Afghanistan Live Updates: Kabul Airport News
Several European nations announced on Thursday that they were halting their evacuations from the Kabul airport after reports a day earlier of a security threat at the airport, as the window for airlifts appeared to be closing, days before the deadline for the U.S. troop withdrawal from Afghanistan.
Belgium, the Netherlands and Denmark all said that they would no longer be able to facilitate airlifts from the Hamid Karzai International Airport, which has both civilian and military sections. The airport has been the site of chaotic scenes since the Taliban takeover of the capital earlier this month, as tens of thousands of Afghans and foreign citizens had desperately searched for a way out.
The U.S. Embassy had warned Americans on Wednesday to stay away from the airport and told anyone outside the perimeter to “leave immediately,” citing unnamed security threats.
The British and Australian governments issued similar warnings, with Australian officials describing “an ongoing and very high threat of terrorist attack.”
The warnings came as the last of the estimated 1,500 Americans and countless other foreigners still in Afghanistan try to make it to the airport to leave before the U.S. withdrawal on Aug. 31. Thousands of Afghan nationals are camped outside the perimeter of the airport in desperate attempts to escape on the last flights out, some with documents allowing them to leave.
Turkey also announced that its troops, which have run Kabul’s international airport for the past six years, were beginning to withdraw, abandoning a plan to remain in the country after the U.S. troop withdrawal. President Recep Tayyip Erdogan had previously offered to keep Turkish troops there after Aug. 31, even though the Taliban demanded that the forces leave.
A senior U.S. official, who spoke on the condition of anonymity about confidential assessments, confirmed that the United States was tracking a “specific” and “credible” threat at the airport from the Islamic State affiliate in Afghanistan, which has carried out dozens of attacks in recent years, many targeting ethnic minorities and other civilians.
After warnings of suicide attacks in the vicinity of the Kabul airport, Belgium decided to end its evacuation flights from Kabul on Wednesday night, Prime Minister Alexander De Croo said at a news conference Thursday morning.
“On Wednesday, during the day, the situation quickly got worse,” Mr. De Croo said. “We learned that there was a threat of suicide-bomb attacks in the vicinity of the airport and in the crowds. We also saw that access to the airport gates became more difficult and even impossible as a result.”
The decision was made after five evacuation flights on Wednesday and made “in consultation with European partners,” he said. The last flights included all Belgian military personnel at the airport, he said. In six days, more than 1,400 people were transferred from Kabul to Islamabad in Pakistan via the C-130s of the Belgian army, he said, including citizens of the Netherlands, Denmark and Luxembourg, as well as asylum seekers for those countries.
A statement from the defense ministry of the Netherlands noted that the government could no longer continue with its evacuations because of the rapidly deteriorating situation and advised against travel to the airport. The defense ministry said it would do whatever was possible to get those inside the airport onto flights, but added that all remaining Dutch military personnel and the embassy team would leave on the last flights.
Denmark’s defense ministry also reported on Wednesday evening that its armed forces had conducted their last airlift from Kabul. Among the more than 1,000 evacuees were local employees from the Danish embassy in Kabul and their families, former interpreters who had worked with Danish soldiers, Danish citizens and people from a number of allied countries.
The “increase in threat and risk around the airport” had been a factor in ending the operation, the ministry said in a statement.
Marise Payne, Australia’s foreign minister, said at a news conference on Thursday that the Taliban would allow Australian citizens and visa holders to leave safely but added, “Our travel advice remains: You should not come to Hamid Karzai airport because it is not safe to do so, and if you are in Kabul, you should shelter in place, move to a safe location and await further advice.”
The U.S. government has been warning about potential security threats at the airport, and access to the airport has been adjusted accordingly, with some gates temporarily closed.
Turkey’s troops are withdrawing from Afghanistan, where they have run Kabul’s international airport for the last six years, abandoning a plan to remain after the U.S. withdrawal.
“We aim to complete the transfer of soldiers in the shortest possible time,” Hulusi Akar, Turkey’s defense minister, said in a statement on Thursday. He thanked Pakistan and Tajikistan for their cooperation in the evacuation of troops.
