KABUL, Aug 17 — Thousands of people desperate to flee Afghanistan thronged Kabul’s airport yesterday after the Taliban seized the capital, prompting the United States to pause evacuations as President Joe Biden confronted mounting criticism over the US withdrawal.
Crowds converged on the airport seeking to escape, including some who clung to a US military transport plane as it taxied on the single runway, according to footage posted by private Afghan broadcaster Tolo news.
US troops fired in the air to deter people trying to force their way on to a military flight evacuating U.S diplomats and embassy staff, a US official said.
Five people were reported killed in the chaos, which forced a pause in evacuation flights. 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 there over the past 24 hours.
A Pentagon spokesperson said there were indications that one US soldier was wounded.
A German evacuation plane diverted to the Uzbek capital, Tashkent, because it could not land in Kabul, which lies in a valley surrounded by mountains. Another circled over the city, although authorities said late yesterday a military transport aircraft had landed to evacuate foreign nationals and Afghan staff.
US authorities also confirmed that the airfield had been reopened.
The Taliban’s rapid conquest of Kabul followed Biden’s decision to withdraw US forces after 20 years of war that he described as costing more than US$1 trillion.
The speed at which Afghan cities fell, in days rather than the months predicted by US intelligence, and fear of a Taliban crackdown on freedom of speech and human rights, especially women’s rights, have sparked criticism.
In a televised address on Monday afternoon, Biden defended his decision, insisting he had 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,” Biden said. “After 20 years I’ve learned 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,” Republican Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell told reporters in his home state of Kentucky.
Ben Wallace, defence secretary of usually staunch US ally Britain, said the 2020 Doha withdrawal accord struck with the Taliban by Trump was a “rotten deal.”
The UN 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.
Afghan President Ashraf Ghani fled yesterday as the Islamist militants entered Kabul virtually unopposed, saying he wanted to avoid bloodshed.
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.
Suhail Shaheen, a spokesman for the Taliban, said on Twitter that 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.
It took the Taliban just over a week to seize control of the whole country after a lightning sweep that ended in Kabul as government forces, trained for years and equipped by the United States and others, melted away.
US officers had long worried that corruption would undermine the resolve of badly paid, ill-fed and erratically supplied frontline 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.
Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov and US Secretary of State Antony Blinken discussed Afghanistan by phone and agreed to continue talks with China, Pakistan and the United Nations, Russia said.
Pakistani Foreign Minister Shah Mehmood Qureshi said he spoke to Blinken about Afghanistan and that Pakistan would remain closely engaged with the United States and other partners to support peace and stability.
Mohammad Naeem, spokesman for the Taliban’s political office, told Al Jazeera TV the form of Afghanistan’s new government would be made clear soon. He said the Taliban did not want to live in isolation.
The militants sought to project a more moderate face, promising to respect women’s rights and protect both foreigners and Afghans.
But many Afghans fear the Taliban will return to past harsh practices. During their 1996-2001 rule, women could not work and punishments such as public stoning, whipping and hanging were administered.
“As far as I am concerned, Afghanistan will become a caliphate and a refuge for Islamic forces,” said Andreas Eggert, state chairman of the Federal Association of German Veterans, who served in Afghanistan.
“And, before long, we will see the same situation we saw 20 years ago.” — Reuters