Just days after the Taliban took over Afghanistan’s government and Kabul’s international airport turned chaotic, the U.S. is working to evacuate as many as 2,000 people a day.
The Taliban, which on Tuesday promised a more inclusive government by involving women, cracked down on a protest – rarely seen in Afghanistan. In Jalalabad, reports say as many as five people are dead.
As of Wednesday morning, about 4,000 Marines and soldiers, along with a small number of airmen, have been sent into reinforce about 1,000 troops still in Afghanistan. Deployed troops include the 82nd Airborne combat brigade (Fort Bragg, N.C.); 24th Marine Expeditionary Unit (Camp Lejeune, N.C.) and 621st Contingency Response Wing (Joint Base McGuire-Dix, Lakehurst, N.J.).
Meanwhile, Austin and Secretary of State Antony Blinken are among the officials that congressional committees will call for testimony in upcoming hearings on how the American withdrawal from Afghanistan went sideways, with the Taliban routing Afghan security forces and the US leaving its embassy – along with a “fair amount” of military equipment.
Here are the latest developments:
U.S. troops will stay in Afghanistan beyond the end of the month, if necessary, to ensure all Americans are evacuated, President Joe Biden said Wednesday.
“We’re going to stay until we get them all out,” Biden told ABC News’ George Stephanopoulos.
Biden announced last month that the U.S. would withdraw all troops by Aug. 31, a quicker pace than the Sept. 11 deadline he set earlier in the year.
But the Taliban’s rapid takeover of the country threw the exit plan into chaos.
There are still between 10,000 and 15,000 Americans in Afghanistan as well as tens of thousands of Afghan allies that the United States is helping to evacuate.
“The commitment holds to get everyone out that in fact we can get out and everyone who should come out,” Biden said. “And I think we’ll get there.”
During an interview with ABC News’ George Stephanopoulos, President Joe Biden made clear he’d long believed any U.S. exit from Afghanistan would result in “chaos,” a situation he’d been prepared for.
“So you don’t think this could have been handled — this exit could have been handled better in any way, no mistakes?” Stephanopoulos asked Biden during the interview.
“No, I don’t think it could have been handled in a way that, we’re gonna go back in hindsight and look — but the idea that somehow, there’s a way to have gotten out without chaos ensuing, I don’t know how that happens. I don’t know how that happened,” Biden responded.
The president conceded the exact trajectory of events had not been anticipated.
“Now exactly what happened, I’ve not priced in,” Biden said. “But I knew that they’re going to have an enormous — Look, one of the things we didn’t know is what the Taliban would do in terms of trying to keep people from getting out. What they would do. What are they doing now? They’re cooperating, letting American citizens get out, American personnel get out, embassies get out, et cetera, but they’re having — we’re having some more difficulty having those who helped us when we were in there.”
About 10,000 Americans and 50,000 Afghans eligible for special immigrant visas are still in Afghanistan as the Taliban take charge of the country. Gen. Mark Milley, the nation’s top military officer, said the US is evacuating about 500 people per hour out of Kabul International Airport.
The chaotic evacuation comes after the Taliban took control of the capital city after the Afghan government collapsed, leaving the fundamentalist group as the de facto rulers of the country far ahead of timeline outlined by U.S. intelligence estimates.
— Matthew Brown
Intelligence pointed to the possibilities of an outright Taliban takeover, a potential civil war or a negotiated settlement as the U.S. drew down its remaining forces in Afghanistan, but it didn’t predict how quickly the situation would degrade in the country, Pentagon officials said Wednesday.
“There was nothing I or anyone else saw that indicated a collapse of this army or this government in 11 days,” Joint Chiefs of Staff Chairman Mark Milley said during a Wednesday press conference with reporters.
Milley said intelligence indicated it could take weeks, months or years for such a collapse after the U.S. military departed from a country where it has been at war for two decades. Instead, it took a little more than a week for the Taliban to seize control of the Afghanistan government.
Now, the remaining U.S. military personnel in the country are focused on evacuating the remaining U.S. citizens, American allies and eligible Afghans who aided the U.S., Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin said. So far, about 5,000 people have been evacuated.
