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Taliban checkpoints, airport chaos hamper US bid to speed Kabul evacuation

Confusion reigns as paperwork issues and other problems keep many from being able to board planes out, though pace of flights still picks up with August 31 deadline looming

Afghan people wait to board a U S military aircraft to leave Afghanistan, at the military airport in Kabul on August 19, 2021 after Taliban's military takeover of Afghanistan. (Shakib RAHMANI / AFP)
Afghan people wait to board a U S military aircraft to leave Afghanistan, at the military airport in Kabul on August 19, 2021 after Taliban's military takeover of Afghanistan. (Shakib RAHMANI / AFP)

WASHINGTON (AP) — The United States struggled Thursday to pick up the pace of American and Afghan evacuations at Kabul’s airport, 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, State Department spokesman Ned Price said in Washington that 6,000 people were cleared for evacuation 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.

Afghan people queue up and board a US military aircraft to leave Afghanistan, at the military airport in Kabul on August 19, 2021 after Taliban’s military takeover of Afghanistan. (Shakib RAHMANI / AFP)

Kirby said 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 the limiting factor has been available evacuees, not aircraft. He said efforts were underway to speed processing, including adding 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 Wednesday 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.

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

At the 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 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 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.

Afghan people sit inside a US military aircraft to leave Afghanistan, at the military airport in Kabul on August 19, 2021 after Taliban’s military takeover of Afghanistan. (Shakib RAHMANI / AFP)

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 United States but others may have gone to third countries.

At the Pentagon, Kirby declined to say whether 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 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.

Stack of sheets filled with details of Afghan residents wishing to leave the country is pictured inside a Humvee in front of the British and Canadian embassy in Kabul on August 19, 2021 after Taliban’s military takeover of Afghanistan. (WAKIL KOHSAR / AFP)

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

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

“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.

People among the first evacuees from Kabul, arrive at Frankfurt International Airport in western Germany in the early hours of August 18, 2021. (Armando BABANI / AFP)

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.

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.

Afghan people queue up to board a U S military aircraft to leave Afghanistan, at the military airport in Kabul on August 19, 2021 after Taliban’s military takeover of Afghanistan. (Shakib RAHMANI / AFP)

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 a 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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