Evacuating Kabul: French Ambassador Narrowly Escapes, Fears Future

Since last month’s calamitous evacuation from Kabul, I’ve wondered what happened to the French journalists, NGOs, citizens, members of the military, and diplomatic corps that were stationed there. This week I came across an eye-opening interview with the French ambassador to Afghanistan, David Martinon, printed in Le Monde. Rather than summarizing Martinot’s gripping account, I provide the original French text from the article below, alongside my English translation.

David Martinon : « A l’aéroport de Kaboul, il y a eu mille situations dangereuses »

L’ambassadeur de France à Kaboul explique les circonstances de l’évacuation et s’inquiète des risques terroristes en Afghanistan.

Par Philippe Ricard
Publié le 19 septembre 2021

David Martinon est ambassadeur de France en Afghanistan. Il a dû quitter le pays fin août dans la foulée du retrait précipité des troupes américaines et de la victoire des talibans. Avant de partir, il a supervisé, depuis l’aéroport de Kaboul, où s’était réfugiée son équipe, les évacuations de ressortissants français et de civils afghans.

David Martinon: “At the Kabul airport, there were a thousand dangerous situations”

The French ambassador to Kabul explains the circumstances surrounding the evacuation and worries about the risks of terrorism in Afghanistan.

Translated by Carol Seidl
Published September 19, 2021

David Martinon is the French ambassador to Afghanistan. He had to leave the country at the end of August in the immediate aftermath of the precipitous withdrawal of American troops and the victory of the Taliban. Before leaving, he supervised the evacuation of French nationals and Afghan civilians from the Kabul airport where he had taken refuge with his team.

David Martinon
David Martinon, French Ambassador to Afghanistan, from an interview with Ariana News in early August 2021.

Quand avez-vous compris que Kaboul allait tomber ?

L’accélération finale débute le 6 août, lorsque les talibans prennent Zaranj, le chef-lieu de la province de Nimroz, frontalière de l’Iran, qui est le lieu de passage des trafics de stupéfiants. Les choses se précipitent encore le 12 quand trois grandes villes tombent : Kandahar, Herat et Lashkar Gah. Le 14, j’écris à Paris pour dire qu’il faut accélérer l’évacuation. Je finis la note vers 22 heures et, au moment où je la termine, j’apprends que Mazar-e Charif est tombé. Mon intuition à ce moment-là est que cela va être très rapide.

Le lendemain matin, des rumeurs selon lesquelles les talibans sont dans le quartier du Parlement ne sont tout d’abord pas confirmées. Les Américains nous préviennent alors que la sécurité de la zone verte est assurée jusqu’au lendemain, le 16, à 15 heures. Je réunis les ONG françaises pour leur dire de partir. Il était 11 heures du matin. A 11 h 32, le représentant de l’OTAN m’appelle et me dit : « Partez maintenant, ils sont à vingt minutes du quartier. »

When did you realize that Kabul was going to fall?

The situation began to accelerate on August 6, when the Taliban took Zaranj, the capital of Nimroz province, located on the border with Iran, which is a crossing point for drug traffickers. Things accelerated further when on the 12th, three big cities fell: Kandahar, Herat and Lashkar Gah. On the 14th, I wrote to Paris to say that it was necessary to speed up the evacuation. I finished the note around 10 pm and, just as I was finishing, I learned that Mazar-e-Sharif had fallen. My instincts at that moment were that this was going to be very fast.

The next morning, rumors indicating that the Taliban was in the Parliament district [where the French Embassy was located] were not confirmed at first. The Americans assured us that they would secure the green zone until the following day, the 16th at 3 pm. I gathered with the French NGOs to tell them to leave. It was 11 am. At 11:32 am, the NATO representative called me to say: “Leave now, they are 20 minutes away from the district.”

Taliban take over Kabul
Taliban in Kabul one day after the takeover of the city, Al Jazeera

Pourquoi avoir évacué l’ambassade à bord d’hélicoptères ?

A ce moment, on bouscule tout. Nous étions prêts à quitter l’ambassade en deux heures, le temps de détruire les systèmes de communication, ce qui restait d’archives papier, et notamment les archives consulaires. On avait déjà fait le transfert de nombreux dossiers à Paris dès juin. Il a fallu détruire tous les dossiers nominatifs, que nous avons brûlés. Nous avions acheté du ciment pour neutraliser les armes. Nous avions prévu de partir par la route à l’aéroport.

