TOKYO -- Japan dispatched Self-Defense Force aircraft to Kabul on Aug. 26 to evacuate local staff and others from Afghanistan after the country fell to the Taliban. The plan to bring evacuees to the airport aboard buses fell through due to suicide bomb attacks just before their departure.
While Japanese media and others in Japan are focused on who will be the next prime minister, it must not be forgotten that Afghanistan faces a crisis that requires immediate attention. Around 500 Afghan employees of the Japanese Embassy and the Japan International Cooperation Agency (JICA) and their families were left behind despite their wish to leave.
Afghans who cooperated with foreign governments risk persecution at the hands of the Taliban regime. Japan tried in vain to evacuate them before the full withdrawal of U.S. troops at the end of August.
On Sept. 9, the Taliban resumed international flights from Kabul Airport and began allowing foreigners to leave the country. However, it is unclear to what extent Afghans will be allowed to leave the country.
Japan is responsible for protecting those in Afghanistan who supported its activities. Their rescue also benefits Japan itself because it cannot continue its diplomatic and security work overseas without help from local residents. Such international cooperation sometimes carries risks from natural disasters or a poor security environment. If Japan is seen as unable to protect local staff in an emergency, very few people in any country will be willing to support Japan's missions.
The armed forces of the U.S. and major European countries, when they engage in military operations abroad, often strive to protect local residents who cooperate with them, according to a former senior officer in the Japan Self-Defense Force. U.N. bodies also draw up plans to evacuate local staff in an emergency.
"The protection of local staff, such as interpreters and people in charge of logistics, is not only necessary from a humanitarian point of view but also important for the protection of classified information and the national interest because [such people] are in a position strategically to know extremely important information," the SDF officer said.
The same thing can be said when Japan engages in economic or recovery assistance in other countries, or when the SDF participates in overseas activities such as UN peacekeeping operations. But Japan is not well prepared to protect local workers.
Japan sent SDF troops to Iraq from 2003 to 2009 to support its postwar reconstruction. The situation in the country has become increasingly tense in the years since, but it is questionable whether the Japanese government has taken adequate steps to ensure the security of Iraqis who have worked with the SDF and are potentially at risk.
With respect to Afghanistan, Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga should do his utmost to save local staff stranded in the country in his remaining time in office, and hand the task to his successor as a top priority.
The fundamental reason for Japan's bungled evacuation of Afghan employees in August was a lack of determination to rescue them by any means. The government began to consider methods of evacuation in earnest only on Aug. 4.
President Joe Biden on July 8 said the withdrawal of U.S. troops from Afghanistan would be completed by the end of August. Following the announcement, the U.S. and major European countries began preparing and dispatched military aircraft to Kabul before or right after the capital's fall to Taliban fighters on Aug. 15.
Over that period, the U.S. evacuated more than 120,000 people from Afghanistan, Britain more than 15,000, and Germany, France, Italy, Australia and Canada around 3,000 to 5,000, according to Reuters and other news organizations. The figures include Afghan evacuees.
Among Asian countries, Indonesia sent a military aircraft to Kabul on Aug. 20 and brought 33 people, including Afghans, to safety; South Korea had evacuated around 390 local staff and their families by Aug. 25.
Japan's rescue operation on Aug. 26 in Kabul ended in failure. Although a one-day delay in dispatching SDF aircraft seems to explain why it failed where others succeeded, that was not the fundamental reason. The root cause of the failed evacuation was that the Japanese government was too late in starting serious discussions on how to carry it out.
"The U.S. and major European countries, which had fought in Afghanistan, thought about how to protect local cooperators from the beginning. But Japan was too slow in dealing with the issue," a Japanese government official said.
Japan must take two steps urgently: First, it should negotiate with the Taliban to secure an airlift of local staff and their families from Afghanistan.
Qatar holds the key to such talks because of its close ties with the Taliban, which has an external affairs office in Doha. Leaders or foreign ministers from the U.S., the U.K., France and Germany have already gotten in touch with Qatar to seek its assistance. Japanese Foreign Minister Toshimitsu Motegi held talks with his Qatari counterpart on Aug. 23.
Negotiations with the Taliban are no easy task. "The Taliban may demand aid from other countries in return for permitting Afghans who cooperated [with foreign governments] to leave Afghanistan, using them as hostages, in effect," said a diplomat familiar with the situation in the country. "Major countries should work together so as not to let the Taliban seize the initiative in negotiations," the diplomat said.
Second, Japan must firmly protect local staff and their families fleeing Afghanistan by land to nearby countries such as Pakistan, Uzbekistan, Iran and Tajikistan.
Among the 500 or so Afghans that Japan has decided to accept, there is information that they are trying to seek safety on their own. The Japanese Embassies in neighboring countries must be prepared to protect them and make arrangements for them to come to Japan.
There are other people in Afghanistan connected to Japan, in addition to the 500 Afghans, such as those who studied in Japan through JICA programs. Roughly 600 Afghans have studied in Japan under the programs, including senior officials in Afghan government ministries and agencies. The Taliban regime may punish them as collaborators with foreign countries.
Japan has long been extremely reluctant to accept refugees from abroad, but it is time for Japan to establish a system to at least accept foreign nationals who have worked with the Japanese government and its organs when their lives are in danger.