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Saturday, September 25, 2021

Evacuations from Kabul wind down as US prepares to pull last troops

The troop departures signaled a tumultuous end to a 20-year war that has left the country awash in grief and desperation, with many Afghans fearing for their lives under Taliban rule and struggling with cash shortages and rising food prices.

By: New York Times |
August 29, 2021 9:33:29 am
Children ride in the back of a vehicle to the Hamid Karzai International Airport in Kabul on Saturday. (Photo: The New York Times)

The sweeping international effort to evacuate thousands of vulnerable Afghans and foreign nationals from Kabul’s airport neared completion Saturday as the United States continued to withdraw its remaining troops from Taliban-controlled Afghanistan after carrying out a retaliatory airstrike in response to a devastating terrorist attack.

Britain planned to end the evacuation of its citizens Saturday and to begin bringing its remaining troops home, Gen. Nick Carter, chief of the defense staff, told the BBC’s Radio 4. More US troops have also begun getting on planes and leaving. A military official said Saturday that there were around 4,000 US troops in Kabul, down from 5,800 a few days ago.

The official’s comment came just as President Joe Biden warned that “an attack is highly likely in the next 24 to 36 hours.” Early Sunday morning in Kabul, the United States Embassy warned of a “specific, credible threat” to the airport area and urged all US citizens there to leave immediately.

The troop departures signaled a tumultuous end to a 20-year war that has left the country awash in grief and desperation, with many Afghans fearing for their lives under Taliban rule and struggling with cash shortages and rising food prices.

“We haven’t been able to bring everybody out and that has been heartbreaking,” Carter told the BBC. “There have been some very challenging judgments that have had to be made on the ground.”

Members of the Badri 313 Battalion, a group of Taliban special forces fighters, tasked with securing Hamid Karzai International Airport and the surrounding area, perform evening prayers in Kabul on Saturday (Photo: The New York Times)

France, too, has ended its evacuations, French officials said Friday.

With just three days remaining before Biden’s August 31 deadline to withdraw US troops, the mission has been shifting its focus, from vetting and airlifting Afghan civilians to bringing home US military personnel.

About 6,800 people were evacuated from Kabul airport Friday, down significantly from early Thursday, when White House officials said that 13,400 people had been evacuated from the airport in the previous 24 hours.

About 117,000 people, most of them Afghans, have been evacuated since the Taliban seized Kabul on Aug. 15, Pentagon officials said. On Saturday, about 1,400 people were still at the airport, and had been screened and booked for flights, Pentagon officials said.

About 350 Americans have told the State Department that they were still seeking to leave the country, the department said Saturday, adding that it believes some may have already left Afghanistan.

Hundreds of thousands of Afghans are still thought to be trying to flee the country, yet Biden and other global leaders have acknowledged that many will not get out before the deadline.

Outside Kabul’s airport Saturday, roads remained closed and the large crowds that had strained to push inside had largely dissipated in the aftermath of Thursday’s suicide bombing, which killed 13 American service members and as many as 170 civilians.

At the Abbey Gate, near where the bombing occurred, only two families and two young men still waited.

The airport’s South Gate remained open, and there was a growing backlog of buses carrying some 500 to 1,000 people, as US military personnel screened for suicide vests and other explosives. The Taliban, which was manning checkpoints around the airport, also turned away dozens of buses. Few people, if any, were getting through the airport gates.

A young Afghan evacuee at Dulles International Airport in Virginia, on Thursday (Photo: The New York Times)

Among those still hoping to leave were two brothers who said they had traveled 26 hours from Herat, a city in western Afghanistan, and had managed to sneak past guards outside the airport’s perimeter to reach the Abbey Gate. One of them said he had been selected by a US visa lottery.

The brothers knew of the deadly explosion at the gate two nights ago, “but what can we do,” one of them said Saturday. “This is our only way out.”

Officials from Turkey, Qatar and the Group of 7 nations are to meet Monday on a range of issues about Afghanistan, including the future of the Kabul airport, according to two officials familiar with the discussions.

