STUTTGART, Germany — NATO allies around Europe and beyond are sending military aircraft to Afghanistan in ongoing efforts to pull its citizens, and vulnerable Afghans, out of the country as the Taliban assumed control of the nation after two decades of war.
The alliance is working around the clock to help coordinate air assets that can complete evacuations from Kabul “as soon as possible,” Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg told reporters during a Tuesday virtual press conference.
“NATO’s focus right now is to ensure the safe departure of personnel from allied and partner countries, and all of the Afghans who have helped us,” he added.
Since the weekend, NATO allies have continuously sent more and more aircraft to Kabul and other areas of Afghanistan to support the evacuation efforts. Stoltenberg noted that following a Tuesday meeting among NATO members, several more allies just committed to sending aircraft to the region to help build the air bridge that will transport personnel and allied Afghans out of harm’s way. NATO did not immediately clarify which allies he was referring to.
Air operations temporarily stopped Monday at Hamid Karzai International Airport, but flights and operations were “gradually resuming” on Tuesday, Stoltenberg said at the briefing. Approximately 800 NATO civilians are in place at the Kabul airport, assisting with air traffic control, refueling, and communications, he noted.
While the situation and numbers of participants remains dynamic, as of this article’s writing, France, Germany, Italy, Spain, the Netherlands, Belgium, and Luxembourg air forces are all participating in the evacuation mission. These allies coordinate air mobility efforts through the European Air Transport Command (EATC), which was created in 2010 as a way for the seven member-nations to pool and share air mobility resources.
The majority of EATC-coordinated missions into Kabul are being executed by tactical platforms, including A400M and C-130 military transport aircraft, an EATC spokesperson said in an email to Defense News. The more strategic routes are being covered by Boeing 767s, A330 and A310 Multi Role Tanker Transport (MRTT) aircraft, and KDC-10 tankers, the spokesperson added.
France sent an A310 aircraft to Abu-Dhabi on Tuesday to bring multiple French nationals, and other European and Afghan citizens that had been evacuated from Kabul, back to Paris, according to the French Ministry of Defense.
The Local, a European-based publication, reported Monday that Italy sent one KC-767 transport aircraft to evacuate some 50 diplomats and 20 Afghan nationals to Rome. El Pais reported Tuesday that the first of two Spanish military A400M aircraft left Zaragoza Air Base Monday evening for Dubai, to repatriate and evacuate individuals there. The second aircraft took off Tuesday evening destined for Dubai, the Spanish Defense Ministry said in a Tweet.
Stoltenberg told reporters he would not speculate on how long NATO allies will remain in Afghanistan to keep the airport once evacuations are complete. “The thing is that we will try to evacuate as many people as possible,” he said. “We have it stated clearly, again and again, that all those who want to leave should be allowed to leave by airplanes, or by land or the open border crossings.
“They’re not open now. But we will continue to work [to open] all the border crossings,” he continued.
Meanwhile, questions were swirling in Germany on Tuesday about why Berlin’s initial A400M evacuation flight was only loaded with seven passengers. The number stands in stark contrast to a U.S. Air Force flight that reportedly picked up more than 600 people from the Kabul airport.
Germany’s Der Spiegel reported that German officials remaining in the city were unable to line up more people, with travel documents ready and all, in the short amount of time that the aircraft was on the tarmac. With 80 or so German troops brought in to secure upcoming flights, officials told the magazine they hope additional aircraft would carry more passengers.
That argument comes amid another report, by the Tagesschau news program, that said the German Embassy was dragging its feet since last week when allied embassies were already packing up and establishing a transportation channel to the airport for their personnel and local aides.
“On a tactical level, the reason for having only seven people ready for evacuation may be correct,” said Christian Mölling, a senior analyst at the Berlin-based German Council on Foreign Relations. But the events leading up the situation suggest planning mistakes were made earlier, he added.
Sebastian Sprenger in Washington contributed to this report.
Vivienne Machi is a reporter based in Stuttgart, Germany, contributing to Defense News' European coverage. She previously reported for National Defense Magazine, Defense Daily, Via Satellite, Foreign Policy and the Dayton Daily News. She was named the Defence Media Awards' best young defense journalist in 2020.