Taliban Guard Airport as Most NATO Troops Leave Afghanistan

Taliban fighters patrol in Kabul, Afghanistan, Saturday, Aug. 28, 2021. (AP Photo/Khwaja Tawfiq Sediqi)

Taliban forces sealed off Kabul’s airport Saturday to most Afghans hoping for evacuation, as the U.S. and its allies were ending a chaotic airlift that will end their troops’ two decades in Afghanistan.

Western leaders acknowledged their withdrawal would mean leaving behind some of their citizens and many locals who helped them over the years, and they vowed to try to continue working with the Taliban to allow local allies to leave after President Joe Biden’s Tuesday’s deadline to withdraw from the country.

Although most of its allies had finished their evacuation flights, the U.S. planned to keep its round-the-clock flights going until the deadline, saying 113,500 people had been evacuated since Aug. 14, the day before the Taliban claimed Kabul. Biden warned Saturday that commanders had told him another attack was “highly likely in the next 24-36 hours,” and the U.S. Embassy issued a new warning early Sunday for all Americans to avoid the airport area entirely.

Britain ended its evacuation flights Saturday, though Prime Minister Boris Johnson promised to “shift heaven and earth” to get more of those at risk from the Taliban to Britain by other means.

As the flow of planes leaving Kabul slowed, others arrived in locales around the world carrying Afghans who managed to secure places on the last evacuation flights, including in the Washington area, Philadelphia, Madrid, and Birmingham, England. Some passengers were relieved and looking forward to starting new lives far from the Taliban, but others were bitter about having to flee.

In Spain, Shabeer Ahmadi, a journalist targeted by the Taliban, said the United States had doomed the work he and others had put into making Afghanistan a better place by allowing the insurgent group to reclaim power.

“They abandoned the new generation of Afghanistan,” Ahmadi said.

Meanwhile, families of Afghans killed in Thursday’s suicide bombing at the airport by an Islamic State group affiliate continued burying their dead — at least 169 Afghans and 13 U.S. service members were killed.

The U.S. on Saturday released the names of the 13 Marines, Navy and Army personnel who were killed in the bombing.

Taliban spokesman Zabihullah Mujahid claimed Saturday that the group’s forces were holding some positions within the airport and were ready to peacefully take control of it as American forces flew out. But Pentagon spokesman John Kirby denied the claim.

The Taliban did deploy extra forces outside of the airport to prevent large crowds from gathering in the wake of Thursday’s bombing . New layers of checkpoints sprang up on roads leading to the airport, some manned by uniformed Taliban fighters with Humvees and night-vision goggles captured from Afghan security forces. Areas where the crowds had gathered over the past two weeks in the hopes of fleeing the country were largely empty.

Officials said U.S. forces were taking every precaution at the airport, as there were concerns that IS, which is far more radical than the Taliban, could strike again. A new security alert from the U.S. Embassy on Sunday morning said due to a “specific, credible threat” all U.S. citizens should avoid certain gates at the airport and avoid traveling to the area.

In his statement earlier, Biden said a drone strike he ordered that killed what military officials described as two “high-profile” IS militants believed to have been involved in planning or facilitating attacks would not be his “last” response to Thursday’s suicide attack.

An Afghan who worked as a translator for the U.S. military said he was with a group of people with permission to leave who tried to reach the airport late Friday. After passing through three checkpoints they were stopped at a fourth. An argument ensued, and the Taliban said they had been told by the Americans to only let U.S. passport-holders through.

“I am so hopeless for my future,” the man later told The Associated Press, speaking on condition of anonymity because of security concerns. “If the evacuation is over, what will happen to us?”

Kirby, the Pentagon spokesman, said Saturday that Afghans who had worked with American forces still were being allowed in.

According to a State Department spokesperson, 5,400 Americans and likely more have been safely evacuated from Afghanistan since Aug. 14, including nearly 300 Americans in the last day. Another 350 were still seeking to leave the country, and those were the only ones the department could confirm were still in Afghanistan.
Biden has said he will adhere to a self-imposed Tuesday deadline for withdrawing all U.S. forces, and the Taliban have rejected any extension. They have encouraged Afghans to stay, pledging amnesty even to those who fought against them, and have said commercial flights would resume after the U.S. withdrawal, but it’s unclear if airlines will be willing to offer service.