Panic and desperation mounted on Saturday among thousands of Afghans trying to flee the week-old Taliban takeover of Afghanistan as the gates to the Kabul airport were closed and the US embassy warned American citizens to stay away from the airport, referring to “potential security threats outside the gates.”
The US embassy’s warning that Americans should stay away from the airport added a new level of uncertainty to the volatile situation — including reports of growing hunger across the country — just a day after President Biden vowed to keep all American citizens safe. to bring.
Attacked by tear gas and by Taliban gunmen who beat people with clubs and whips, crowds of Afghans and their families continued to flood the airport hoping to board US military transport planes evacuating Americans and their Afghan allies. But hopes of those pushing against the airport’s blast walls faded as news spread that President Biden had warned that his attempt to evacuate Afghans was not an open-ended one.
US officials said the most serious current threat is that the Afghan branch of the Islamic State would attempt an attack that would both harm the Americans and undermine the Taliban’s sense of control. But it was unclear how capable ISIS, which has been fighting the Taliban, is to such an attack, the officials said.
The security warning instructed Americans still stranded in Kabul not to travel to the airport “unless you receive individual instructions from a US government representative to do so.”
John F. Kirby, the Pentagon’s chief spokesman, said on Saturday that there have been no additional helicopter rescues from Americans in Kabul trying to flee the Afghan capital since Thursday’s mission, but he is not ruling out the possibility of similar operations in the future. out if local commanders believed they were justified.
According to her mother, a former employee of an American organization in Kabul, the security alarm came when a two-year-old girl was trampled to death at about 10 a.m. Saturday in a stampede outside an airport gate. The child was crushed when the crowd rushed to the gate and knocked over the woman and several members of her family, she said.
“My heart is bleeding,” said the woman. “It was like you were drowning trying to keep your baby above water.”
The embassy’s alarm underscored the deteriorating security situation in the capital amid reports of Taliban gunmen going door-to-door looking for Afghans who had worked for the US government or military, or the US-backed government . The militants threaten to arrest or punish family members if they can’t find the people they’re looking for, according to former members of the Afghan government, a confidential report prepared for the United Nations and American veterans approached by desperate Afghans who served alongside them.
A 31-year-old Afghan who spent four years as an interpreter for the US military said he was able to leave the country earlier this month. But he said the Taliban destroyed his home in Kabul and threatened his parents, who fled and now live on the streets of Kabul.
The International Rescue Committee estimates that more than 300,000 Afghan citizens have joined the United States since 2001, but only a minority are eligible for evacuation.
President Biden said Friday that he would be committed to airlifting Afghans who had aided the US war effort, but that Americans were his priority.
“Any American who wants to go home, we’ll take you home,” he said.
The president said he was not aware of any Americans being prevented by Taliban gunmen or other obstacles from reaching the airport. But two resettlement agencies in the United States reported receiving panicky phone calls from Afghan-American customers with US passports or green cards unable to reach the airport.
In an interview Saturday morning, a 39-year-old Afghan, who said he worked as an interpreter for the US military and the US government, said an Afghan-American friend with a green card was unable to penetrate the crowd outside the airport gates and went home frustrated. .
The Afghan, who asked to be identified as Mike – the name assigned to him by his US military colleagues – said the green card holder was turned away from an airport gate manned by British soldiers even after he had the document presented.
Biden administration officials have said they do not have an accurate count of the number of US citizens still stranded in Kabul who want to leave the country.
Biden has sought to end global anger over the chaotic evacuation that followed the return of the Taliban to power.
But with just 10 days until his deadline to withdraw all US troops, Mr. Biden admitted that for many Afghans desperate to escape the Taliban and their history of brutality, “I can’t promise what the final outcome will be. “
The government last week called for volunteers across the government to help process visas for people from Afghanistan. The United States Citizenship and Immigration Services sent an email detailing the opportunity to help an “extraordinary initiative,” urging any employee in any position to apply.
More than 13,000 people have been evacuated since August 14, the day before the Taliban took Kabul, according to the Pentagon. President Biden said Friday that 18,000 people have flown out since July.
Understand the Taliban Takeover in Afghanistan
Who are the Taliban? The Taliban emerged in 1994 amid the unrest following the 1989 withdrawal of Soviet troops from Afghanistan. They used brutal public punishment, including flogging, amputations and mass executions, to enforce their rules. Here’s more about their origin story and their track record as rulers.
Life in Afghanistan has been shaken by the swift and shocking takeover of the country by the Taliban. Taliban fighters invaded Kabul a week ago and overthrew the American-backed government, and there are signs that they are re-instating some of the same ruthless elements of the Taliban government of the late 1990s.
According to residents of the capital, some women in Kabul have been beaten or threatened by armed Taliban men for not covering themselves properly. Afghan and international journalists have said they have been beaten or assaulted while trying to report or photograph in the capital, and protesters waving the black, red and green flags of Afghanistan have been attacked by Taliban fighters.
On Saturday, Taliban chief spokesman Zabihullah Mujahid wrote on Twitter that the Taliban had established a three-member commission to “address media problems in Kabul”. He didn’t work out.
A Taliban official said on Saturday that the group’s co-founder, Mullah Abdul Ghani Baradar, had arrived in Kabul for talks aimed at forming a new government. On Tuesday, Mr. Baradar, who oversaw the signing of a troop withdrawal agreement with the United States in Qatar in February 2020, arrived as a hero’s welcome in Kandahar, the spiritual birthplace of the Taliban.
Mr Baradar was expected to start talks with former President Hamid Karzai and other politicians.
“Negotiations are currently underway,” said Ahmadullah Waseq, deputy of the Taliban’s Cultural Affairs Committee, which confirmed Mr Baradar’s arrival. For now, he said, Taliban officials are largely talking among themselves in preparation for negotiations.
Taliban leaders have not given any details about the type of government they envision, other than that it would adhere to Islamic values, a clear indication that the militants intend to impose their strict interpretation of Sharia.
Witnesses at the airport described continuing scenes of chaos and panic. Mike, the former translator, said he helped Taliban fighters carry two Afghan women who had passed out in the morning heat.
“The women and children yelled at the Taliban, ‘We’re going to die!'” Mike said. “They brought us a water hose.”
A young family in Kabul said they became increasingly scared after three days of camping outside an airport compound. The crowd of people was so great that they could not have reached the gate to submit their names. They had been cleared for evacuation and told by British officials to come to the compound, they said, but had ended up sleeping in the open with small children – with no idea if they would be allowed in.
The bottleneck at the airport threatened to trigger a new humanitarian crisis for the besieged country. Aid agencies are struggling to get food, medicines and other urgently needed supplies to Afghanistan, officials said.
Decades of war, a prolonged drought related to climate change and the Covid-19 pandemic have contributed to widespread suffering. At least 14 million Afghans — a third of the country’s population — are starving, according to the United Nations Food Agency.
The World Food Program said this week that two million Afghan children are malnourished. Mary-Ellen McGroarty, the agency’s country director for Afghanistan, said this week that the second devastating drought in three years had destroyed crops and livestock. She said the fighting this spring and summer had displaced thousands of Afghans and a harsh winter could make matters worse.
Julian E. Barnes and Eric Schmitt contributed from Washington. Jim Huylebroek, Carlotta Gall and Sharif Hassan also contributed coverage.