before, have tried and failed in Afghanistan. However, there are millions of Afghans who share our values of enlightenment and the empowerment of women, girls and men. The only hope for Afghanistan is that leadership from within this generation of Afghans will rise to challenge the oppression of the Taliban.

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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