Clock Running Out on Evacuations from Afghanistan: Japan Struggles to Airlift Nationals, Brings Afghans to Islamabad at US Request

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A Japan Air Self-Defense Force C-130 plane departs from the Air Self-Defense Force Iruma base near the city of Sayama in Saitama Prefecture to evacuate Japanese nationals from Afghanistan on August 24, 2021. (Image: STR/JIJI PRESS/AFP via Getty Images)

As the clock runs out in Afghanistan, Japan’s Self-Defense Force planes are waiting nearby in a secure location pending any developments. Japan has a list of at least 500 citizens awaiting extraction, according to diplomatic sources, but so far has been able to bring one person out.

Bound by Japan’s constitution that limits its military to waging war in defense of home territory, the SDF troops were not permitted to venture in-country beyond the Kabul airport grounds. But some Japanese citizens looking for the SDF could not get to the airport. 

Japanese government sources said Saturday, Aug. 29, that aboard Japan’s first round of SDF rescues, 14 Afghans were airlifted from Kabul to Islamabad at the request of the US government. The Afghans en route to the capital and largest city of Pakistan “are not local staff of the government-related entities.”

Botched evacuation?

Japan has been exploring other methods, including commercial airlines, for extracting nationals together with Afghan staff and family members. An editorial in Mainichi, a popular Japanese daily, suggested that South Korea’s leveraging of the US military to escort nationals to the airport on buses was useful; it is also no longer an option, as the Aug. 31 deadline is imminent.

The editorial raised the question of Suga’s government’s timing as well as the question of whether Japan was left out of essential communications, stating, “Were there any points that Japan must reflect on, concerning the way it obtained information from and engaged in collaboration with the U.S.?”

As for finding an alternate method of assisting nationals amidst the deteriorating situation, “South Korea managed to do just that by having U.S. troops ride along,” the piece said.

South Korea was evacuating 380 Afghan nationals, who will be given a special immigration status in the country.

With their own nationals unable to reach the airport, Japan’s two C-130 aircraft and a C-2 transporter made several round trips between Kabul and Islamabad on Wednesday and Thursday last week. It is not known who was carried, aside from the 14 Afghans at US request, and the subsequent rescue of the one national, 57 year-old Kyodo News staff member Hiromi Yasui.