The US has ramped up airlifts to evacuate more than 17,000 people in a day and Joe Biden has finally ordered troops to rescue Americans outside the airport in a race against time before the August 31 deadline.
Washington pulled off its biggest haul of evacuations since the crisis started over the last 24 hours to early Monday morning, with 28 military jets rescuing around 10,400 people. Another 15 C-17 flights over the next 12 hours brought out another 6,660.
Meanwhile, US Special Operations rescued 16 Americans from an unspecified location around two hours outside Kabul. The Pentagon revealed it was carried out by helicopter without disclosing further details.
It comes after it emerged that the President told top commanders last week that he was wary of deploying soldiers outside the airport because he didn’t want a Black Hawk Down-style incident. Eighteen Americans were killed when their helicopters were shot down over Mogadishu in 1993 during the Somali Civil War.
However, Biden is under international pressure to extend the withdrawal deadline so that as many people as possible can be evacuated.
He will join other G7 leaders on a virtual call later today for an emergency meeting on that subject after Nato begged Biden to re-think his plan to avert a humanitarian disaster.
Rescue efforts became increasingly urgent today as Spain warned it would have leave people behind and France said it would stop airlifts on Thursday – five days before the deadline.
The airport has become a relative safe haven but accessing it has proven near impossible due to Taliban checkpoints and chaos among the crowds outside the perimeter.
The jihadists have also warned of ‘consequences’ if the US doesn’t keep to its deadline.
US soldiers guard Kabul airport on Tuesday as thousands of desperate Afghans crowd at the gates in the hopes of fleeing the Taliban
An American soldier carries a small child during an evacuation at Hamid Karzai International Airport in Kabul on Saturday
A military plane takes off from the airport on Monday. 28 military jets rescued 10,400 people in the 24 hours to early Monday. Another 15 C-17 flights over the next 12 hours brought out another 6,660.
A US soldier hands out bottles of water to Afghan evacuees at Kabul airport on Saturday
In surreal scenes, Taliban fighters are stood on top of containers doing crowd control for British soldiers on the other side of the fence
Crowds of people outside Kabul airport on Tuesday, some holding children, others holding papers (left) and another group standing inside a moat around the perimeter
In a conference call with military officials last week, President Biden said he didn’t want rescue missions to turn into ‘Black Hawk Down,’ when US choppers were shot down in Somalia in 1993
The French government said if the U.S. stuck to the deadline, it would have to end evacuations from the airport on Thursday.
Spain said it would not be able to rescue all Afghans who served Spanish missions.
‘It is a very frustrating situation for everyone, because even those who reach Kabul, access to the airport is very complicated,’ Defence Minister Margarita Robles said.
Britain has said it will lobby at the virtual G7 summit this afternoon for a longer presence.
About 50,000 foreigners and Afghans have fled the country from Kabul’s airport since the Taliban swept into power 10 days ago, according to the US government.
Many Afghans fear a repeat of the brutal interpretation of sharia law that the Taliban implemented when first in power from 1996-2001, or retribution for working with the US-backed government over the past two decades.
‘The Taliban are the same as they were 20 years ago,’ Nilofar Bayat, a women’s rights activist and former captain of Afghanistan’s wheelchair basketball, said after fleeing and arriving in Spain.
‘If you see Afghanistan now, it’s all men, there are no women because they don’t accept woman as part of society.’
The President’s about-face in allowing troops to carry out rescue missions outside the airport comes after Republican lawmakers said it was ‘humiliating’ that American soldiers were behind the walls while British, French and German special forces were speeding into downtown Kabul in armored cars.
As recently as Sunday, he had warned that Islamic State posed an immediate threat to US soldiers at the airport.
‘These troops and innocent civilians at the airport face the risk of attack from ISIS from a distance, even though we’re moving back the perimeter significantly,’ Biden said in a speech at the White House.
‘We’re working hard and as fast as we can to get people out. That’s our mission. That’s our goal.
‘What I’m not going to do is talk about the tactical changes we’re making to make sure we maintain as much security as we can,’ he added.
Those concerns were echoed by California Democrat Rep Adam Schiff, chairman of the House intelligence committee, who told Fox News: ‘I think the threat to the airport is very real, very substantial … this would make a very attractive target for ISIS … Whenever you have a mass gathering like that, it is an opportunity for improvised and other explosive devices.’
Speaking to reporters after a committee briefing on Monday, Schiff said ‘it was hard for me to imagine’ wrapping up the airlifts by the end of the month.
