In Kabul, a fearful wait for US to deliver on evacuation vow
Vulnerable Afghans who fear the Taliban's retaliation are pleading not to be left behind
KABUL, Afghanistan (AP) — Tens of thousands of people in Afghanistan waited nervously on Saturday to see whether the United States would deliver on US President Joe Biden’s new pledge to evacuate all Americans and all Afghans who aided the war effort. Meanwhile, the Taliban leader arrived in Kabul for talks with the group’s leadership on forming a new government.
Time is running out ahead of Biden’s August 31 deadline to withdraw most remaining US troops, and the president on Friday night did not commit to extending it. He faces growing criticism as videos depict pandemonium and occasional violence outside the airport, and as vulnerable Afghans who fear the Taliban’s retaliation send desperate pleas not to be left behind.
In a new security warning, the US Embassy on Saturday told citizens not to travel to the Kabul airport without “individual instructions from a US government representative,” citing potential security threats outside its gates.
And yet crowds remained outside its concrete barriers, clutching documents and sometimes stunned-looking children, blocked from flight by coils of razor wire.
Tens of thousands of translators and other Afghan wartime helpers, along with their close family members, are seeking evacuation after the Taliban’s shockingly swift takeover of Afghanistan in a little over a week’s time.
The fall of Kabul marked the final chapter of America’s longest war, which began after the September 11, 2001 terror attacks.
Taliban leader Mullah Abdul Ghani Baradar, who negotiated the religious movement’s 2020 peace deal with the US, was in Kabul for meetings with the group’s leadership, a Taliban official said, speaking on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to talk to the news media. Baradar’s presence is significant because he has often held talks with former Afghan leaders such as ex-President Hamid Karzai.
Afghan officials familiar with talks held in the capital say that the Taliban have said they will not make announcements on their government until the August 31 deadline for the troop withdrawal passes.
Abdullah Abdullah, a senior official in the ousted government, tweeted that he and Karzai met on Saturday with Taliban’s acting governor for Kabul, who “assured us that he would do everything possible for the security of the people” of the city.
Evacuations continued, though some outgoing flights were far from full because of the airport chaos, Taliban checkpoints and bureaucratic challenges. A German flight on Friday night carried 172 evacuees, but two subsequent flights carried out just seven and eight people, respectively.
On Friday, British Prime Minister Boris Johnson said that around 1,000 people a day were being evacuated amid a “stabilization” at the airport. But on Saturday, a former Royal Marine-turned charity director in Afghanistan said that the situation was getting worse, not better.
“We can’t leave the country because we can’t get into the airport without putting our lives at risk,” Paul Farthing told BBC radio. “You’ve all seen the scenes — it is not different today to any other time.”
Farthing said that he has been told by British authorities that a flight back to the United Kingdom has a seat for him, but not for the 25 staff from his animal welfare charity Nowzad and their families.
After a backlog at a transit facility in Qatar forced flights from the Kabul international airport to stop for several hours on Friday, the Gulf nation of Bahrain announced on Saturday that it was allowing flights to use its transit facilities for the evacuation. The United Arab Emirates, meanwhile, said it would host up to 5,000 Afghans “prior to their departure to other countries.”
On Friday, a defense official said about 5,700 people, including about 250 Americans, were flown out of Kabul aboard 16 C-17 transport planes, guarded by a temporary US military deployment that’s building to 6,000 troops. On each of the previous two days, about 2,000 people were airlifted.
Officials also confirmed that US military helicopters flew beyond the Kabul airport to scoop up 169 Americans seeking to evacuate. No one knows how many US citizens remain in Afghanistan, but estimates have ranged as high as 15,000.
So far, 13 countries have agreed to host at-risk Afghans at least temporarily, US Secretary of State Antony Blinken said. Another 12 have agreed to serve as transit points for evacuees, including Americans and others. About 300 evacuees arrived Friday night from Qatar at the US Ramstein Air Base in Germany, one transit point for people being taken to the US, the American military said.
“We are tired. We are happy. We are now in a safe country,” one Afghan man said upon arrival in Italy with 79 fellow citizens, speaking in a video distributed by that country’s defense ministry.
But the growing question for many other Afghans is, where will they finally call home? Already, European leaders who fear a repeat of the 2015 migration crisis are signaling that fleeing Afghans who didn’t help Western forces during the war should stay in neighboring countries instead. The desperate scenes of people clinging to aircraft taking off from Kabul’s airport have only deepened Europe’s anxiety.
Remaining in Afghanistan means adapting to life under the Taliban, who say that they seek an “inclusive, Islamic” government, will offer full amnesty to those who worked for the US and the Western-backed government and have become more moderate since they last held power from 1996 to 2001. They also have said — without elaborating — that they will honor women’s rights within the norms of Islamic law.
But many Afghans fear a return to the Taliban’s harsh rule in the late 1990s, when the group barred women from attending school or working outside the home, banned television and music, chopped off the hands of suspected thieves and held public executions.