The Turkish Defense Ministry announced on Twitter on Wednesday the return of the first troops to Turkish soil that same day, adding that the whole operation would take just 36 hours.
President Recep Tayyip Erdogan had offered to keep Turkish troops at Hamid Karzai International Airport, Kabul’s main airport with both a civilian and military sections, after the departure of American troops by the Aug. 31 deadline, in order to support the Afghan government and maintain access by air for Western embassy personnel and international aid organizations.
The Taliban had repeatedly demanded that Turkey, a member of the NATO mission in Afghanistan for the last 20 years, should leave. But Mr. Erdogan had continued to hold discussions with Taliban representatives and regional countries, in particular Pakistan, which has close ties with the Taliban, to explore the possibility for a continued Turkish presence.
When the Taliban seized control of the capital earlier this month and the United States and NATO partners accelerated their departures from the country, Turkey increased its force of some 600 personnel to 3,000 to assist with the evacuations.
But in the face of chaos at the airport during the last 10 days, worsening security concerns and the unyielding stance of the Taliban — as well as a growing chorus of opposition at home arguing that Turkey should not bear the risk of securing the airport on its own — Mr. Erdogan decided to withdraw troops.
Ibrahim Kalin, a spokesman for the president and national security adviser, said that Turkey was still offering the Taliban government technical assistance to run the airport.
“After our soldiers withdraw, we can keep the duty of managing the airport,” he said in an interview on the Turkish news channel NTV. “There is a dimension of logistical capacity of running an airport. Negotiations on that are ongoing,” he said.
The Turkish help would be a professional service which the Taliban lacked, he added.
Almost two dozen students and their parents from San Diego County in California are trapped in Afghanistan after they visited the country this summer, the authorities said.
The 20 students and 14 parents are stuck in Afghanistan and have requested government assistance to fly home, according to a statement from the Cajon Valley Union School District and a tweet from Representative Darrell Issa, who represents the district where the students are from. The children range in age from preschool to high school, said David Miyashiro, the district superintendent.
The students and parents, who make up five families, went to Afghanistan to visit their extended families, the school district said. But they soon realized they wouldn’t make it back for the first day of school on Aug. 17; two days earlier, the Taliban had stunned the world by capturing Kabul at alarming speed.
It became nearly impossible to secure a flight out of the country, and the families could not reach the airport even though they had plane tickets, Cajon Valley School Board President Tamara Otero told the Los Angeles Times.
The families were not among the hordes of people desperately trying to board a plane out of the Kabul airport, Dr. Miyashiro said in an interview on Wednesday night.
“Most of them are hiding and sheltering in place until somebody contacts them to help them get out,” he said.
One of the families asked on Aug. 16 that the school “hold their children’s spots in their classrooms while they were stranded,” the school district said.
However, one family secured passage out of Afghanistan. Four students and two parents, along with one infant, returned home this week after stopping in another country, Dr. Miyashiro said.
Mr. Issa said Wednesday on Twitter that he was “working diligently” to bring the stranded families home.
“I won’t stop until we have answers and action,” he said.
Jonathan Wilcox, a spokesman for Mr. Issa, said in a statement that the congressman is trying to obtain immigration paperwork for his constituents who are stuck in Afghanistan.
“We are in consistent contact with official channels including the State Department and the Pentagon,” the statement said.
The United Nations leadership faced growing anger from staff unions on Wednesday over what some called its failure to protect Afghan co-workers and their families, who remain stuck in Afghanistan at the mercy of the Taliban even as the majority of the organization’s non-Afghan staff have been relocated to other countries.
Many of the Afghan employees, their foreign colleagues say, are in hiding or are reluctant to keep working, fearful of reprisals by triumphant Taliban militants who may perceive them as apostates, traitors and agents of foreign interference.
That fear has persisted even though the Taliban’s hierarchy has indicated that the U.N. should be permitted to work in the country unimpeded during and after the forces of the United States and NATO withdraw, a pullout that is officially scheduled for completion in less than a week.
