US accelerates Afghanistan relocation operations as evacuee number hits 12,000

Secretary of Defence Lloyd Austin spoke with Bahraini prime minister and hosted Qatar’s defence chief on Thursday

Civilians prepare to board a plane at Hamid Karzai International Airport in Kabul. US Marine Corps/Handout via Reuters
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The US government is ramping up its evacuation efforts in Afghanistan and has extracted more than 7,000 people in the last five days, while sending 5,200 American troops to Kabul, the Pentagon announced on Thursday.

Maj Gen William Taylor, the US deputy director for regional operations and force management for the Joint Chiefs of Staff, told reporters the number of people rescued from Afghanistan has climbed to a total of 12,000 since July.

The evacuation process is being expedited, with the US sending 13 C-17 transport planes to the country in the past 24 hours, he added.

The Pentagon has flown thousands of extra troops into Kabul in recent days to ensure the safety of the evacuation effort.

Another 12 C-17s have left Afghanistan on Wednesday carrying more than 2,000 passengers. Maj Gen Taylor said those include US citizens, US embassy staff and Afghans who worked with US forces.

All flights manned by American forces and allies out of Kabul are being co-ordinated through US Central Command, Maj Gen Taylor said.

The US military is also flying F-18 jets over Kabul to help secure the evacuations.

“ISIS and Al Qaeda are absolutely a factor” in increased safety measures, Pentagon spokesman John Kirby said.

The US is in contact with Taliban authorities to co-ordinate the process, Mr Kirby added, and said there has been no hostile interactions with the hardliner militants now controlling Afghanistan.

“There hasn’t been hostile interaction between US evacuees and the Taliban. My understanding is they understand what we are doing. I won’t detail every conversation we are having with them,” Mr Kirby said.

Mr Kirby added that the US has made it clear to the Taliban that any attack on those under US protection “will be met with a forceful response".

US President Joe Biden chaired a senior-level meeting on Afghanistan at the White House on Thursday.

“The President and Vice President [Kamala Harris] met with their national security team to discuss security, diplomatic, and intelligence updates in Afghanistan,” the White House said.

The meeting was attended by Secretary of State Antony Blinken, Mr Austin, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Mark Milley, Director of National Intelligence Avril Haines, CIA Director Bill Burns, National Security Advisor Jake Sullivan and other senior officials.

US Secretary of Defence Lloyd Austin spoke on Thursday with Bahrain’s Prime Minister Salman bin Hamad Al Khalifa. He will also host his Qatari counterpart Khalid bin Mohammed Al Attiyah in Washington.

Mr Kirby said Bahrain and Qatar are key regional partners and pointed to the US Fifth Fleet being stationed in Bahrain. He did not, however, provide details on whether any assets were being relocated to those countries.

In New York, the UN said on Thursday that Afghanistan is once again becoming a “safe haven” for terrorists, with sanctioned people set for top jobs in a new Taliban government and jailed, violent extremists being freed from the war-ravaged country's prisons.

Vladimir Voronkov, who heads UN counter-terrorism efforts, urged the UN Security Council to use all the “tools at its disposal to prevent Afghanistan from being used as a platform” for launching terrorist strikes, as happened when they last ruled the country from 1996-2001.

His comments came as Taliban hardliners tightened their grip on Afghanistan and the capital Kabul after retaking the country in a blitzkrieg offensive while the US was winding down its two-decade military intervention in the country.

“We will need to ensure that Afghanistan is never again used as a launching pad for global terrorism,” Mr Voronkov said.

He added that “several members of the Taliban” were “designated terrorists” under a UN sanctions list. The document includes Sirajuddin Haqqani, a deputy Taliban leader who leads an offshoot of the group called the Haqqani network.

Mr Voronkov also expressed alarm over the “release of prisoners” from Afghan jails by the Taliban amid their takeover of Afghanistan — many of them locked up because they were members of ISIS and Al Qaeda.

Updated: August 19, 2021, 7:09 PM