Mais, quand vous êtes préparés, cela vous donne l’agilité de vous occuper de ceux qui ne le sont pas. Les Français commencent alors à venir à l’ambassade, et je ne pouvais donc pas la fermer. Il a également fallu s’occuper d’autres partenaires qui ne pouvaient évacuer tous seuls. Nous avons envoyé des policiers pour les acheminer à l’aéroport. Mais cette escorte étant bloquée à l’aéroport par les talibans, nous n’avons plus eu d’autre solution que de suivre notre plan B, une évacuation par hélicoptère. Nous en avions fait la planification, mais ce n’était pas notre option privilégiée.

Nous sommes la dernière équipe diplomatique à quitter la « zone verte », car nous avons continué à accueillir les Français, consigne que n’avaient pas les autres ambassades. On finit par décoller à 18 h 46, le 15 août, à bord de deux hélicoptères, juste au moment où les talibans entrent dans le quartier et mettent à sac le palais présidentiel. Plus aucune communication n’est alors possible et je dois d’urgence faire connaître ma position à mes autorités, à l’OTAN, aux Américains, et accessoirement à ma famille, et je tweete donc pour informer tout le monde.

Why did you evacuate the embassy aboard helicopters?

At that moment, everything was thrown on its head. We were prepared to leave the embassy in two hours, the time it takes to destroy the communication systems, what remained of our paper archives, and notably the consular archives. We had already completed the transfer of numerous files to Paris since June. It was necessary to destroy all records, which we had burned. We had purchased cement to neutralize the firearms. We had anticipated leaving by taking the road to the airport.

But, when you are prepared, that gives you the flexibility to take care of those who are not. The French then began coming to the embassy, and I couldn’t therefore close it. It was equally important to take care of other partners who were unable to evacuate by themselves. We sent police to transport them to the airport. But since such escorts were being blocked by the Taliban from entering the airport, we had no other solution other than to follow our plan B, an evacuation by helicopter. We had planned for this mode of evacuation, but it was not our preferred option.

We were the last diplomatic team to leave the “green zone” because we continued to receive French citizens, an order that the other embassies did not have to follow. We ended by taking off at 6:45 pm on August 15, on board two helicopters, just at the moment when the Taliban entered the district and began sacking the presidential palace. Further communication was then no longer possible and I had to immediately make my position known to my superiors, to NATO, to the American government, and secondarily to my family, and therefore I tweeted to inform everyone.

Martinon tweet leaving Green Zone
Martinon tweet leaving Green Zone

Combien de personnes sont évacuées à ce moment-là ?

Entre 30 et 50, des Français et des internationaux. Je suis cependant obligé de laisser une arrière-garde policière pour accueillir les Afghans qui demandent à être évacués et arrivent à partir de ce moment-là. Ces personnes se massaient devant la porte et risquaient de créer un point de fixation dans la rue, alors même que les talibans tiraient et lançaient des grenades. J’ai donc dit à ma sécurité d’ouvrir la porte. L’évacuation qui m’a ensuite posé le plus de souci est d’ailleurs celle de l’ambassade, car les talibans tenaient le checkpoint d’accès à la « zone verte », dans notre rue. Et la foule a continué à s’amasser à l’extérieur de la « zone verte », juste en face. A un moment, j’ai dû tweeter que l’ambassade était évacuée. Et ce sont les talibans qui ont montré mon message aux Afghans pour les dissuader de rester.

How many people were evacuated [from embassy to airport] at that time?

Between 30 and 50, French people and internationals. I was, however, obliged to leave an armed rear-guard to receive Afghans who asked to be evacuated and arrived [at the embassy] from that moment on. These people were gathering in front of our door to such an extent that they risked drawing attention to themselves and creating a focal point in the street, even though the Taliban was shooting and throwing grenades. Therefore, I told my security detail to open the door. The evacuation that then caused me the greatest difficulty was that of the embassy because the Taliban maintained the checkpoint for access to the “green zone” in our street. And the crowd continued to amass outside the green zone, just opposite the embassy. At one point, I had to tweet that the embassy was evacuated. And it was the Taliban who showed my message to the Afghans in order to dissuade them from staying in the area.

Quel sentiment gardez-vous des opérations d’évacuation depuis l’aéroport, où vous étiez installés ?

Il y a eu mille situations dangereuses. Nous avons pu nous installer dans des containers blindés utilisés jusqu’ici par Thales. On entendait les détonations jour et nuit. Aux portes, les marines américains et les parachutistes britanniques tiraient parfois à balles réelles, en l’air. On a dû prendre des décisions dans l’instant, tendre la main à des gens dans la foule à la vue d’éléments d’identification.

