Afghanistan plunges into despair and chaos as west scrambles to evacuate citizens

US engaged in talks with Taliban to restore order over main airport and help forge political settlement

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U.S. military flights evacuating diplomats and civilians from Afghanistan restarted on Tuesday after the runway at Kabul airport was cleared of thousands desperate to flee following the Taliban's sudden takeover of the capital.

Kabul airport’s runway and tarmac were cleared of thousands of people desperate to flee Afghanistan on Tuesday, according to Reuters quoting a western security official, and the number of civilians at the airport had thinned out.

“Many people who were here yesterday have gone home,” the official said. Reuters witnesses, however, could still hear occasional shots coming from the direction of the airport, while streets elsewhere in Kabul appeared calm.

"Runway in Kabul international airport is open. I see airplanes landing and taking off," Stefano Pontecorvo, NATO's civilian representative, said on Twitter.

At least 12 military flights had taken off, a diplomat at the airport said. Planes were due to arrive from countries including Australia and Poland to pick up their nationals and Afghan colleagues.

As they rush to evacuate civilians, foreign powers are also assessing how to respond to the new rulers in Kabul and also how to deal with refugees trying to flee the country.

Under a U.S. troops withdrawal pact struck last year, the Taliban agreed not to attack foreign forces as they leave.

U.S. forces took charge of the airport - their only way to fly out of Afghanistan - on Sunday, as the militants wound up a week of rapid advances by taking over Kabul without a fight, 20 years after they were ousted by a U.S.-led invasion.

Flights were suspended for much of Monday, when at least five people were killed, witnesses said. Media reported two people fell to their deaths from the underside of a U.S. military aircraft after it took off.

U.S. troops killed two gunmen who appeared to have fired into the crowd at the airport, a U.S. official said.

Chaotic scenes at the airport included a group clinging to a US military transport plane as it taxied on the single runway. One person appeared to fall from the plane during take-off, according to television footage.

US troops fired into the air to deter people trying to force their way on to a military flight evacuating US diplomats and embassy staff, a US official said.

At least five people were reported killed, although a witness said it was unclear if they had been shot or killed in a stampede. A US official told Reuters two gunmen had been killed by US forces after they appeared to fire into the crowd.

A Pentagon spokesperson said there were indications one member of the US military was wounded.

The US said it wanted to make sure the Taliban understands that any attempt to target the US as it evacuates will be met with a “swift and decisive response,” State Department spokesman Ned Price said, adding that discussions are taking place both in Kabul and Doha, Qatar.

“We have engaged with the Taliban, we have had discussions. I would say some of those discussions have been productive.”

Videos circulating on social media showed hundreds of people swarming the tarmac as countries including the US seek to evacuate their diplomats and other nationals.

The panic in Afghanistan’s largest city reflects the Taliban’s rapid territorial advance, returning the fundamentalist group to power two decades after the US military invaded and kicked it out.

Taliban leaders, who have projected a more moderate stance in a bid to win global support, said they want to form an inclusive government. Talks are still continuing with other Afghan political leaders on what that would look like.


Biden defends decision

In a televised address on Monday afternoon, Mr Biden defended his decision, insisting he had to decide between asking US forces to fight endlessly in what he called Afghanistan's civil war or follow through on an agreement to depart negotiated by Republican former president Donald Trump.

“I stand squarely behind my decision,” Mr Biden said. “After 20 years I've learnt the hard way that there was never a good time to withdraw US forces. That's why we're still there.”

He blamed the Taliban's takeover on Afghan political leaders who fled the country and the Afghan army's unwillingness to fight.

The Democrat has faced a barrage of criticism, from even his own diplomats, over his handling of the US exit, pulling out troops and then sending back thousands to help with the evacuation.

“Afghanistan is lost … every terrorist around the world is cheering,” Senate Republican leader Mitch McConnell told reporters in his home state of Kentucky.

One of Biden's fellow Democrats, Senator Mark Warner, the Intelligence Committee chairman, said he wanted answers about why Washington had not been better prepared for a worst-case scenario.

Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi told US Secretary of State Antony Blinken the hasty pullout of US troops had a “serious negative impact”, China's state broadcaster CCTV reported, adding that Wang pledged to work with Washington to promote stability.

Blinken also spoke on Monday with Pakistani Foreign Minister Shah Mahmood Qureshi and Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov about ensuring regional stability, the State Department said.

Afghan soldiers flee

It took the Taliban just over a week to seize control of the whole country after a lightning sweep as government forces, trained for years and equipped by the US and others, melted away.

US officers had long worried corruption would undermine the resolve of badly paid, ill-fed and erratically supplied front line soldiers.

Hundreds of Afghan soldiers fled to Uzbekistan with 22 military planes and 24 helicopters during the weekend, including one aircraft that collided with an escorting Uzbek fighter jet, causing both to crash, Uzbekistan said.

Pentagon spokesperson John Kirby said Defence Secretary Lloyd Austin had authorised the deployment of another battalion to Kabul that would bring the number of troops guarding the evacuation to about 6,000.

International reactions

Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi told U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken that the hasty pullout of U.S. troops had a "serious negative impact", China's state broadcaster CCTV reported, adding that Wang pledged to work with Washington to promote stability.

The U.N. Security Council called for talks to create a new government in Afghanistan after Secretary General Antonio Guterres warned of "chilling curbs" on human rights and violations against women and girls.

During the Taliban's 1996-2001 rule, women could not work and punishments such as public stoning, whipping and hanging were administered.

The Taliban have said there will be no retribution against opponents and promised to respect the rights of women, minorities and foreigners, but many Afghans are sceptical and fear old enemies and activists will be rounded up.

The top U.N. human rights official voiced concern about the safety of thousands of Afghans who have worked on human rights. The U.N. refugee agency called for a halt to forced returns of Afghans including asylum seekers whose requests had been rejected.

Shaheen said on Twitter the group's fighters were under strict orders not to harm anyone.

“Life, property and honour of no one shall be harmed but must be protected by the mujahideen,” he said.

Updated: August 17th 2021, 1:55 PM
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