Afghan evacuation drama nears end, as Aug. 31 deadline approaches

Families begin to board a US Air Force Boeing C-17 Globemaster III during an evacuation at Hamid Karzai International Airport in Kabul (Photo: AFP)
Families begin to board a US Air Force Boeing C-17 Globemaster III during an evacuation at Hamid Karzai International Airport in Kabul (Photo: AFP)


US forces need time to withdraw 5,400 troops and essential equipment, but Pentagon says it will continue evacuations as long as possible

Facing an Aug. 31 deadline to leave Afghanistan, thousands of U.S. military service members must shift in a few days from evacuating Americans and Afghans to loading the remaining 5,400 U.S. personnel and essential equipment onto the final planes to depart the country after the 20-year war.

The Pentagon said Wednesday that in the days ahead, it would increasingly give priority to evacuating U.S. military personnel and equipment from Hamid Karzai International Airport leading up to its Aug. 31 deadline. But it committed to evacuating Afghans until operations conclude, without saying when they would end or when the final military withdrawal would commence.

“We will have to reserve some capacity in those last couple of days to prioritize the military footprint leaving because we want to be able to keep it there as long as possible to do the job it is intended to do," Pentagon spokesman John Kirby told reporters Wednesday.

In a sign of the shift, Turkey began evacuating its soldiers from Afghanistan, the Defense Ministry said on Wednesday. Turkish troops had played a key role securing the Kabul airport.

Before the Taliban takeover, U.S. officials had been negotiating with Ankara toward an agreement in which Turkey would continue providing security at the airport after American forces left the country. The Turkish Defense Ministry said Wednesday that its soldiers were returning home after completing their mission.

Over the past 24 hours, the U.S. evacuated 11,200 people on 42 cargo plane flights, the Pentagon said. In all, the U.S. has moved between 58,000 and 60,000 since Aug. 14, and roughly 88,000 have left through U.S., allied, chartered and other flights combined, the Pentagon said.

Many aid organizations have been told by Western governments that evacuation flights won’t continue past Friday, as the U.S. military will need the days remaining until the Aug. 31 deadline to remove its own equipment and troops from Kabul. That guidance represented one sign that the window for Afghans desperate to leave the Taliban-controlled country is closing and that thousands of Afghans who want to leave likely will be stranded.

Thick crowds gathered around the airport Wednesday as the clock ticked down to catch the last flights out. Many waved their travel papers or signs with their nationalities, hoping to attract the attention of the foreign troops controlling access checkpoints.

One Afghan man, who didn’t want to be named because he feared for his safety, said he got through the Taliban check posts on the way to the airport with an invitation letter from a European country on Wednesday morning. He tried all day to get through the throng around the airport entrance gates, without success, and returned home after nightfall. He said he would try again Thursday.

“There were so many people there that, if you dropped a needle from the sky, it would not hit the ground," he said.

Foreign soldiers spaced out on top of the airport wall had the flags of their countries held up, so that those people who had nationalities or visas for that nation could approach them, he said.

One family with connections to the deposed Afghan government has been trying to leave Kabul since last Thursday, making at least two unsuccessful attempts to reach the gates despite communications from the U.S. Embassy saying their visas had been issued.

On one occasion, the father, Mohammed, who had served in the Afghan military, grew a beard and wore dirty clothes in hopes of going unrecognized by the Taliban, but was stopped. The second time, they endured hours in crushing throngs, waving their documents at American soldiers, to no avail, they said.

“This is no way to treat human beings," said Mohammad’s daughter, Husnia, after the family left the gate the second time and went to hide with a friend.

The Pentagon wouldn’t say when such flights would no longer be available to Afghans, saying it was up to the commanders on the ground. Secretary of State Antony Blinken was due to speak later Wednesday regarding the number of U.S. citizens and others remaining in Afghanistan.

Mr. Kirby said that the U.S. troops would continue flying out as many people as possible for as long as they can, and said no Afghan with a U.S. Special Immigrant Visa—the type given to Afghans who worked for U.S. forces or agencies during the war—would be left behind.

“We know there are a lot of desperate people who want to leave, and that is why we are working as fast as we can," Mr. Kirby said.

The U.S. also said Wednesday it had conducted its third helicopter evacuation overnight of Americans stuck outside the airport. Mr. Kirby wouldn’t provide any details other than to say “less than 20" were flown into the airport compound.

In Kabul, the Taliban continued to try violently dispersing crowds at the airport, shooting in the air and using whips and chains. On Wednesday, footage of a man near the airport, bleeding from the head from an apparent beating from the Taliban as he pleaded that he is an Australian citizen, circulated on social media.

A number of embassies successfully picked up their citizens and preselected Afghans in the city before dawn, and managed to get them in bus or minibus convoys inside the airport and onto flights. Embassies have also warned over security threats, including from Islamic State jihadist group, to the crowds outside the airport. Some have advised citizens to stay away and wait for further instructions.

The Pentagon said that it was in daily communication with the Taliban to facilitate who should be allowed to enter.

The Taliban announced Tuesday that they would stop Afghans reaching the airport, but at least some with travel documents were allowed through the group’s checkpoints on the way to the airport on Wednesday.

Suhail Shaheen, a spokesman for the Taliban, said Wednesday that Afghans with travel documentation would be allowed to fly out after Aug. 31. He reiterated that U.S. and allied troops should withdraw by that deadline, saying on Twitter that “it will pave the way for resumption of civilian flights." All commercial flights to Kabul have been suspended since the Taliban took over the city Aug. 15.

The U.S. deployed 5,800 troops to the airport shortly after the Taliban took control of the capital Aug. 15. It took several days for those forces to arrive in Afghanistan.

President Biden said Tuesday that he has asked the Pentagon and State Department to draft contingency plans for extending evacuation operations beyond the Aug. 31 deadline he had set earlier. Mr. Kirby said the Pentagon was crafting those plans but wouldn’t outline any of the possible scenarios.

As the last hours wind down for the evacuation operation, some Western officials sought to secure additional time to remove their citizens or Afghans who assisted them.

German officials said the Taliban agreed to allow the evacuation to continue through the use of civilian flights after the Aug. 31 deadline. Markus Potzel, who is negotiating with the Taliban on behalf of Chancellor Angela Merkel, said the group would allow the civilian airport operations in Kabul as a prerequisite for an international diplomatic and humanitarian presence in the country.

Mr. Potzel made the comments Tuesday after meeting with the Taliban’s senior leader in Doha, Sher Mohammed Abbas Stanekzai.

“Director Stanekzai assured me that Afghans with legal documents will continue to have the opportunity to travel on commercial flights after 31 August," Mr. Potzel tweeted.

Mr. Potzel also said that Germany would provide immediate assistance of more than $100 million to Afghanistan, which would be channeled via humanitarian organizations and subject to conditions that would be set between Berlin and Kabul. On Monday, Chancellor Merkel said that Germany would be willing to pay another nearly $600 million in humanitarian assistance, pending negotiations with the Taliban.


Catch all the Politics News and Updates on Live Mint. Download The Mint News App to get Daily Market Updates & Live Business News.