An internal U.N. document reported by Reuters on Wednesday said Taliban operatives had detained and beaten some Afghan employees of the United Nations. Stéphane Dujarric, a spokesman for Secretary General António Guterres, did not confirm or deny the report but said it was “critical is that the authorities in charge in Kabul and throughout Afghanistan realize that they have the responsibility to protect U.N. premises and for the safety of U.N. staff.”
Mr. Guterres has repeatedly said the U.N. fully supports the Afghan staff, who are said to number between 3,000 and 3,400, and that he is doing everything in his power to ensure their safety. Mr. Dujarric said about 10 percent of those Afghan workers are women, who are especially at risk of facing Taliban repression.
The secretary general reiterated his assurances during a private virtual town hall meeting on Wednesday with staff members, said Mr. Dujarric, who told reporters that Mr. Guterres “understands the staff’s deep anxiety about what the future holds.”
But rank-and-file staff members of the United Nations have grown increasingly skeptical of Mr. Guterres’s pronouncements. A resolution passed on Tuesday by the U.N. staff union in New York urged Mr. Guterres to take steps that would enable Afghan staff members to avoid “unacceptable residual risks by using evacuation from Afghanistan as soon as possible.”
U.N. officials have said they are powerless to issue visas to Afghan personnel without cooperation from other countries willing to host them. U.N. officials also have said the organization remains committed to providing services in Afghanistan, where roughly half the population needs humanitarian aid. Such services, including food and health care, are impossible to conduct without local staff.
The town hall was held a few days after a second batch of non-Afghan U.N. staff had been airlifted from Kabul. Many of the roughly 350 non-Afghan U.N. personnel who had been in the country, including Deborah Lyons, head of the U.N. Assistance Mission for Afghanistan, are now working remotely from Almaty, Kazakhstan.
The unequal treatment of non-Afghan and Afghan personnel working for the U.N. has become an increasingly bitter sore point between management and staff at the global organization. An online petition started this past weekend by staff union members calling on Mr. Guterres to do more to help Afghan employees and their families had, as of Wednesday, garnered nearly 6,000 signatures.
An earlier version of this item misidentified the U.N. staff union organization that passed a resolution urging the U.N. secretary general to help Afghan employees evacuate Afghanistan. It was the U.N. staff union in New York, not the coordinating committee of the association of staff unions.
WASHINGTON — The United States has been battling the Taliban and their militant partners in Afghanistan, Al Qaeda and the Haqqani network, for 20 years.
But the biggest immediate threat to both the Americans and the Taliban as the United States escalates its evacuation at the Kabul airport before an Aug. 31 withdrawal deadline is a common rival that is lesser known: Islamic State Khorasan, or ISIS-K, the terrorist group’s affiliate in Afghanistan.
Created six years ago by disaffected Pakistani Taliban, ISIS-K has carried out dozens of attacks in Afghanistan this year. American military and intelligence analysts say threats from the group include a bomb-laden truck, suicide bombers infiltrating the crowd outside Hamid Karzai International Airport and mortar strikes against the airfield.
These threats, coupled with new demands by the Taliban for the United States to leave by Aug. 31, probably influenced President Biden’s decision on Tuesday to stick to that deadline. “Every day we’re on the ground is another day we know that ISIS-K is seeking to target the airport and attack both U.S. and allied forces and innocent civilians,” Mr. Biden said.
The threats lay bare a complicated dynamic between the Taliban, Al Qaeda and the Haqqani network, and their bitter rival, ISIS-K, in what analysts say portends a bloody struggle involving thousands of foreign fighters on both sides.
A United Nations report in June concluded that 8,000 to 10,000 fighters from Central Asia, the North Caucasus region of Russia, Pakistan and the Xinjiang region in western China have poured into Afghanistan in recent months. Most are associated with the Taliban or Al Qaeda, the report said, but others are allied with ISIS-K.
“Afghanistan has now become the Las Vegas of the terrorists, of the radicals and of the extremists,” said Ali Mohammad Ali, a former Afghan security official. “People all over the world, radicals and extremists, are chanting, celebrating the Taliban victory. This is paving the way for other extremists to come to Afghanistan.”
Adam Nossiter contributed reporting from Paris.