Afghanistan Live Updates: Biden, Kabul Airport and the Taliban
As the Taliban cement their control over Afghanistan, thousands of civilians who helped the United States risk being stranded as bureaucratic delays in Washington and mayhem outside the Kabul airport challenge an urgent evacuation effort.
U.S. officials are accelerating the processing of visas for Afghans who worked for the American military or embassy, with as many as 6,000 expected to be flown out by early Friday alone. But thousands more are waiting fearfully outside the gates of the airport, where Taliban fighters have attacked crowds with sticks and rifle butts.
With President Biden scheduled to deliver a speech on Friday about the troubled evacuation, two U.S. officials described growing impatience within his administration over the State Department’s inability to process visas more quickly for Afghans who risked their lives by working alongside Americans during the 20-year war.
One of the officials described the challenges faced by people who helped the United States in reaching the airport safely, given the masses of Afghans trying to evacuate and the smattering of Taliban checkpoints across the capital.
In the days since the Taliban swept back into power, the Biden administration has sent troops and diplomats to Afghanistan to accelerate what the Pentagon has described as one of the biggest airlifts in U.S. history.
On Thursday, the former ambassador to Afghanistan, John R. Bass, arrived in Kabul with a small group of diplomats to speed the visa processing. Diplomats are also deploying to Qatar and Kuwait, where U.S. military bases will serve as way stations for refugees and repatriates before going to another country.
“This is an operation that will continue at as fast a clip as we can possibly manage,” said Ned Price, a State Department spokesman. He said American officials were continuously alerting Afghans who had been cleared to fly, including more than 800 on Wednesday night.
U.S. forces battled the Taliban for two decades, but in a sign of the dizzying changes in Kabul, American commanders are now working with the former insurgents to ensure that evacuees can continue to reach the airport. Those efforts come after the chaotic, heart-wrenching scenes on Monday, when Afghan civilians crowded the runway and climbed onto the fuselage of departing U.S. military aircraft.
About 5,200 U.S. troops are securing the airport under the command of Rear Adm. Peter Vasely, a former Navy SEAL who speaks to a Taliban counterpart outside the airport several times a day, the Pentagon spokesman, John F. Kirby, said at a news conference on Thursday. Troops are also deployed at entrances to the airport, where they assist consular officers in reviewing documents, he said.
As of Thursday afternoon, the U.S. military had evacuated 7,000 Americans, Afghans and others since Saturday. The effort is well short of the 5,000 to 9,000 passengers a day that the military will be able to fly out once the evacuation process is at full throttle, officials said.
Mr. Biden has said he may extend an Aug. 31 deadline that he had imposed on the mission if necessary. But military officials have said they do not have the ability to go out into Kabul or elsewhere in Afghanistan to bring people to the airport, which would require traversing Taliban-held territory.
Refugee advocates accused the State Department of being caught flat-footed in processing the visas for Afghans, even though Mr. Biden said in April that the U.S. military would withdraw from the country by September. The visa system had a backlog of 17,000 cases when Mr. Biden took office in January. The U.S. Embassy in Kabul was processing at least 100 people each week until June, before a resurgence of the coronavirus in Afghanistan halted the operation.
“There are tens of thousands of Americans and Afghans literally at the gate,” said Sunil Varghese, the policy director for the International Refugee Assistance Project. “This could have been completely avoided if evacuation was part of the military withdrawal.”
As the United States and other countries accelerate efforts to get Afghan allies out of the country, Afghan journalists employed by foreign news organizations are facing a more perilous route to safety from the Taliban.
Despite assurances of amnesty by the regime, a growing number of reports indicate that Taliban are searching for Afghan reporters and in some cases harming them or members or their families.
The German public broadcaster Deutsche Welle reported on Thursday that Taliban soldiers who were searching for one of their reporters had killed one member of his family and severely injured another. Taliban fighters also went house-to-house in western Afghanistan to search for two other reporters employed by the agency, it said.
“The Taliban are obviously conducting organized searches for journalists in Kabul and provinces,” the director of Deutsche Welle, Peter Limbourg, said in a statement. “Time is running out.”
The broadcaster said it was working with the German government to secure passage out of Afghanistan for its employees and their families. It is among many Western news organizations grappling with threats to Afghans who worked for them for years, helping to inform the world about their country.
In recent days, the publishers of The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal and The Washington Post banded together on evacuation efforts for staff members and their families. Security personnel and editors shared information on morning calls. The publishers called on the Biden administration to help facilitate the passage of their Afghan colleagues, and discussions ensued with officials at the White House, the Pentagon and the State Department.
