In an illustration of the messy situation on the ground at Kabul airport, German officials revealed that a German military plane left the Afghan capital carrying just seven evacuees, while thousands waited desperately at the airport.
The Airbus A400M plane, which is designed to carry 114 passengers, landed on Monday night in Kabul after hours of delays.
According to experts, up to 150 people could have been taken on the plane during the evacuation operation.
It’s a far cry from pictures of a US aircraft that appeared to show around 640 people packed on board.
Afghanistan: striking image appears to show 640 people fleeing Kabul in packed US military plane https://t.co/94GZuVM4zW
— Guardian news (@guardiannews) August 17, 2021
Germany’s President Frank-Walter Steinmeier blasted Western powers over the scenes of desperation at the airport where thousands of Afghans have gathered in a bid to flee the country after the Taliban swept back to power.
“The images of desperation at Kabul airport are shameful for the political West,” he said, calling the situation in Afghanistan a “human tragedy for which we share responsibility”.
Why did the plane not carry more evacuees?
The German Foreign Ministry said that it was not possible to carry more people in the first evacuation flight – but said future evacuation operations would likely be less chaotic.
A second plane left Kabul on Tuesday afternoon with more than 125 people on board, including Germans, Afghans and other nationals, Foreign Minister Heiko Maas said.
“Due to the chaotic situation at the airport and the regular exchange of fire at the access point yesterday, further German citizens and other people to be evacuated could not be given access to the airport without the protection of the Bundeswehr [German army],” a spokesman for the Foreign Ministry said in a statement on Tuesday.
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“The retrieval of people located in the civilian part of the airport was not made possible by partners responsible for security at the airport.”
The government also claimed that it could not tell people to go to the airport for the first plane as there was no guarantee that the plane would be there.
“Due to the extremely dangerous situation on the access routes to the airport, especially in the evening and at night, it would have been an unacceptable risk to life and limb of the people on site to call on those to be evacuated to proceed to the airport before the landing permit was issued and before access was secured by Bundeswehr forces,” the Foreign Office added.
German special forces travelling into Kabul on the same flight were at the same time deployed with the task of securing future evacuations.
“With the support of the Bundeswehr forces that have now arrived in Kabul, we are working under high pressure to make this possible for the first evacuation groups in the course of the next few hours,” the spokesman said.
The aircraft also only had a short time to retrieve people.
CDU foreign policy expert Johann Wadephul told Deutschlandfunk radio that there was only a 30-minute slot for the plane to pick up evacuees.
“And we could only take those who were there at that moment,” he said.
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But the essential purpose of the flight, he said, was to bring “robust forces” to Kabul. Those soldiers will now set the stage for more planes to land and take off in Kabul to aid evacuations, he said.
German Defence Minister Annegret Kramp-Karrenbauer (CDU) told broadcaster ARD that the flight had taken place under extremely difficult conditions.
“We have a very confusing, dangerous, complex situation at the airport, especially because of the crowds,” the CDU politician said.
Foreign Minister Maas said that Taliban checks at Kabul airport are making it more difficult to evacuate Afghans who worked for Western forces.
“The situation is much more dangerous (for Afghans) because there is no promise of being let through at the Taliban checkpoints,” Maas said ahead of a meeting of EU foreign ministers.
He added that German and US forces were working to grant them safe access to the airport.
“The Bundeswehr (German army) is securing access for us and we are working hard to ensure that more people from Kabul can be brought to safety during the course of the day,” he said.
Speaking in Berlin on Tuesday, Chancellor Angela Merkel said the big question over the next few days would be “above all, how many can reach the airport in Kabul”.
Berlin estimates that 2,500 local employees who worked with German troops or at the embassy, as well as their family members, need to be evacuated from the country.
Another 2,000 Afghans, such as human rights activists or employees of non-governmental organisations, also need to be brought out of the country.
The number swells to 10,000 if their family members are included.
Defence Minister Kramp-Karrenbauer urged NATO to learn lessons from its Afghanistan mission – slammed as a “debacle” by critics, as allies continued the struggle with the evacuation operation from Kabul.
Speaking ahead of an emergency meeting of NATO ambassadors, Kramp-Karrenbauer told German broadcaster ZDF “there’s a lot that we have to work on within NATO”.
“The question for us will be to what extent are we willing to carry the consequences for this, and to what extent we are prepared to take measures that up to this point we have left to the Americans,” Kramp-Karrenbauer said.
The return to power of the Taliban follows the withdrawal from the beginning of May of 9,500 allied soldiers still present in the country, including 2,500 American troops.