Afghanistan faces risk of starvation and disease as airlift deadline looms

The US is on schedule to complete evacuations by August 31, but may extend the deadline

Taliban fighters on the streets of Kabul where the group has enforced some sense of calm in a city long marred by violent crime. AFP
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Afghanistan's neighbours should open their land borders to allow more people to leave, a Nato diplomat said on Wednesday as aid agencies warned of a looming humanitarian crisis under the new Taliban rulers.

“Iran, Pakistan and Tajikistan should be pulling out more people using either air or land routes. It's vital air and land routes are used at a very fast pace,” the Kabul-based diplomat told Reuters.

The risk of starvation, disease and persecution will increase for the millions who will be left behind after a chaotic exodus from Kabul airport ends, the aid agencies said.

Afghan migrants hide from security forces in a tunnel near Tatvan in Bitlis province on August 23, after crossing illegally into Turkey from Iran. Reuters

US President Joe Biden has said the United States is on schedule to finish evacuations by August 31, but left open the chance of extending the deadline.

“There’s a perfect storm coming because of several years of drought, conflict, economic deterioration, compounded by Covid,” David Beasley, the executive director of the UN World Food Programme, told Reuters in Doha. He called on the international community to donate $200 million in food aid.

“The number of people marching towards starvation has spiked now to 14 million.”

The EU said it was planning to quadruple Afghan aid and was seeking co-ordination with the UN on delivery as well as safety guarantees on the ground.

UN human rights chief Michelle Bachelet said on Tuesday she had received credible reports of serious offences by the Taliban in Afghanistan, including “summary executions” of civilians and Afghan security forces who had surrendered. The Taliban said it will investigate any reports of atrocities.

Afghans leave a processing centre for refugees evacuated from Afghanistan near Dulles International Airport in Chantilly, Virginia, US, on August 24, 2021. Reuters

The Nato diplomat, who declined to be identified, said several international aid groups are desperate to get their Afghan staff to neighbouring countries.

Tens of thousands of Afghans fearing persecution have thronged Kabul's airport since the takeover, the lucky ones securing seats on flights, mostly arranged by western governments, that have so far moved at least 70,000 people to safety.

The Taliban said all foreign evacuations from the country must be completed by August 31, and asked the US to stop urging talented Afghans to leave the country.

The militant group, which marched into Kabul on August 15, has told the Afghans crowding the airport in the hope of boarding flights that they have nothing to fear and should go home.

“We guarantee their security,” Taliban spokesman Zabihullah Mujahid said in the capital on Tuesday.

Mr Biden left open the prospect of extending the deadline after discussing the issue with other G7 leaders.

At the White House, he said the US was racing to meet the August 31 deadline as concerns mount over the threat of militant attacks.

“The sooner we can finish, the better,” Mr Biden said. “Each day of operations brings added risk to our troops.”

President Joe Biden speaking about the situation in Afghanistan from the Roosevelt Room of the White House in Washington, on August 24, 2021. AP

Two US officials said there was growing concern about the risk of suicide bombings at the airport by members of ISIS.

Leaders of the Taliban, who have sought to show a more moderate face since capturing Kabul, have begun talks on forming a government that included discussions with some old enemies, including former president Hamid Karzai.

The Taliban appointed a former Guantanamo detainee, Abdul Qayyum Zakir, as acting defence minister, it was reported.

Some former Afghan government officials say they have been ordered back to work.

The Taliban have also appointed a senior veteran to the post of finance minister, two members of the group said, as they switch focus from military conquest to how to run a country in crisis.

The movement's unexpectedly swift victory has members struggling to govern, and alongside established Taliban names at the top, it has turned to several lower-level administrators to keep Kabul running.

The Taliban have not formally announced the appointments, which a commander said were provisional, but Afghanistan's Pajhwok news agency said on Tuesday that Gul Agha had been named as finance minister and Sadr Ibrahim as acting interior minister.

But aside from making early moves towards new governance, the movement appeared keen to show off its military prowess, showcasing pictures of “special forces” on social media, including soldiers in new uniforms equipped with looted American equipment.

Pictures and videos of fighters in the so-called Badri 313 unit have been posted online for propaganda purposes to underline how the Taliban have better equipped and trained men at their disposal than in the past, experts say.

Rather than a battered Russian-designed Kalashnikov rifle slung over their shoulders, the men of Badri 313 hold new US-made rifles such as the M4, sometimes with night-vision goggles and advanced gunsights.

Updated: August 25, 2021, 4:22 PM