Afghan evacuation crisis worsens as Taliban issue deadline warning

Thousands still crowd airport as deadline for foreign forces’ exit nears

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Western countries were racing against the clock on Tuesday to fly people out of Afghanistan, a Nato country diplomat has said.

They are trying to rescue their citizens alongside some of the Afghans most at risk from the Taliban, who retook control of its capital, Kabul, on August 15.

“Every foreign force member is working at a war-footing pace to meet the deadline,” said the official, who declined to be identified.

US President Joe Biden is under pressure from other world leaders to seek an extension to an agreed August 31 deadline, by which foreign forces must leave Kabul. Complicating matters, on Tuesday Taliban spokesman Zabihullah Mujahid restated that there could be no extension to the deadline.

“They have planes, they have the airport, they should get their citizens and contractors out of here,” he said. Almost 60,000 people had been evacuated from Afghanistan via the airport since August 14, the Pentagon said on Tuesday. Since then, it said, flights were averaging one every 45 minutes.

Mr Biden pledged on Tuesday to uphold his commitment to the August 31 date, and Pentagon spokesman John Kirby reaffirmed the US was "absolutely still aiming towards the end of the month."

He reportedly sent the head of the CIA to meet the Taliban’s leader on Monday, two US sources told Reuters. Such a meeting would be the most senior diplomatic encounter since the militant group took Kabul.

CIA director William Burns met Taliban leader Abdul Ghani Baradar in Kabul, a US official and a source familiar with government activity told Reuters on Tuesday. Both spoke on condition of anonymity.

The Washington Post reported the meeting first. It cited US officials who spoke on condition of anonymity.

A CIA representative said the agency had no comment. The White House did not respond to a request for comment.

People disembark an evacuation flight from Afghanistan that arrived at Melsbroek Military Airport, Belgium, on Tuesday. Photo: EPA

G7 meeting

Leaders of the Group of Seven countries – Britain, Canada, France, Germany, Italy, Japan and the US – were due to discuss the crisis on Tuesday. An EU representative was expected to join them.

France has said more time was needed, and German Foreign Minister Heiko Maas said on Monday the G7 should consider whether to stay in Kabul.

Germany's chancellor Angela Merkel said on Tuesday that she is willing to work with Iran and Pakistan to reach a solution for Afghan refugees, after it became clear the US was committed to August 31.

"When this evacuation mission ends – and the meeting today did not lead to any change in the dates – there will be a phase in which we have to ensure that Afghan civilians and other vulnerable people can leave the country," Ms Merkel said.

British Prime Minister Boris Johnson appeared to accept the US commitment, saying the UK “will go on right up until the last moment we can” but conceded that “the situation at the airport is not getting any better”.

In Washington, Democratic US Representative Adam Schiff, chairman of the House Intelligence Committee, said he did not believe the mission could be completed in the few days left.

“I think it’s possible, but I think it’s very unlikely, given the number of Americans who still need to be evacuated,” he said after an intelligence briefing.

On Monday, a Taliban official said an extension would not be granted, though he also said foreign forces had not sought one.

Washington said negotiations were continuing.

Before the G7 meeting, UK Prime Minister Boris Johnson said: “I will ask our friends and allies to stand by the Afghan people and step up support for refugees and humanitarian aid.

“The Taliban will be judged by their deeds and not their words.”

Britain’s defence minister, Ben Wallace, told Sky News he was doubtful there would be an extension, “not only because of what the Taliban has said but also, if you look at the public statements of President Biden, I think it is unlikely”.

‘Does it still hurt? Yes’

Many Afghans fear reprisals and a return to the harsh interpretation of Islamic law the Taliban enforced while in power from 1996 to 2001, in particular the repression of free speech and women.

Numerous incidents of Taliban aggression and intolerance, and of house-to-house searches for Taliban foes, have been reported on social media.

Nevertheless, thousands of Afghans have returned to their homes in the provinces after learning the situation there was “relatively calm”, said the Nato diplomat, while cautioning that intelligence and security reports from remote districts were scant.

Australia flew out more than 50 female Afghan athletes, including Paralympians, and their dependents after granting them visas, broadcaster ABC reported on Tuesday.

G7 leaders could discuss taking a united stand on whether to recognise a Taliban government. Another option is renewing sanctions on the extremist movement to pressure it to comply with pledges to respect human rights and international relations.

“The G7 leaders will agree to co-ordinate on if, or when to recognise the Taliban,” one European diplomat said. “And they will commit to continue to work closely together.”

The Taliban have sought to present a more moderate image since capturing Kabul.

Their leaders have begun talks on forming a government that included discussions with old enemies including Afghanistan’s former president, Hamid Karzai.

Was it worth it? Yes. Does it still hurt? Yes
General David Berger

Recognition of a Taliban government by other countries would have important consequences, such as giving the Taliban access to foreign aid on which previous Afghan governments have relied.

Mr Biden has faced widespread criticism over the withdrawal, which was initiated by his Republican predecessor, Donald Trump, under a deal struck with the Taliban.

The US military is grappling with the swiftness of the collapse of US-backed Afghan forces after two decades of training.

“Was it worth it? Yes. Does it still hurt? Yes,” General David Berger, the commandant of the Marine Corps, wrote in a memo to Marines.

Updated: August 24, 2021, 5:02 PM