18,000 airlifted from Kabul chaos; tens of thousands desperate to follow

Taliban fighters are surrounding the airport, there are bureaucratic complications, and Biden’s August 31 deadline is fast approaching

In this photo provided by the US Marine Corps, civilians prepare to board a plane during an evacuation at Hamid Karzai International Airport, Kabul, Afghanistan, on August 18, 2021. (Staff Sgt. Victor Mancilla/US Marine Corps via AP)
In this photo provided by the US Marine Corps, civilians prepare to board a plane during an evacuation at Hamid Karzai International Airport, Kabul, Afghanistan, on August 18, 2021. (Staff Sgt. Victor Mancilla/US Marine Corps via AP)

Over 18,000 people trying to flee Afghanistan have been evacuated from Kabul airport since the Taliban swept through the country’s capital earlier this week, a NATO official told Reuters on Friday.

The unnamed official told the news agency that massive crowds of those desperate to flee continued to throng outside the airport.

The United States is struggling to pick up the pace of American and Afghan evacuations, constrained by obstacles ranging from armed Taliban checkpoints to paperwork problems. With an August 31 deadline looming, tens of thousands remained to be airlifted from the chaotic country.

Taliban fighters and their checkpoints ringed the airport — major barriers for Afghans who fear that their past work with Westerners makes them prime targets for retribution. Hundreds of Afghans who lacked any papers or clearance for evacuation also congregated outside the airport, adding to the chaos that has prevented even some Afghans who do have papers and promises of flights from getting through.

It didn’t help that many of the Taliban fighters could not read the documents.

In a hopeful sign, US State Department spokesman Ned Price said in Washington that 6,000 people were cleared for evacuation on Thursday and were expected to board military flights in coming hours. That would mark a major increase from recent days. About 2,000 passengers were flown out on each of the past two days, Pentagon spokesman John Kirby said.

In this photo provided by the US Marine Corps, a boy is processed through an Evacuee Control Checkpoint during an evacuation at Hamid Karzai International Airport, in Kabul, Afghanistan, on August 18, 2021. (Staff Sgt. Victor Mancilla/US Marine Corps via AP)

Kirby said that the military has aircraft available to evacuate 5,000 to 9,000 people per day, but until Thursday far fewer designated evacuees had been able to reach and then enter the airport.

Kirby told reporters that the limiting factor has been available evacuees, not aircraft. He said that efforts were underway to speed up processing, including adding US State Department consular officers to verify paperwork of Americans and Afghans who managed to get to the airport. Additional entry gates had been opened, he said.

And yet, at the current rate, it would be difficult for the US to evacuate all of the Americans and Afghans who are qualified for and seeking evacuation by August 31.

US President Joe Biden said on Wednesday that he would ensure no American was left behind, even if that meant staying beyond August, an arbitrary deadline that he set weeks before the Taliban climaxed a stunning military victory by taking Kabul last weekend.

It was not clear if Biden might consider extending the deadline for evacuees who aren’t American citizens. The president will deliver remarks on the evacuation Friday afternoon at the White House.

At the Kabul airport, military evacuation flights continued, but access remained difficult for many. On Thursday, Taliban militants fired into the air to try to control the crowds gathered at the airport’s blast walls. Men, women, and children fled.

US Navy fighter jets flew overhead, a standard military precaution but also a reminder to the Taliban that the US has the firepower to respond to a combat crisis.

There is no accurate figure of the number of people — Americans, Afghans, or others — who are in need of evacuation, as the process is almost entirely self-selecting.

For example, the US State Department says that when it ordered its nonessential embassy staff to leave Kabul in April after Biden’s withdrawal announcement, fewer than 4,000 Americans had registered for security updates.

The actual number, including dual US-Afghan citizens along with family members, is likely much higher, with estimates ranging from 11,000 to 15,000. Tens of thousands of Afghans may also be in need of escape.

US Marine Corps Gen. Frank McKenzie, center, the commander of US Central Command, meets with US Navy Rear Adm. Peter Vasely, commander of US Forces Afghanistan-Forward, at Hamid Karzai International Airport, Kabul, Afghanistan, on August 17, 2021. (Capt. William Urban/US Navy via AP)

Compounding the uncertainty, the US government has no way to track how many registered Americans may have left Afghanistan already. Some may have returned to the US, but others may have gone to third countries.

At the Pentagon, Kirby declined to say whether US Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin had recommended to Biden that he extend the August 31 deadline. Given the Taliban’s takeover of the country, staying beyond that date would require at least the Taliban’s acquiescence, he said.

He said that he knew of no such talks yet between US and Taliban commanders, who have been in regular touch for days to limit conflict at the airport as part of what the White House has termed a “safe passage” agreement worked out on Sunday.

“I think it is just a fundamental fact of the reality of where we are, that communications and a certain measure of agreement with the Taliban on what we’re trying to accomplish has to occur,” Kirby said.

Of the approximately 2,000 people airlifted from the airport in the 24 hours that ended Wednesday morning, nearly 300 were Americans, Kirby said.

US lawmakers were briefed on Thursday morning that 6,741 people had been evacuated since August 14, including 1,762 American citizens and Green Card holders, according to two congressional aides. But the NATO official said the number was significantly higher.

Although Afghanistan had been a hotspot for the coronavirus pandemic, the US State Department said on Thursday that evacuees are not required to get negative COVID-19 results.

Taliban fighters display their flag while on patrol in Kabul, Afghanistan, on August 19, 2021. (AP/Rahmat Gul)

“A blanket humanitarian waiver has been implemented for COVID-19 testing for all persons the US government is relocating from Afghanistan,” the department said. Medical exams, including COVID-19 tests, had been required for evacuees prior to the Taliban’s takeover of Kabul, which added extra urgency to efforts to get at-risk Afghans out.

Additional American troops continued to arrive at the airport. As of Thursday, there were about 5,200, including Marines who specialize in evacuation coordination and an Air Force unit that specializes in emergency airport operations. Biden has authorized a total deployment of about 6,000.

Hoping to secure evacuation seats are American citizens and other foreigners, Afghan allies of the Western forces, and women, journalists, activists and others most at risk from the fundamentalist Taliban.

In June, more than 20 diplomats at the US Embassy in Kabul registered their concerns that the evacuation of Afghans who had worked for America was not proceeding quickly enough.

In a cable sent through the US State Department’s dissent channel, a time-honored method for foreign service officers to register opposition to administration policies, the diplomats said that the situation on the ground was dire, that the Taliban would likely seize control of the capital within months of the August 31 pullout, and urged the administration to immediately begin a concerted evacuation effort, according to officials familiar with the document.

Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin pauses while speaking during a media briefing at the Pentagon, on August 18, 2021, in Washington, DC. (AP Photo/Alex Brandon)

Will US troops go beyond the airport perimeter to collect and escort people? Austin suggested on Wednesday that this was not currently feasible. “We don’t have the capability to go out and collect large numbers of people,” he told reporters.

Austin added that evacuations would continue “until the clock runs out or we run out of capability.”

Afghans in danger because of their work with the US military or US organizations, and Americans scrambling to get them out, also pleaded with Washington to cut the red tape that has complicated matters.

“If we don’t sort this out, we’ll literally be condemning people to death,” said Marina Kielpinski LeGree, the American head of the nonprofit Ascend. The organization’s young Afghan female colleagues were in the mass of people waiting for flights at the airport in the wake of days of mayhem, tear gas, and gunshots.

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