The French Air Evacuation Mission in Afghanistan


By Pierre Tran

Paris – France is flying out military transport aircraft for an evacuation of French and Afghan nationals out of Kabul, in response to security concerns in Afghanistan, Florence Parly, the French armed forces minister, said Aug. 16.

“Several tens” of French nationals and “Afghans who have given considerable assistance to our forces” will be flown out of Afghanistan, she said on France Info radio, with the first evacuation flight to be completed by the end of the day.

The French air evacuation mission follows the Taliban seizing control of Kabul over the weekend, following a week of swift advance in response to the US military withdrawal from Afghanistan last month.

The U.S. Chinook helicopter flying fleeing diplomats across Kabul evoked the picture of a Huey helicopter on a Saigon rooftop in 1975, the BBC North America editor said.

“It may not be Saigon ’75 but it’s not far off,” he said.

France had called on French nationals to leave Afghanistan in April, in view of the sharply deteriorating security situation, Parly said. Last month, there was a leased civil flight, which meant most French nationals had left the country.

“But there remain several tens of people, particularly our diplomatic staff, who were issuing visas…and those who wanted to get to France,” she said.

There were also administrators and staff of non-government organizations who have worked in Afghanistan for years, and who need to be flown out in a matter of hours, she said.

Air Evacuation

France was sending a military mission comprising a C130 and an A400M transport aircraft to evacuate French nationals, Afghans, and other civilians, in response to the security situation and on order from the president, the armed forces ministry said in an Aug. 15 statement.

President Emmanuel Macron was due to address the nation on television at 8 pm  (local time), such was the gravity of the collapse of the Afghan government. The Afghan president, Ashraf Ghani, fled the stricken nation on Sunday.

The civil part of Kabul airport, some five km from the city, has been closed down by the Taliban, and only the military section was still open, the BBC reported. US and UK troops have been flown into the military part, which allowed flights out for authorized foreign nationals, not Afghans.

The French military transport aircraft took off on Sunday night and Monday morning for the Al Dhafra airbase in the United Arab Emirates, and then flew on to Kabul for the evacuation mission, the ministry said. That will be a joint military mission drawing on personnel based in the UAE, and include “elements of protection,” flights between Kabul airport and Abu Dhabi, and medical support.

The armed forces ministry said it was working closely with the ministry for Europe and foreign affairs. The air force will fly then the evacuees to France on the A330 Phenix multirole tanker transport aircraft, after being received and sheltered at the French base in the UAE.

The government flew back French nationals last month on a leased flight, Parly said, seeking to point out the administration had not waited to the last minute.

The UAE airbase will be effectively be a flight hub, flying out not just French but Afghan nationals, for whom France has a duty of care and will evacuate, she said.

The administration brought to France 1,350 Afghan nationals after the last French troops left Afghanistan in 2014, she said, with a further 600 evacuated between May and July.

France would also do its best to protect Afghans who had worked to support human rights, as well as journalists, artists, and those who supported the values that Paris sought to protect around the world, she said.

Rafale Upgraded for Afghan mission

The Afghan campaign led to France issuing an urgent operational requirement for an air-to-ground strike capability, which brought the Rafale fighter jet to the F2 version. The fighter jet had up to then flown in its F1 air superiority version.

The defense ministry organized an April 2007 press trip to show the Rafale F2 and its newly capable close air support missions for Nato forces. The Rafale and Mirage 2000 were then based at the Dushanbe airbase in neighboring Tajikistan.

The Rafale F2 lacked then its own targeting pod and had to fly with a Mirage 2000D, which carried a targeting pod to direct a GBU-12 smart bomb from the Rafale to its target.

The French forces had also deployed two special operations Caracal helicopters, to back up its ground forces in Afghanistan.

The then president François Hollande pulled out French combat troops by the end of 2012, a year earlier than planned by his predecessor, Nicolas Sarkozy. The latter had increased French presence in the Nato campaign in Afghanistan in a bid to get closer to the US.

France had boosted its combat capabilities in the wake of a deadly ambush Aug. 18 2008 which led to the death of 10 soldiers in the Uzbeen valley. That attack led to a deep review of army tactics and despatch of heavy French weapons.

Humiliation for the West

The victory of the Taliban was “a humiliating moment for the west,” Mark Sedwill, a former UK national security adviser, told BBC Radio 4.

Authoritarian nations have a “strategic patience” that the western allies lacked, he added.

Britain was sending 600 more troops to a total 700, to “process” Afghans, aid workers, and journalists to get out of  Afghanistan, he said. British and US military aircraft were flying out evacuees, with more than 1,000 British visa holders due to leave in the next two or three days.

There were 1,000 U.S. soldiers, with a further 5,000 to deploy at the airport, which now served as the site for the U.S. embassy, as staff have left the official building.