WASHINGTON, Aug 18 — The White House said yesterday that the Taliban had promised that civilians could travel safely to the Kabul airport as the US military stepped up its airlift for Americans and Afghans fleeing the Islamist group.
Some 11,000 people with US nationality remain inside the country, including diplomats, contractors and others, according to the White House, most waiting to be evacuated after the Taliban takeover.
Washington wants to complete the exodus before its August 31 withdrawal deadline, and thousands of US soldiers were at the airport as the Pentagon planned to ramp up flights of its huge C-17 transport jets to as many as two dozen a day.
US officials said they were in contact with Taliban commanders to ensure the flight operations at Hamid Karzai International Airport remained safe from attack and that citizens and Afghans seeking to leave had safe passage to the airport.
But State Department spokesman Ned Price said yesterday that the US could decide to keep its core diplomatic presence, now operating out of the airport after the US embassy was shuttered, after August 31.
“If it is safe and responsible for us to potentially stay longer, that is something we may be able to look at,” Price said.
Price also called on the Taliban up follow through on promises to respect the rights of citizens including women.
“If the Taliban says they are going to respect the rights of their citizens, we will be looking for them to uphold that statement,” he said.
Despite some reports that people are being harassed and even beaten as they try to leave, White House National Security Advisor Jake Sullivan said “large numbers” had been able to reach the airport.
“The Taliban have informed us they are prepared to provide the safe passage of civilians to the airport, and we intend to hold them to that commitment,” he told reporters.
At the Pentagon, Major General Hank Taylor said that US military officials at the airport had also been in communication with Taliban commanders about ensuring that the evacuations would continue safely over the coming days.
“We have had no hostile interactions, no attack and no threat by the Taliban,” said Taylor.
He said that since the airport was reopened early Tuesday, the US military had evacuated close to 800 people, among them 165 Americans, on seven flights.
The others include Afghans granted US refugee visas, mostly for having worked as translators for American and Nato forces; other foreign nationals; and other unspecified “at risk” Afghans.
The US Department of Defence has poured troops into the airport since Saturday to protect the exodus as the Taliban insurgents entered Kabul after a lightning siege across the country and seized power.
Taylor said the number of US troops would rise from 2,500 on Monday to around 4,000 by late Tuesday.
He said the US aimed to increase its airlift to one aircraft an hour so that between 5,000 and 9,000 passengers could be carried out per day.
“We are confident we have taken the right steps to resume safe and orderly operations at the airport,” he said.
Some other countries, including Germany and France, have also been able to pick up their nationals and Afghans qualified to travel to those countries.
Taylor spoke a day after security broke down at the airport, with videos showing hundreds of Afghans on the runway trying to impede a giant C-17 transport and clinging to it.
Videos appeared to show two people falling to their deaths from the aircraft after it took off.
Another person was later found dead in a wheel well.
US Air Force spokeswoman Ann Stefanek said they were investigating the incidents.
“Before the air crew could offload the cargo, the aircraft was surrounded by hundreds of Afghan civilians,” she said.
“Faced with a rapidly deteriorating security situation around the aircraft, the C-17 crew decided to depart the airfield as quickly as possible.” — AFP