The German government has been fiercely criticised after it emerged it had only managed to bring seven people on its first evacuation flight out of Kabul – having earlier repatriated 22,500 litres of alcohol.
News that, despite the crowds of desperate Afghans at Kabul airport clamouring to escape Taliban rule, only seven passengers had made it on board Monday night’s flight fuelled criticism of the government for failing to do more earlier to evacuate Afghans supporting German operations in the country.
“There was transport capacity for alcohol, but not for the local staff in Afghanistan,” read a piece in Germany’s Bild newspaper, referring to the fact that the German military had earlier flown home 65,000 cans of beer and 340 bottles of wine before it withdrew from its bases in Mazar-e Sharif and Kabul at the end of June.
“It shows what priorities the Federal Government is giving those people in Afghanistan who, in some cases, have worked there for years for Germany and risked life and limb – they are worth less to the Federal Government than beer cans.”
Christoph Hoffmann, a lawmaker and development policy spokesman for the opposition Free Democratic Party, accused Foreign Minister Heiko Maas of a “total failure” in his handling of the withdrawal, and called for his resignation.
Hoffman pointed to a parliamentary debate in June, when Maas had rejected calls to bring more Afghan staff to Germany, saying that the talks between the Afghan government and the Taliban were likely to continue for some time, and that he did not want to encourage new refugee flows. Granting additional visas to Afghan staff and their families would send the wrong message, he said.
News of the mostly empty flight drew unflattering comparisons to a photo, obtained by US defence and security news site Defense One, that reportedly showed 640 Afghans packed into a US C-17 Globemaster III during an evacuation flight on Sunday night.
One Twitter user, the musician Igor Levit, described the lack of passengers on the German flight as an “indescribable shame.”
“In the face of this catastrophe, not packing the plane full of people, testifies to an inhumanity beyond compare. A shame,” he wrote. “I'm speechless.”
Defence Minister Annegret Kramp-Karrenbauer said that the small number on board the German Air Force A400M transport plane was due to the chaotic situation at the airport. The plane had to leave quickly, and could only take with it the small number of people who were present.
"We have a very chaotic, dangerous and complex situation at the airport," she told German broadcaster ARD Tuesday. "We had very little time, so we only took on board people who were on site."
According to Bild, that included five German citizens – two of them dual nationals – a Dutch citizen, and an Afghan.
The A400 had circled over the city for a long time while waiting for authorisation from US forces to land, due to disruption caused by the crowds on the tarmac, which led to flights being suspended at the airport for much of Monday. The German pilots eventually had to divert to Tashkent, Uzbekistan to refuel before heading back.
When the plane landed, it only had a 30-minute slot before it could take off again, and officials were unable to bring in other passengers to make the flight without protection, due to the growing Taliban presence around the airport.
A spokesperson for the German foreign ministry said: “Due to the chaotic situation at the airport and the regular exchange of fire at the access point yesterday, further German citizens and people to be evacuated could not be given access to the airport without the protection of the [German army].
“The retrieval of people located in the civilian part of the airport was not made possible by partners responsible for security at the airport.”
Kramp-Karrenbauer said the main objective had been to bring in soldiers to secure further evacuations.
Germany, which had the second-largest military presence in Afghanistan after the US, intends to evacuate thousands of people with German nationality, as well as Afghans who may face retribution from the Taliban, including those who worked with Western forces, human rights activists and lawyers.
Evacuation flights have continued since Monday night, with more than 260 people evacuated by the German army so far, according to reports. Early on Wednesday, a flight landed in Frankfurt carrying 131 people who had been evacuated by German military planes from Kabul airport to the Uzbek capital of Tashkent.
At least seven people died at Kabul airport Monday, including some who fell from a US transport jet, having clung to it as it took off, and two armed people shot by US troops, according to the Pentagon.
German President Frank-Walter Steinmeier said Tuesday that the desperate scenes at the airport brought shame on the West.
"The images of despair at Kabul airport shame the political West," he said in a statement at the German presidential palace.
"All the more now we have to stand by those to whom we are indebted for their work and support."