The U.S. military has evacuated a total of 37,000 people from Kabul since the fall of Afghanistan to the Taliban, the White House announced Monday, including 10,400 over the last 24 hours — the most since the evacuation began. During the same period, another 5,900 people were evacuated by coalition aircraft. The stepped-up exodus efforts come amid continuing stories of panic and confusion at the airport.
Firefight at airport leaves one Afghan soldier dead, others injured in subsequent chaos
A confusing firefight at the Kabul airport left one Afghan soldier dead and as many as four wounded on Monday.
Reuters reports that the German military confirmed the soldier’s death, and that German and U.S. forces became involved in the incident, but NATO officials later said the situation was under control. CNN reports that the Afghan soldier was killed by sniper fire from an unknown assailant, and that “in the confusion, Afghan forces returned fire, but in the direction of some U.S. Marines, who opened fire themselves, injuring four Afghans, the source said.” No U.S. forces were injured, and none of the Afghan soldiers’ injuries were life-threatening.
President Biden strikes more empathetic tone on Sunday
During his third national address since Afghanistan fell under Taliban control a week ago, President Joe Biden said Sunday that 28,000 people have been evacuated via Kabul’s airport by the U.S. military since August 14. While acknowledging a range of ongoing problems and threats amid the crisis, Biden called the U.S. effort “an incredible operation” and publicly thanked U.S. service members and NGOs operating in Kabul for their ongoing work. The president — who has faced fierce criticism in the media and from Republicans over the U.S. pullout and how it has been executed — also sought to show empathy for the terrified Afghans attempting to flee the country, who have faced chaotic, sometimes deadly situations in and around Kabul’s still U.S.-controlled airport. “It’s heartbreaking,” Biden said. “We see it. We feel it. You can’t look at and not feel it. Nothing about this effort is easy.”
“There is no way to evacuate this many people without pain and loss of heartbreaking images you see on television,” Biden nonetheless insisted. “It’s just a fact. My heart aches for those people you see.”
The president also claimed that the U.S. has expanded access to the airport, while declining to get into the specifics of how, citing security concerns. The U.S. still has a “long way to go and a lot could still go wrong,” he cautioned.
Evacuation deadline may be extended, and Biden vows open U.S. arms for vetted Afghan allies
The president on Sunday suggested that the August 31 deadline he had set to pull U.S. forces out of Afghanistan was not set in stone, and that the U.S. presence may have to be extended to complete evacuation efforts. Asked if the Taliban would agree to an extension, Biden indicated there would be discussions about “how far along we are in the process,” and that “our hope is we will not have to extend.”
As for the resettlement of evacuees, Biden vowed that “we will welcome these Afghans who have helped us in the war effort over the last 20 years to their new home in the United States of America, because that’s who we are — that’s what America is.”
And in what was undoubtedly an attempt to stave off GOP-led fears that Afghan refugees are not being properly vetted before being transported to the U.S., President Biden stressed in a Sunday news conference that no planes from Kabul are flying directly to America, and that “anyone arriving in the United States will have undergone a background check.”
Biden, White House officials continue to cite threat from Afghanistan’s ISIS affiliate
Over the weekend, White House officials have repeatedly emphasized the threat of ISIS-K, the Islamic State affiliate in Afghanistan, conducting terrorist attacks against the U.S.-led evacuation efforts.
Biden mentioned the possibility of ISIS-K attacks on Friday and Sunday. White House national security adviser Jake Sullivan said that the group, which is also an enemy of the Taliban, poses an “acute” threat to the evacuation. “The threat is real. It is acute. It is persistent. And it is something that we are focused on with every tool in our arsenal,” he said during a Sunday morning interview on CNN’s State of the Union. On Saturday, CNN reported that the U.S. has been setting up alternative routes to the airport in Kabul for Americans and allies in an attempt to foil would-be attackers, and are even coordinating the efforts with the Taliban, who are very publicly attempting the demonstrate they can provide effective security in Kabul.
Nonetheless, specifics about the alleged threats continue to remain scant, as the New York Times reported Sunday:
Neither Mr. Sullivan nor other senior American military or intelligence officials provided details about the threats or their specificity. Current and former officials say, however, that they range from a missile attack against a transport plane taking off or landing at Hamid Karzai International Airport to a bomb-laden truck or suicide bombers infiltrating the crowd outside the airport.
The Taliban is mostly keeping up its end, Biden said
On Friday, the president said that Americans in Kabul weren’t having problems getting to the airport, past Taliban checkpoints, for evacuation — a claim the Pentagon contradicted within hours. On Sunday, he shifted that claim slightly, telling reporters, “So far, [the Taliban] have, by and large, followed through on what they said in terms of allowing Americans to pass through and the like.”
He also emphasized that the Taliban forces were not a monolith, explaining that while the militant group is “seeking legitimacy” and has told the U.S. and other countries that it wants to maintain diplomatic relations, “I’m sure they don’t control all of their forces — it’s a ragtag force — and so … we’ll see whether or not what they say turns out to be true.”