He also said it was clear ‘there were any number of warnings’ to the Biden administration ‘of a very rapid takeover’ by the Taliban.
National security adviser, Jake Sullivan, said at the White House that talks with the Taliban are continuing as the administration looks for additional ways to safely move more Americans and others into the Kabul airport.
‘We are in talks with the Taliban on a daily basis through both political and security channels,’ he said, adding that ultimately it will be Biden’s decision alone whether to continue military-led evacuation operations beyond August 31.
After more than a week of evacuations plagued by major obstacles, including Taliban forces and crushing crowds that are making approaching the airport difficult and dangerous, the number of people flown out met – and exceeded – U.S. projections for the first time. The count on Monday was more than twice the 3,900 flown out in the previous 24 hours on U.S. military planes.
Army Gen. Stephen Lyons, head of U.S. Transportation Command, which manages the military aircraft that are executing the Kabul airlift, told a Pentagon news conference that more than 200 planes are involved, including aerial refueling planes, and that arriving planes are spending less than an hour on the tarmac at Kabul before loading and taking off. He said the nonstop mission is taking a toll on aircrews.
‘They’re tired,’ Lyons said of the crews. ‘They’re probably exhausted in some cases.’
A family evacuated from Kabul, Afghanistan, talk to the media as they walk through the terminal before boarding a bus after they arrived at Washington Dulles International Airport, in Chantilly, Virginia, USA
A woman embraces her sister-in-law (L) as she arrives with other Afghan refugees on a flight at Dulles International Airport in Chantilly, Virginia on Monday
On a more positive note, Lyons said that in addition to the widely reported case of an Afghan woman giving birth aboard a U.S. evacuation aircraft, two other babies have been born in similar circumstances. He did not provide details.
The Pentagon said it has added a fourth U.S. military base, in New Jersey, to three others – in Virginia, Texas and Wisconsin – that are prepared to temporarily house arriving Afghans. Maj. Gen. Hank Williams, the Joint Staff deputy director for regional operations, told reporters there are now about 1,200 Afghans at those military bases. The four bases combined are capable of housing up to 25,000 evacuees, Kirby said.
Afghan evacuees continued to arrive at Dulles International Airport outside of Washington. Exhaustion clouded the faces of many of the adults. How does it feel to be here, a journalist asked one man. ‘We are safe,’ he answered.
An older woman sank with relief into an offered wheelchair, and a little girl carried by an older boy shaded her eyes to look curiously around. The scramble to evacuate left many arrivals carrying only a bookbag or purse, or a plastic shopping bag of belongings. Some arrived for their new lives entirely empty-handed.
Biden said Sunday he would not rule out extending the evacuation beyond Aug. 31. But British Prime Minister Boris Johnson, who will meet with Biden virtually on Tuesday in a G-7 leaders’ summit on the chaotic withdrawal, is expected to press Biden for an extension to get out the maximum number of foreigners and Afghan allies possible.
The US has evacuated 48,000 people from Kabul since August 14. Above, a family boards a US Air Force plane during an evacuation from the Hamid Karzai airport in Kabul on Monday
National Security Advisor Jake Sullivan said that US troops are ‘not operating outside the perimeter of the airport’ on Monday, but some evacuations outside the airport have happened
Lawmakers, veterans organizations and refugee advocates in the U.S. also are urging Biden to keep up the U.S. military’s evacuation out of the Kabul airport as long as it takes to airlift not just Americans, but Afghan allies and other Afghans most at risk from the Taliban.
But Taliban spokesman Suhail Shaheen, in an interview with Sky News, said that Aug. 31 is a ‘red line’ the U.S. must not cross and that extending the American presence would ‘provoke a reaction.’
Since the Taliban seized the capital Aug. 15, completing a stunning rout of the U.S.-backed Afghan government and military, the U.S. has been carrying out the evacuation in coordination with the Taliban, who have held off on attacking Americans under a 2020 withdrawal deal with the Trump administration.
Monday’s warning signaled the Taliban could insist on shutting down the airlifts out of the Kabul airport in just over a week. Lawmakers, refugee groups, veterans’ organizations and U.S. allies have said ending the evacuation then could strand countless Afghans and foreigners still hoping for flights out.
Since August 14, the U.S. has evacuated and facilitated the evacuation of about 37,000 people.
A firefight just outside the airport killed at least one Afghan soldier early Monday, German officials said. It was the latest in days of often-lethal turmoil outside the airport. People coming in hopes of escaping Taliban rule face sporadic gunfire, beatings by the Taliban, and crowds that have trampled many.