L’aéroport avait beau être une base américaine, il est devenu au fil des jours un camp de réfugiés. A certains moments, les portes ont été fermées, car il y avait trop de monde dans l’enceinte et dans la « zone grise » comprise entre le dernier checkpoint taliban et les entrées de l’aéroport. C’était très chaotique. Au pic, il y a eu plus de 15 000 personnes devant North Gate. Il y a eu des morts dans cette zone du fait des mouvements de foule. Un portail est tombé sous la pression de la foule. Il a été remplacé par un container blindé. Ailleurs, un véhicule blindé a été garé près du portail pour le soutenir.

How do you feel about evacuation efforts from the airport where you next settled in?

There were a thousand dangerous situations. We were able to set up in armored containers that had been used by Thales [a French aerospace and defense company]. We could hear explosions day and night. At the entrances, American marines and British paratroopers would fire warning shots into the air. We had to decide within an instant of seeing the identification papers of people in the crowd whether to extend a hand to pull them inside.

The airport may well have been an American airbase. It had become, in the span of days, a refugee camp. At times, the doors were closed because there had been too many people in the enclosure and in the “grey zone”, the space between the last Taliban checkpoint and the entrance to the airport. It was very chaotic. At the peak, there were more than 15,000 people in front of the North Gate. There were dead bodies in this zone due to crowding. One gate gave way under crowd pressure. It was replaced by an armored container. Elsewhere, an armored vehicle was parked against a gate for added support.

Martinon working on evacuating Kabul from inside Kabul airport
Martinon working on evacuating Kabul from inside the airport

Les Américains contrôlaient-ils l’attribution des créneaux aériens ?

Nous avons pu disposer de deux puis de trois slots aériens par jour pour mener nos évacuations : à 1 h 30 et à 5 heures du matin, parfois l’après-midi. Les avions ne se posaient que pendant vingt-cinq minutes à chaque fois. C’était impressionnant à voir. Nous n’avons jamais gardé plus de 250 personnes plus de douze heures. Cela a beaucoup rassuré les Américains, qui nous ont laissés travailler. Ils avaient l’obsession de sortir le plus grand nombre de gens à bord de leurs appareils. Ils ont mis jusqu’à 400 personnes dans leurs C17, installées à même le sol, pour les amener à Abou Dhabi et à Doha et les répartir ensuite entre le Koweït et Bahreïn. Nous aussi, nous avons atteint des jauges jamais vues dans nos deux appareils [A400M et C130].

Did the Americans control the assignment of air evacuation timeslots?

We could make use of two then three of the flight timeslots per day to carry out our evacuations: at 1:30 am and 5 am, sometimes in the afternoon. The airplanes would only land for twenty-five minutes each time. It was impressive to see. We never kept more than 250 people for more than 12 hours. This greatly reassured the Americans who left us to our work. They were obsessed with evacuating the greatest number of people on board their planes. They put up to 400 people in their C17s, seated even on the floor, to take them to Abu Dhabi and Doha and then onto Kuwait and Bahrain. We, the French, also attained passenger capacities never before seen in our two aircraft [A400M (made by Airbus) and C130 (made by Lockheed)].

Afghans evacuating Kabul
Kabul airport, August 19, 2021, Afghans evacuating Kabul

La France a évacué quelque 3 000 personnes, alors que les Britanniques affirment en avoir sorti 15 000, pourquoi cette différence ?

Nos amis britanniques et américains ne sont pas du tout dans la même situation que nous. Nous travaillions depuis plus de trois mois à sortir les collaborateurs de la France. Tout ce qu’on fait à partir du 15 août, c’est apporter une assistance supplémentaire. Ce sont des gens que l’on veut protéger et pour lesquels nous avons une responsabilité. Les Américains, comme les Britanniques, n’ont sorti à peu près personne à cette date. Donc ils déploient les grands moyens. Les premiers font venir 6 000 marines, les seconds 2 000 parachutistes. En regard, le dispositif français, c’est une centaine de personnes sur place pour mener les opérations, dont la moitié était chargée d’aller chercher aux portes de la plate-forme les Français et les Afghans qui souhaitaient quitter le pays.

Tous ont accompli un travail incroyable. Pendant deux semaines, on a dormi trois heures par nuit. On a réalisé des opérations nocturnes dans des conditions très risquées, parlé aux talibans s’il le fallait. Je suis très fier aussi de cette équipe qui a si bien travaillé ensemble : des diplomates, des militaires, des policiers, dont des opérateurs du RAID, tout cela autour de la même table. En matière de logistique, de fait, nous sommes les invités des Américains sur cette base, des Turcs et des Britanniques dans une moindre mesure, qui ont aussi de forts contingents. Ce sont eux qui tiennent les portes d’accès et assurent la sécurité sur le site.