Pentagon activates Civil Reserve Air Fleet, orders six airlines to help with evacuation effort
Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin has instructed six U.S. commercial airlines — American Airlines, Atlas Air, Delta Air Lines, Hawaiian Airlines, and Omni Air — to provide airplanes to help with the U.S. effort to evacuate thousands of Americans and Afghan allies from Afghanistan, though none of the airliners will fly to Kabul. The Pentagon said the planes will instead be used to transport evacuees from “temporary safe havens and interim staging bases” where the planes from Kabul have been landing.
To facilitate the use of civilian airplanes, the Defense secretary activated stage one of the Civil Reserve Air Fleet, a voluntary program created in the aftermath of the Berlin airlift (during which the military commandeered civilian aircraft for the effort). The Pentagon has only activated the CRAF twice since the program began in 1952, during preparations for the Gulf War in 1990 and again during preparations for the Iraq War in 2003.
United will provide four aircraft; American, Atlas, Delta, and Omni will all provide three; and Hawaiian will provide two.
It has already been more than clear that the U.S. needs help with evacuation logistics. The Washington Post reported Saturday that evacuee overcrowding at an airbase in Qatar prompted the military to temporarily halt flights to the base from Kabul on Friday:
The crush of civilians fleeing Afghanistan has threatened to overwhelm the air base here where most have been flown, leaving many evacuees crammed in a sweltering hangar without adequate toilets and showers as U.S. officials scramble to expand capacity and open new receiving points in the Middle East and Europe. …
[31-year old evacuee Sayed Harris Khelwati, who arrived at the airbase on Wednesday] said conditions had grown more dire as arrivals poured in faster than officials could move them through. He posted a video showing nearly every square foot of the massive structure packed with people sitting, squatting and laying among their plastic bags and luggage.
At various times, some evacuees tried to rush to the front of processing lines as military personnel struggled to maintain order with megaphones, he said. At the peak of crowding Friday night, when it was still 94 degrees outside the metal hangar, some evacuees held up signs reading “I can’t breathe,” he said.
By then, Pentagon officials had apparently already been contacting U.S. airlines to let them know the CRAF might be activated.
Panic outside Kabul airport on Saturday left at least seven Afghans dead, and Americans were told to stay away until instructed otherwise
At least seven people were killed amid the panicked crush outside the airport on Saturday after a dense crowd of Afghans again amassed, hoping to gain entry. The Associated Press reported Sunday, “It wasn’t immediately clear whether those killed had been physically crushed, suffocated or suffered a fatal heart attack in the crowds.”
The British Defense Ministry acknowledged the civilian deaths in a statement on Sunday, insisting that “conditions on the ground remain extremely challenging but we are doing everything we can to manage the situation as safely and securely as possible.”
On Saturday, the U.S. advised Americans still inside Afghanistan not to attempt to travel to the Kabul airport unless individually instructed to, citing security concerns. Reuters reports that the situation was notably calmer on Sunday, at least in part due to the Taliban using force to establish formal lines outside the airport.
Among those killed in Saturday’s chaos was a two-year-old girl, the daughter of a former interpreter for an American company in Kabul, according to the New York Times. The woman told the Times that she and her daughter, husband, and six other family members had all gone to try to get into the airport, but were pushed to the ground at one point when the massive crowd of people surged — causing her to lose hold of her child. When the woman was able to regain her footing and find her daughter, she discovered the toddler had been trampled to death. “I couldn’t save her,” she said, and vowed that she and her family would not return to the airport anytime soon: “I’d rather die a dignified death here at home than die in such an undignified way.”
Afghan staff members at the U.S. Embassy, some of whom have reported evidence that they are being sought by the Taliban, have also recounted harrowing attempts to reach and enter the airport, according to a State Department diplomatic cable obtained by NBC News:
[Local U.S. Embassy staffers] reported being jostled, hit, spat on and cursed at by Taliban fighters at checkpoints near the airport, it said, adding that criminals were taking advantage of the chaos while the U.S. military tried to maintain order “in an extremely physical situation.”
Some staff members reported that they were almost separated from their children, while others collapsed in crush of people and had to be taken to hospital with injuries, the cable said. Others said they had collapsed on the road because of heat exhaustion, it added.
“It would be better to die under the Taliban’s bullet” than face the crowds again, one staff member was quoted as saying in the cable. “Happy to die here, but with dignity and pride,” another said, while a third accused the U.S. of prioritizing Afghan government elites with contacts in America, who already had the correct paperwork and other ways of fleeing the country.
NATO officials have acknowledged at least 20 Afghan deaths in and around the airport since Kabul fell to the Taliban, though the toll may be higher. On Sunday, the Financial Times reported that, according to “a person briefed on the evacuation process,” one of the only ways to safely get to and into the airport was with a diplomatic escort provided by Qatar — which maintains relations with both the U.S. and Taliban, and has apparently helped thousands of people make it inside the facility over the past week.