A joint diplomatic and military team is to depart for Kabul on Tuesday in a bid to evacuate as many Irish citizens as possible before the final US withdrawal from Afghanistan on Saturday.
The decision to send a mission, eight days after Kabul fell to the Taliban, came as a result of the looming US deadline, the highly unstable security situation at the city’s international airport and the large numbers of Irish citizens who have yet to be evacuated.
Officials briefed on the mission said they could not wait any longer before deployment, given the deadline set by US president Joe Biden of withdrawing a military presence from the capital by August 31st.
On Monday night, Minister for Foreign Affairs Simon Coveney announced a small consular team with a military escort would deploy to the airport to aid in the evacuation.
“Good progress has been made to date in evacuating Irish citizens from Afghanistan. My view is that further progress requires a short deployment of a consular team to HKIA [Hamid Karzai International Airport].
“The security situation for citizens attempting to access the airport remains extremely volatile. Citizens should continue to follow the consular advice given to them directly by our embassy in Abu Dhabi.”
It is understood two senior Department of Foreign Affairs officials will travel with a section of the Army Ranger Wing (ARW), the Defence Forces’ special forces unit.
They will form an Emergency Consular Assistance Team which will be responsible for liaising with other officials at the airport and arranging for Irish citizens to depart on the military evacuation flights of friendly nations.
The mission was described by one official as “short, targeted and confined solely to the airport canvass”. The main role of the ARW will be to provide security for Irish officials. Sources said there was “no question” of the team staying on after the US departs.
The possibility of any extension to the US deadline appeared remote on Monday, as the Taliban announced it would view any delay as a “violation”.
British defence minister James Heappey said there was no prospect of Britain and other Nato allies sending in a new military force to hold Kabul airport after US forces leave. “When the US go, the mission has to come to an end,” he said.
He added that trying to use military force to extend the evacuation could turn Kabul into “a war zone” and make it even harder to extricate thousands of Afghans, western civilians and military personnel.
European leaders are expected to use the G7 meeting on Tuesday to lobby Mr Biden to keep troops at the airport beyond the deadline.
Various evacuation options had been considered by the Irish Government over recent days before the current plan was decided upon on Monday.
The team will depart from Casement Aerodrome in the early hours of Tuesday morning. It will land in Paris, France from where it will travel on to Kabul on a French military transport.
Thirty six Irish citizens remain stranded in Afghanistan, mostly consisting of family groups.
Ten citizens have already been evacuated on other countries’ flights with the assistance of the Department of Foreign Affairs and the embassy in Abu Dhabi. This includes education worker Aoife McManus who arrived home in Co Meath on Monday after being evacuated through Pakistan.
Journey to airport
The main barrier to evacuation efforts was getting Irish citizens to the airport on short notice, officials said. Families are spread throughout the area and face Taliban roadblocks and barriers at the airport.
The security situation continued to worsen on Monday with a deadly firefight at Kabul airport between unknown gunmen and US, German and Afghan troops.
Over the past week the Defence Force’s general staff have presented several options to Government on how to assist with the evacuation effort following the fall of Kabul to the Taliban.
Options have been limited by Ireland’s lack of a long-range airlift capability.
As well as sending a team to Kabul, other options included sending the Government jet to Pakistan to assist Irish nationals evacuated there from Kabul. The jet is currently in Kiev with Mr Coveney.
The ARW has been on standby for the past several days awaiting a decision on such a mission.