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Commentary: SDF quietly breaks new ground in Afghanistan withdrawal

  • September 1, 2021
  • , The Japan Times
  • English Press



PYEONGTAEK, SOUTH KOREA – Over the past few weeks, the world watched as the Taliban steadily captured Afghanistan, city by city, province by province.


The swift collapse of the Ashraf Ghani government prompted mass evacuations from the country, both of foreign nationals and Afghans fearing what would become of them under Taliban rule. During these evacuations, the Japan Self-Defense Force has been quietly breaking new ground in the country’s security practice.


Both the rescue of Japanese and foreign nationals and the authorization for the SDF to use weapons, if necessary, is unprecedented. While it is hardly the most important thing going on in Afghanistan right now, the SDF’s operations represent a major milestone.


On Aug. 23, Defense Minister Nobuo Kishi ordered the dispatch of one Air Self-Defense Force C-2 and two C-130 transport planes to pre-position out of Islamabad and fly evacuation operations into the Hamid Karzai Airport in Kabul. The SDF’s three aircraft arrived in Pakistan on Aug. 25, bringing with them about 260 Air and Ground Self-Defense Force personnel. They have all been in the theater of operations since.


Since their arrival, SDF units have transported fifteen Japanese and Afghan nationals. The government anticipated up to 500 personnel eligible for transport, including Japanese residents of Afghanistan seeking evacuation; Japanese staff members of international organizations working in Afghanistan; local national staff members that were under the employment of the Japanese Embassy and the Japan International Cooperation Agency; and others that may be requested by foreign governments.


Many who are watching the situation may wonder what makes this so significant; after all, other countries including Australia, New Zealand, the United States and the United Kingdom have evacuated thousands of people from Afghanistan. Others have openly criticized the fact that slow coordination contributed to the small numbers of personnel evacuated. The importance here is not the scale of operations, but that they are taking place at all.


A decade ago, an operation like this would have been politically and legally impossible for the SDF. The Japanese government would have chartered private aircraft or requested support from other countries that were actively engaged in evacuation operations. Fundamental changes began in earnest starting in 2014.


In July 2014, the Japanese government reinterpreted Article IX of the Constitution to allow for the limited exercise of collective self-defense and protection of foreign nationals. In September 2015, the Diet passed the so-called “Peace and Security Legislation” that codified that constitutional reinterpretation into law. Two of the outcomes from those legislative changes centered on the use of weapons to protect others and the rescue of personnel from foreign countries.


Prior to this, the Japanese government was significantly constrained in its options for rescue or evacuation operations. For the most part, when the Japanese government needed to move personnel, it relied on another country’s aircraft or private airlines.


There were only two cases prior to the 2015 legislation changes when Japanese government aircraft and personnel were employed. The first occurred in 2004 when a Japan Air Self-Defense Force C-130 transported 10 Japanese nationals from Samawah, Iraq, to Kuwait. The second took place after the In Amenas hostage incident in 2013, when the Japanese government transported family members who were escorting the bodies of the victims from Algeria back to Japan.


The Peace and Security Legislation widened the aperture for these sorts of operations, and we have seen two additional cases of Japanese government assets utilized in overseas transport up to now. In July 2016, a Japanese government aircraft was sent to recover the bodies of seven Japanese slain in the terrorist incident in Dhaka, Bangladesh. Later that year, the JASDF transported Japanese personnel from South Sudan to the SDF base in Djibouti.


All those situations were essentially transport missions rather than rescue or evacuation operations. No SDF personnel were authorized to fire upon any aggressors in defense of others; and in two of the cases, the government used its civilian jetliner rather than military aircraft.

With the changes to security legislation and policy from 2014-15, the SDF were then legally able to do more, provided they satisfy two conditions: First, the foreign government consents to those operations; and second, those operations do not take place in a combat area.

When the Taliban moved to take over Afghanistan and governments were looking to evacuate personnel a debate stirred inside the Japanese government: Should they dispatch SDF aircraft? What would consent entail if both an Afghan government and the Taliban were claiming control of Kabul? If there are shots fired and bombings taking place, would it be a combat zone?


At first, the Japanese government opted for support from foreign governments, evacuating 12 members of the Japanese Embassy on Aug. 17 . Eventually, enough voices within the administration called for the SDF to recover their own personnel under the legislation that permitted it. On Aug. 23, the National Security Council convened to formalize the decision to deploy SDF units to Afghanistan. There, the foreign minister’s representative (Foreign Minister Toshimitsu Motegi was not present) issued a formal request to the minister of defense to evacuate personnel. Defense Minister Kishi authorized the operation based on Article 84-4 of the Self-Defense Force Law and permitted the personnel to carry weapons (and use them if necessary) based on Article 94-6 of the same law.


The units have been deployed for a little more than a week now, and during that time, there has been a marked escalation in violence. While some might call this a degradation of Kabul into a combat zone, Japan was part of the Aug. 29 joint statement from nearly one hundred countries citing that the Taliban consented to the safe transport of foreign nationals and Afghans affiliated with their foreign missions. Nevertheless, once the U.S. military pulled out of Kabul and relinquished security to Taliban forces on Aug. 31, Defense Minister Kishi announced the end of SDF operations.


Some may be wondering how the Suga administration was able to pursue this ground-breaking activity despite the political risk. The short answer is timing: The Diet is not currently in session, which has enabled the Suga administration to sidestep some of the hard questions that would have invariably come during interpellations.


That is not to say the questions will not come ex post facto, but it does mean that the government has been able to execute the mission now and deal with those questions later. It is impossible to say if the administration’s political calculus might have changed if the Diet was in session, but it was certainly a consideration.


To close, there is one last element of note: This was a joint operation involving ASDF aircrew and GSDF rescue forces. Observers of Japanese security have long-lamented the deplorable state of Japanese “jointness,” arguing that the air, ground and maritime components had miles to go before demonstrating the level of interoperability needed to be successful in real-world operations.


The SDF tested that interoperability this past week, pushing new boundaries as the world watched the on-going evacuation from Afghanistan with bated breath.


Michael MacArthur Bosack is the special adviser for government relations at the Yokosuka Council on Asia-Pacific Studies. He previously served in the Japanese government as a Mansfield fellow.

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