US advises citizens to avoid Kabul airport amid ‘potential security threats’

Embassy in Afghan capital says people trying to flee country should not travel to airport unless instructed to by officials

In this image provided by the US Marine Corps, Marines assist with security at an evacuation control checkpoint during an evacuation at Hamid Karzai International Airport in Kabul, Afghanistan, on August 20, 2021. (Staff Sgt. Victor Mancilla/US Marine Corps via AP)
In this image provided by the US Marine Corps, Marines assist with security at an evacuation control checkpoint during an evacuation at Hamid Karzai International Airport in Kabul, Afghanistan, on August 20, 2021. (Staff Sgt. Victor Mancilla/US Marine Corps via AP)

In a security warning on Saturday, the United States Embassy in Afghanistan told citizens not to travel to the Kabul airport without being instructed to, citing potential security threats outside its gates.

“Because of potential security threats outside the gates at the Kabul airport, we are advising US citizens to avoid traveling to the airport and to avoid airport gates at this time unless you receive individual instructions from a US government representative to do so,” the embassy stated on Saturday.

And yet crowds remained outside its concrete barriers, clutching documents and sometimes stunned-looking children, blocked from flight by coils of razor wire.

Those trying to flee Afghanistan waited nervously to see whether the US would deliver on US President Joe Biden’s new pledge to evacuate all Americans and all Afghans who aided the war effort.

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.

Tens of thousands of Afghan translators and others, and their close family members, seek 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.

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)

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 media. Baradar’s presence is significant because he has often held talks with former Afghan leaders like ex-president Hamid Karzai.

Afghan officials familiar with talks held in the capital say that the Taliban have said that 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.

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.”

In this image provided by the US Air Force, a US Air Force loadmaster, assigned to the 816th Expeditionary Airlift Squadron, assists evacuees aboard a C-17 Globemaster III aircraft in support of Operation Allies Refuge at Hamid Karzai International Airport in Kabul, Afghanistan, on August 20, 2021. (Senior Airman Taylor Crul/US Air Force via AP)

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, offer full amnesty to those who worked for the US and the Western-backed government and claim that they have become more moderate since they last held power from 1996 to 2001. They say that they’ll honor women’s rights within the norms of Islamic law, without elaborating.

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

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.

Already reports have emerged of hunts for US collaborators and executions of perceived enemies.

“Today some of my friends went to work at the court and the Taliban didn’t let them into their offices. They showed their guns and said, ‘You’re not eligible to work in this government if you worked in the past one,'” one women’s activist in Kabul told The Associated Press on Saturday. She spoke on condition of anonymity for fear of retaliation.

With a Turkish visa but with no way to safely reach the airport, the activist described the gap between the Taliban’s words and actions “very alarming.” She said that she was holed up in the city with a colleague, eating food delivered by a friend.

The Taliban now operate in a very different Afghanistan, facing far closer scrutiny this time around as Afghans share updates on social media. Some Afghans, however, fear retaliation, and are hurriedly wiping out their online presence instead.

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