France evacuated some 3,000 people, whereas the British assert that they evacuated 15,000, why this difference?

Our British and American friends weren’t at all in the same situation as we were. We were working for more than three months to evacuate those who collaborated with France. Everything we did after August 15th, was done to provide supplemental assistance to the effort. These were people that we wanted to protect and to whom we had a responsibility. The Americans, like the British, hardly evacuated anyone before this date. Thus, they had to go to great measures. The first to come were 6,000 marines, the second 2,000 paratroopers. The French operation, by comparison, was around 100 people on-site to lead the operations, of which half were charged with finding French and Afghan people at the entrances to the airstrip who wanted to leave the country.

Everyone accomplished an incredible task. For two weeks, we slept three hours per night. We carried out nighttime operations under extremely risky conditions, spoke to the Taliban if it was necessary. I’m also very proud of this team that worked so well together: diplomats, military personnel, police, including members of RAID [an anti-terrorism force], all seated around the same table. With respect to logistics, in fact, we were invited onto the base by the Americans, the Turks and the British who also had strong participation, helped in a lesser capacity [with logistics]. It was they who maintained the access doors and assured security at the site.

Afghan refugees arrive in France
Afghan refugees arrive at Charles Degaulle Airport, Ministère des Armées

En quoi l’attentat-suicide perpétré par l’Etat islamique en Afghanistan près de l’une des portes de l’aéroport, le 26 août, a-t-il perturbé les évacuations ?

Cette attaque a entraîné l’interruption de la dernière opération que nous voulions tenter de mener. Ce jour-là, les bus et quelque 400 personnes à bord ont de nouveau été longuement bloqués à un point de contrôle taliban. Puis le ou les kamikazes se font détoner, au moment où les personnes descendaient des cars pour accéder au terminal civil de South Terminal, à 200 mètres de là. Les talibans ont alors été obligés de réagir, en cessant toutes les opérations. Même réaction du côté américain, qui déplorait alors 12 morts. Ces gens-là sont toujours en Afghanistan et ce sont ceux que nous cherchons à faire partir désormais, dès que possible, via le Qatar.

How did the suicide attack near one of the entrances to the airport, perpetrated by the Islamic State in Afghanistan on August 26, disturb the evacuations?

This attack interrupted the last operation that we wanted to carry out. That day, the busses and some 400 people on board were once again blocked at a Taliban checkpoint. Then the kamikaze(s) blew themselves up, right when the people were descending from the busses in order to access the civilian terminal at the South Terminal, 200 meters away from there. The Taliban were then obliged to react by stopping all operations. Same reaction from the American side that suffered 12 fatalities. Those [400] people are still in Afghanistan and it’s those people that we have since been looking for to evacuate as soon as possible, via Qatar.

Quel est aujourd’hui le niveau de la menace terroriste ?

La menace d’Al-Qaida ne se fera pas sentir directement à court terme sur le territoire, mais ces terroristes gardent une vocation internationaliste, contrairement aux talibans, qui sont des nationalistes. La menace de l’organisation Etat islamique au Khorassan (EI-K) est en revanche bien réelle localement, comme nous l’avons constaté pendant les évacuations. L’organisation a pourtant été très affaiblie. Les talibans ont combattu ses membres dans le Nord à l’été 2018. Pendant l’hiver 2019, ils les ont pourchassés dans l’Est. Il y a eu aussi beaucoup de redditions à l’armée afghane. Mais nous avons toujours dit que cette retraite était tactique, saisonnière.

Si l’EI-K a perdu ses positions à ce moment-là, il a conservé sa capacité à recruter en ligne, ses moyens financiers, et ses réseaux dans Kaboul. De fait, il a pu mener des attentats atroces depuis, comme celui de la maternité opérée par MSF en mai 2020, puis celui contre une école de filles, un an après. Dans leur avancée, les talibans ont libéré des prisonniers, talibans d’abord, mais aussi de l’EI-K dans un deuxième temps. L’EI-K se retrouve de nouveau doté d’une force militante, composée de quelques centaines d’activistes, surtout à Kaboul. Des kamikazes et des véhicules piégés sont préparés et n’ont pas été utilisés.

What is the terrorist threat level today?