This week, the first local employees of the three organizations flew out of the country after days of delays. For a group of 128 people from The Times, a breakthrough came when Qatar, a country with ties to both Afghanistan and the United States, agreed to help get them to safety.
Since taking power this week, Taliban leaders have promised to ensure media freedoms. Zabihullah Mujahid, the Taliban’s chief spokesman, told a gathering of reporters on Tuesday that media outlets “can continue to be free and independent,” although he that added “Islamic values should be taken into account.”
But on Thursday, Taliban fighters beat two Afghan journalists while violently dispersing a protest in the eastern city of Jalalabad, where demonstrators raised the Afghan national flag, one of the most defiant challenges so far to the takeover.
The Committee to Protect Journalists, a New York-based watchdog group, noted other attacks against journalists in recent days, including the fatal shooting on Aug. 9 of a radio station manager in Kabul, and the kidnapping of a reporter in Helmand Province. Afghan press freedom groups blamed the Taliban for both incidents.
“The Taliban needs to stand by its public commitment to allow a free and independent media at a time when Afghanistan’s people desperately need accurate news and information,” the committee’s coordinator in Asia, Steven Butler, said in a statement. “The Taliban must cease searching the homes of journalists, commit to ending the use of violence against them, and allow them to operate freely and without interference.”
An American journalist, Wesley Morgan, tweeted this week that the Taliban had searched the house of an Afghan interpreter he worked with. The interpreter, who was not at home, watched the search unfold on security footage sent to an app on his phone, Mr. Morgan said.
In February 2020, eager to remove American troops from Afghanistan by the end of his term, President Donald J. Trump struck a deal with the Taliban: U.S. forces would leave in return for Taliban promises not to harbor terrorists and to engage in direct negotiations with the Afghan government.
Mr. Trump’s secretary of state, Mike Pompeo, attended the signing ceremony in Doha and posed for a photo alongside the Taliban leader, Mullah Abdul Ghani Baradar
Some former senior Trump officials now call that agreement fatally flawed, saying it did little more than provide cover for a pullout that Mr. Trump was impatient to begin before his re-election bid. They also say it laid the groundwork for the chaos unfolding now in Kabul.
“Our secretary of state signed a surrender agreement with the Taliban,” Mr. Trump’s second national security adviser, H.R. McMaster, said of Mr. Pompeo in a podcast interview on Wednesday. “This collapse goes back to the capitulation agreement of 2020. The Taliban didn’t defeat us. We defeated ourselves.”
The photo of Mr. Pompeo resurfaced this week on social media as the Taliban asserted control of Afghanistan. Mr. Baradar is widely expected to become the head of a new Taliban government based in Kabul.
In an interview with CNN on Wednesday, former Defense Secretary Mark T. Esper said that while President Biden “owns” the ultimate outcome in Afghanistan, Mr. Trump had earlier “undermined” the agreement through his barely disguised impatience to exit the country with little apparent regard for the consequences.
Recognition of a revolutionary authority is never a simple question. After the Bolsheviks took power in Russia in 1917, it was years before its newly established Soviet Union was recognized by Western nations. The United States refused recognition until 1933.
A similar question arises now in Kabul. The Taliban have seized power and have announced that Afghanistan should again be called the Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan, as it was when the Taliban last ruled the country in the 1990s.
But it has not yet formed a government, and some hope that any government that emerges in fragmented Afghanistan will be more broadly based than just the Taliban itself.
As a rule, governments talk to other governments, and sooner or later recognize them. For now, however, when it comes to Afghanistan, Western countries are holding off.
The question of recognition is expected to come up when Britain and the United States host a virtual meeting of the leaders of the Group of 7 countries, which is expected to take place early next week. On Thursday, G7 foreign ministers held a videoconference to prepare the ground for their leaders, with the crisis in Afghanistan the main topic, and called for the Taliban to respect human rights and protect civilians.
On the ground in Kabul, diplomats and military officers are talking to the Taliban on practical matters — about the airport, about trying to get safe passage to the airport for people who worked with Westerners. And the United Nations and some other nongovernmental organizations are continuing to work in Afghanistan, though the U.N. temporarily moved some of its staff.
But then there is the question of aid.
The United States has gotten the International Monetary Fund to suspend payment of about $370 million set to go to Afghanistan on Aug. 23. The fund cited the “lack of clarity within the international community” over recognizing a government in Afghanistan.
The European Union is also suspending development aid “until we clarify the situation” with Taliban leaders, its foreign policy chief, Josep Borrell Fontelles, said on Tuesday after a meeting of E.U. foreign ministers. Germany has also suspended aid payments.
