As the government scrambles to evacuate Japanese and local staff working at its embassy and other Japanese organizations in Afghanistan following the Taliban's return to power, some of those involved in the mission aired safety concerns on Tuesday.
Some members of the Self-Defense Forces and the Defense Ministry expressed wariness over the fluid security situation in the country and the hurriedly arranged nature of the transport mission.
While the troops will be allowed to carry rifles, use of them is heavily restricted under Japanese law given that the mission is defined as an evacuation from a "safe place."
The SDF's use of weapons is strictly limited to self-defense purposes under Japan's war-renouncing Constitution.
"I doubt the government's claim that Afghanistan is safe, when no one is sure of what the Taliban are thinking," a senior SDF official said.
A senior Defense Ministry official said, "We are quickly preparing for the mission and to be honest, we don't really know the local situation."
The mission will involve several hundred personnel from the Air and Ground Self Defense Forces evacuating several hundred people aboard SDF transport aircraft from Kabul airport to a third country near Afghanistan, which the government declined to name citing diplomatic protocol.
Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga said Tuesday at a meeting of the ruling Liberal Democratic Party that "the safe departure (from Afghanistan) of Japanese nationals and local staff is our top priority."
The government is considering organizing charter flights or other means to transport the evacuees from the third country to Japan or elsewhere, the sources said.
The government maintains that the airport is in the safe hands of U.S. forces, but there are reports of firefights and deaths at and around the airport amid a chaotic exodus.
There also remain questions over the safety of evacuees given that they have to travel to the airport by themselves.
"I hope the government will create an environment where the troops can work safely," the SDF official said.
In the past, the SDF has been involved in four missions to transport Japanese nationals, but no weapons were used, according to the Defense Ministry.
This time, the government defines the operation as a mission to transport Japanese nationals and others from one safe place to another, which under the law comes with heavy restrictions on the use of weapons. SDF personnel are permitted to fire only when it is unavoidable to ensure the safety of SDF members and those with them.
In 2016, Japan newly established legal provisions on the protection of Japanese nationals from terrorism or other crises, which would grant SDF members broader authority to use weapons including for warning.
But no protection missions have been so far conducted as they would require more conditions to be met, such as gaining consent from the concerned country.
With the Afghan government having collapsed following the takeover by the Taliban militant group, it was difficult for the Japanese government to classify the evacuation as a protection mission.
Earlier this month, the Taliban regained control of Afghanistan 20 years after it was ousted from power by U.S.-led forces, with President Ashraf Ghani fleeing the country following the group's seizure of Kabul on Aug. 15.
Japanese diplomats were evacuated to Dubai on Aug. 17 after the embassy in Kabul was shut on Aug. 15.
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