The threat from Al-Quaeda in the region won’t be directly felt in the short term, but these terrorists are tending an international mission, contrary to the Taliban, who are nationalists. On the other hand, the threat from the organization Islamic State Khorasan (ISIS-K) is quite real locally, as we saw during the evacuations. The organization, however, has been extremely weakened. The Taliban fought against ISIS-K members in the North in the summer of 2018. During the winter of 2019, the Taliban hunted them down in the East. There were also many who surrendered to the Afghan army. But we have always said that this retreat was tactical, seasonal.

If ISIS-K has lost its positions for the moment, it has preserved its ability to recruit online, its financial means, and its connections in Kabul. In fact, it has been able to conduct atrocious attacks, like that on the maternity hospital operated by Doctors Without Borders in May of 2020, followed by an attack against a school for girls a year later. During their advance, the Taliban liberated prisoners, Taliban fighters at first, but also members of ISIS-K in a second phase. ISIS-K finds itself once more endowed with a military force composed of hundreds of activists, especially in Kabul. Kamikazes and booby-trapped vehicles are ready to go and haven’t been used.

Taliban by burned out car
Taliban next to car destroyed by rockets, August 30, 2021. © Wakil Kohsar

Reporting by: Philippe Ricard

Endnotes

Operation Apagan, set into motion on August 15 at the demand of President Macron, terminated on the evening of August 27. In less than two weeks, the French military evacuated 2,834 people—142 French citizens and 2,630 Afghans. The French military operated a two-stage airlift: 26 flights between Kabul and Abu Dabi and 16 flights between Abu Dabi and Paris.

The war in Afghanistan was the longest war in U.S. history. According to Statistica, there were about 2.6 million Afghan refugees abroad (plus 2.9 million displaced within Afghanistan) at the end of 2020 that had not yet entered or completed asylum. 85% of these people were living in neighboring Pakistan or Iran. Germany had taken in 148,000, about 5.5%. France had taken 32,000. The United States accepted 2,000.

Other Resources

  • Le Monde, David Martinon : « A l’aéroport de Kaboul, il y a eu mille situations dangereuses »
  • EuroNews, Fact check: French ambassador did not leave Kabul amid Taliban seize of power
  • Aljazeera, Kabul the day after the Taliban takeover
  • Ministère des Armées, Operation d’évacuation en Afghanistan
  • BFMTV, Afghanistan: l’ambassade de France à Kaboul déplacée à l’aéroport
  • Ariana News, Response: Exclusive interview with David Martinon, French Ambassador to Kabul
  • Le Parisien, Afghanistan : les images du chaos ambiant près de l’aéroport de Kaboul
  • France24, L’aéroport de Kaboul visé par une attaque de roquettes, les évacuations se poursuivent

About Carol A. Seidl

Serial software entrepreneur, writer, French to English translator, mother, and lover of: books, travel, history, cultures, art, cooking, fitness, nature.

10 Comments

  1. Frightening days. It sounds like they were more organized than we were, having gotten much of the necessary evacuating done before things really went to hell.

    • Yes. It does sound like France was more organized. The saddest thing I learned in gathering background information for this post was the few number of refugees that the US has taken in, compared to other countries, after all the tens of thousands that worked to help us.

      • That really stood out to me as well – pretty shocking. The Trump administration blocked immigration for Afghans who risked their lives to help us, but what is the hold-up now?? Maybe another unfortunate result of not appreciating how little time there was. I read that there are now over 65,000 Afghan refugees that are now being vetted for immigration to the U.S. (24,000 at military bases in the U.S.) So we’ll see how that plays out https://www.brookings.edu/blog/fixgov/2021/09/10/the-evacuation-of-afghan-refugees-is-over-now-what/

        • Thanks for the link Lisa. Several days ago, I signed up with a non-profit to help with resettling people who end up in Michigan but haven’t heard a word.

          • What I’ve heard is that the bureaucratic process for getting refugees in these circumstances into the US is extremely complex and cumbersome compared to what most receiving countries have. So the government has been trying to find third countries to hold “our” refugees temporarily while they work through all the red tape.

            By the way, thanks for doing all the work of translating the full article. That’s a pretty sizable job.

          • I hope they get things working more smoothly. I find our current commitment to these people completely irresponsible and callous.

            Yes. The translations take a while, but I thoroughly enjoy doing them. Didn’t exercise my French much over the busy summer. This story gave me a chance to dive back in. I always appreciate getting a foreign perspective on the world’s news—one of the things I appreciate about your blog. You cull from a wide variety of news sources.

  2. Thanks for sharing Carol.

  3. So many awful stories! The Afghan girl I’ve blogged about a lot (Eg https://suzannesmomsblog.com/2020/08/24/if-she-says-shell-end-child-marriages/) has started college here but is terrified for her mother and sister and trying to send them money.

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