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US troops surge evacuations out of Kabul but threats persist

Filed on August 23, 2021
A US Marine gives a high five to a child during an evacuation at Hamid Karzai International Airport in Kabul. — AP

Taliban warn the US that extending the American presence beyond August 31 would "provoke a reaction".

The US military reported its biggest day of evacuation flight out of Afghanistan by far on Monday, but deadly violence that has blocked many desperate evacuees from entering Kabul’s airport persisted, and the Taliban signalled they might soon seek to shut down the evacuation.

Twenty-eight US military flights ferried about 10,400 people to safety out of Taliban-held Afghanistan over the 24 hours that ended early Monday morning, a White House official said. The chief Pentagon spokesman, John Kirby, said the faster pace of evacuation was due in part to coordination with Taliban commanders on getting evacuees into the airport.

“Thus far, and going forward, it does require constant coordination and deconfliction with the Taliban,” Kirby said. “What we’ve seen is, this deconfliction has worked well in terms of allowing access and flow as well as reducing the overall size of the crowds just outside the airport.”

After more than a week of evacuations plagued by major obstacles, including Taliban forces and crushing crowds that are making approaching the airport difficult and dangerous, the number of people flown out met — and exceeded — US projections for the first time. The count was more than twice the 3,900 flown out in the previous 24 hours on US military planes.

The Pentagon said it has added a fourth US military base, in New Jersey, to three others — in Virginia, Texas and Wisconsin — that are prepared to temporarily house arriving Afghans. Maj-Gen Hank Williams, the Joint Staff deputy director for regional operations, told reporters there are now about 1,200 Afghans at those military bases. The four bases combined are capable of housing up to 25,000 evacuees, Kirby said.

President Joe Biden said on Sunday he would not rule out extending the evacuation beyond August 31, the date he had set for completing the withdrawal of troops and formally ending the nearly 20-year US military role in Afghanistan. And British Prime Minister Boris Johnson plans to press Biden for an extension to get out the maximum number of foreigners and Afghan allies possible. Biden is to face the US’s G-7 allies in a virtual summit on Afghanistan on Tuesday.

But Taliban spokesman Suhail Shaheen, in an interview with Sky News, said that August 31 is a “red line” the US must not cross and that extending the American presence would “provoke a reaction”.

Since the Taliban seized the capital on August 15, completing a stunning rout of the US-backed Afghan government and military, the US has been carrying out the evacuation in coordination with the Taliban, who have held off on attacking under a 2020 withdrawal deal with the Trump administration.

Monday’s warning signalled the Taliban could insist on shutting down the airlifts out of the Kabul airport in just over a week. Lawmakers, refugee groups, veterans’ organisations and US allies have said ending the evacuation then could strand countless Afghans and foreigners still hoping for flights out.

In remarks at the White House on Sunday, one week after the Taliban completed their victory by capturing Kabul, Biden defended his decision to end the war and insisted that getting all Americans out of the country would have been difficult in the best of circumstances at any other time. Critics have said Biden waited too long to begin organising an evacuation, which then became captive to the fear and panic set off by the government’s sudden collapse.

Biden said on Sunday military discussions are underway on potentially extending the airlift beyond August 31. “Our hope is we will not have to extend, but there are discussions,” he said, suggesting the possibility that the Taliban will be consulted.

Since August 14, the US has evacuated and facilitated the evacuation of about 37,000 people. The US military says it has the capacity to fly between 5,000 and 9,000 people out per day.

Biden also asserted, without a full explanation, that US forces have managed to improve access to the airport for Americans and others seeking to get on flights. He suggested that the perimeter had been extended, widening a “safe zone”.

But a firefight just outside the airport killed at least one Afghan soldier early on Monday, German officials said. It was the latest in days of often-lethal turmoil outside the airport. People coming in hopes of escaping Taliban rule face sporadic gunfire, beatings by the Taliban, and crowds that have trampled many.

Michigan Democratic Rep. Elissa Slotkin, a former U.S. intelligence official and one of many lawmakers working with Americans and Afghans scrambling to evacuate family and colleagues, urged US forces in a series of tweets on Monday to keep the airport gates open and approachable.

The current set-up was leaving Afghans to seek “every connection they can muster” to get through the gates, a process that seemed to be disadvantaging Afghan women, Slotkin said.

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