After the US military leaves Tuesday, the path for Afghan evacuees will grow only more difficult as the Taliban takes control of the airport.

Ned Price, a State Department spokesperson, said Friday that officials were in talks with allies, and the Taliban, to allow nonmilitary flights to resume as quickly as possible after the US military’s departure.

He would not comment on reports that Turkey and Qatar were planning to run the airport with the Taliban, although he said that Secretary of State Antony Blinken had spoken with Turkey’s foreign minister, Mevlüt Çavuşoğlu, to discuss “our cooperation in Afghanistan and our continuing efforts to ensure the safe and orderly evacuation of our citizens, allies and partners.”

Thursday’s attack near the airport was one of the deadliest in the nearly two decades since the US-led invasion.

“The situation on the ground continues to be extremely dangerous, and the threat of terrorist attacks on the airport remains high,” Biden said in a statement Saturday. “Our commanders informed me that an attack is highly likely in the next 24-36 hours.”

The Pentagon on Saturday gave its fullest account yet of Friday’s strike in response to the bombing outside Kabul’s airport. It said the military had used a drone to kill two “high-profile” targets for the Islamic State affiliate in Afghanistan, also known as ISIS-K or the Islamic State Khorasan, a group that is a rival of the Taliban and that had claimed responsibility for Thursday’s attack. Military officials said one other target was injured.

Defense Department officials said one drone target was an ISIS-K “planner,” and the other was a “facilitator.”

The strike was carried out by a single MQ-9 Reaper drone flying out of a base in the United Arab Emirates, according to a senior US military official. The targets were struck in Jalalabad, the capital of Nangarhar province, roughly 90 miles east of Kabul.

The “planner” who was killed was believed to be involved in future plots against targets in Kabul, including the airport, but there was no evidence so far that he was involved in the suicide bombing near the airport on Thursday, the official said.

“I said we would go after the group responsible for the attack on our troops and innocent civilians in Kabul, and we have,” Biden said in his statement. “This strike was not the last. We will continue to hunt down any person involved in that heinous attack and make them pay.”

Zabihullah Mujahid, a Taliban spokesperson, condemned the drone strike, telling Reuters it was a “clear attack on Afghan territory.”

For the first time, Pentagon officials publicly acknowledged the possibility that some people killed outside the airport Thursday may have been shot by US service members after the suicide bombing.

Investigators are looking into whether the gunfire came from Americans at the gate, or from the Islamic State.

The suicide bombing and the US response came as Afghanistan’s economy, which was sustained for years by an influx of international aid, has been in free fall.

Many Afghans are struggling to support their families, and people have gathered outside banks and ATMs in the hope of withdrawing money, only to return home cashless and in despair.

On Saturday, hundreds protested outside one bank branch in Kabul and scores more marched through central Kabul to demand the reopening of banks that had closed after the Taliban takeover.

“Islamic government, give us our rights!” they chanted.

Shoppers and vendors at a market in Kabul. (Photo: The New York Times)

One of the country’s largest banks, Azizi Bank, issued a statement to customers saying that it was waiting for Afghanistan’s central bank to resume operations before reopening.

A representative of the central bank said that it would reopen Sunday, but that to prevent bank runs, it might not begin distributing money until a new government was established.

The Taliban have indicated that Hajji Mohammad Idris, a member of the movement, will serve as acting head of the central bank. News reports have indicated that Idris has no formal financial training.

Despite ending its presence in Afghanistan, the United States still controls billions of dollars belonging to the Afghan central bank, money that Washington is making sure remains out of the reach of the Taliban.

Concern is also growing about the plight of farmers and herders, who form the backbone of Afghanistan’s rural economy. The country continues to be hit hard by a worsening drought that threatens the livelihoods of more than 7 million people who rely on agriculture or livestock, the U.N. Food and Agriculture Organization warned Saturday.

“Farmers and livestock owners must not be forgotten in today’s humanitarian crisis,” said Qu Dongyu, the organization’s director-general. “Urgent agricultural support now is key to counter the impact of the drought and a worsening situation in Afghanistan’s vast rural areas in the weeks and months ahead.”

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