The European Commission has pledged about €1.2 billion in development assistance for Afghanistan for the 2021-24 period, and member states have individually promised more. Britain, for instance, says it wants to double its humanitarian aid to Afghanistan to 280 million pounds a year, mostly channeled through U.N. agencies.
Mr. Borrell said similarly that “humanitarian help will continue, and maybe we will have an increase,” given the number of displaced Afghans, an ongoing drought and the impact of the coronavirus pandemic.
“The Taliban have won the war,’’ he said. “So we will have to talk with them in order to engage in a dialogue as soon as necessary to prevent a humanitarian and a potential migratory disaster.”
Talks would also focus, Mr. Borrell said, “on the means to prevent a return of a foreign terrorist presence in Afghanistan.’’
But he insisted that such discussions would be only on pragmatic issues, and that dialogue did not imply formal recognition of the new regime.
“We will deal with the Afghan authorities such as they are, at the same time remaining naturally vigilant of the respect of international obligations,” he said.
A member of Afghanistan’s national youth soccer team was among the people who were killed as they tried desperately to cling to a U.S. military plane evacuating people from Kabul this week, the country’s official sports federation said on Thursday.
His name was Zaki Anwari, and he was 17.
On Monday, a crowd of Afghans surged onto the tarmac of the international airport in the frantic scramble to escape a country newly overrun by the Taliban. In a scene that shocked the world, and in just one wrenching moment encapsulated the chaos of America’s exit from Afghanistan, some of them chased aircraft carrying Americans and tried to climb onto their sides, wings and wheels.
The young soccer player was among them, the federation said.
“Anwari was one of hundreds of young people who wanted to leave the country and, in an incident, fell off an American military plane and died,” the group said in a statement on Facebook.
The sports community of Afghanistan was in grief, the statement said. It wished Zaki a place in heaven and offered a prayer that God grant his family, friends and teammates peace and patience as they mourn.
The federation posted photos of Zaki wearing his team’s red jersey — he was No. 10 — and standing on a soccer field. Another photo showed him in a suit and tie. Beside them were photos of an airborne U.S. military plane with what appeared to be a falling body and a single red rose.
Video taken on Monday showed at least two bodies dropping to the ground from an airplane shortly after it took off. The Pentagon confirmed that two people had died falling from the plane, and body parts were also discovered in the landing gear of the aircraft after it landed in Qatar.
In a telephone interview on Thursday from Kabul, Aref Peyman, the head of media relations for the sports federation and for Afghanistan’s Olympic Committee, confirmed Zaki’s death.
Mr. Peyman said Zaki had come from a low-income family in Kabul and had worked hard to achieve his dream of being on the national soccer team while also attending school.
“He was kind and patient, but like so many of our young people he saw the arrival of the Taliban as the end of his dreams and sports opportunities,” Mr. Peyman said. “He had no hope and wanted a better life.”
Many Afghans took to social media to voice shock and anger.
“Shame on the Taliban,” wrote Marzieh Zal on the federation’s Facebook page.
“Rest in peace dear Zaki, I cannot believe you are not with us anymore,” wrote Mohammad Sharif Ahmadi in another post.
The rapid collapse of Afghanistan to Taliban control set off panic among many Afghans, including athletes, who feared that a return of extremist religious rule would bring about the end of their careers and other opportunities.
One Olympic athlete, the sprinter Kamia Yousufi, 25, who carried Afghanistan’s flag at the opening ceremony in Tokyo, has since fled to Iran, media reports said. Mr. Peyman confirmed those reports.
President Biden has come under sharp criticism for how the U.S. military has withdrawn from Afghanistan after a 20-year occupation. Mr. Biden has defended his handling of the exit. In an ABC News interview, he was also asked about the people who died clinging onto the plane and dismissed the question.
“That was four days ago, five days ago,” he said.
Thousands of Afghan security force members have managed to make it to other countries over the past few weeks as the Taliban rapidly seized the country. Others negotiated surrenders and went back to their homes — and some kept their weapons and joined the winning side.
They were all part of the sudden atomization of the national security forces that the United States and its allies spent tens of billions of dollars to arm, train and stand against the Taliban, a two-decade effort at institution-building that vanished in just a few days.
But tens of thousands of other Afghan soldiers, commandos and spies who fought to the end have been left behind.
They are now on the run, hiding and hunted by the Taliban.
“There’s no way out,” Farid, an Afghan commando, said in a text message to an American soldier who had fought with him. He said he was hiding in the mountains of eastern Afghanistan, trapped after the regular army units surrendered around him. “I am praying to be saved.”
Accounts of the Taliban searching for people they believe worked with and fought alongside U.S. and NATO forces are beginning to trickle out. The militants are threatening to arrest or punish family members if they cannot find the people they are seeking.