Austin and Milley said key to that mission is defending the Hamid Karzai International Airport in Kabul where evacuees have been directed to report. But that requires evacuees to travel through Taliban checkpoints and show paperwork to prove their eligibility to leave.
U.S. officials have reinforced to the Taliban that individuals with proper credentials should be allowed through checkpoints, Austin said.
The State Department is working with the Taliban to facilitate safe passage of eligible evacuees to the airport, but Austin said the military doesn’t “have the capability to go out and collect large numbers of people.”
“It’s obvious we’re not close to where we want to be in terms of getting the numbers through,” he said. “We’re going to get everyone we can possibly evacuate evacuated and I’ll do that as long as we possibly can until the clock runs out or until we run out of capability.”
At one of the three gates to the airfield, Milley said more than 120 people are being processed each hour. At another, it is more than 300 per hour, he said, but those numbers could increase as more potential evacuees are reached with instructions on how to leave.
The officials dismissed questions about whether the military should have attempted to hold the larger Bagram Airfield to speed up the evacuation, saying there were not enough personnel on the ground to hold the airport and the U.S. embassy.
“There will be plenty of time to do (after-action reports). But right now, our mission is to secure that airfield, defend that airfield and evacuate all those who have been faithful to us. There will be plenty of post-mortems on that topic, but right now is not that time,” Milley said.
– Rick Rouan
Multiple federal agencies that operated in Afghanistan and worked with Afghan citizens have been hastily purging their websites, removing articles and photos that could endanger the Afghan civilians who interacted with them and now fear retribution from the Taliban.
The online scrubbing campaign appeared to begin late last week when it became clear that the Afghan security forces had completely collapsed and the Taliban would take over the country far faster than even the most alarmist official predictions. The concern is that the Taliban or its supporters would search the websites and identify Afghans who had worked with the Americans or merely benefited from their services.
State Department Spokesman Ned Price said the department was advising personnel to search for and remove social media and website content featuring civilians because the safety of Afghan contacts “is of utmost importance” to the government.
“State Department policy is to only remove content in exceptional situations like this one. In doing so, department personnel are following records retention requirements,” Price said.
– Associated Press
Hundreds of veterans have sought help from the Veterans Affairs crisis line in recent days, part of a marked uptick as the U.S. military evacuates people from Afghanistan after the Taliban takeover.
The VA logged 531 more calls from Friday through Monday than the same period last year, VA Press Secretary Terrence Hayes told USA TODAY. He did not say what the overall volume of calls was.
VA Secretary Denis McDonough said in a message to veterans, their families, caregivers and survivors that he realizes images from Kabul and elsewhere have been painful to see, “especially for the hundreds of thousands of veterans who have served there since that fateful day in September 2001.”
Veterans who need help can reach the Veterans Crisis Line at 1-800-273-8255 and press 1. They can also reach someone by text at 838255 or online chat at veteranscrisisline.net.
Veterans and their family members interviewed by USA TODAY have described a spectrum of emotions: depression, emptiness, confusion and a longing to understand the meaning of their service and the United States’ longest war.
“It’s entirely natural to feel a range of emotions about the latest developments in Afghanistan – and if you are feeling depressed, angry, heartbroken, or anything else, we at VA are here for you,” McDonough said.
He said veterans can also visit a Vet center for counseling or other needs.
“We are standing by and ready to help,” McDonough said. “Thank you for stepping up to serve in the time when our country needed it most. We are all forever in your debt.”
– Donovan Slack
What Afghanistan vets are saying:Veterans wanted out of Afghanistan, but sudden collapse brings mental health to light
Afghan officials are calling on international police to arrest former President Ashraf Ghani, accusing him of fleeing the war-torn country with $169 million in U.S. cash.
Mohammad Zahir Aghbar, Afghanistan’s ambassador to Tajikistan, told a news conference that Ghani had taken the money before fleeing Kabul as the Taliban took over the city over the weekend.
Ghani is now in the United Arab Emirates.
In a statement, the UAE Ministry of Foreign Affairs and International Cooperation said it “can confirm that the UAE has welcomed President Ashraf Ghani and his family into the country on humanitarian grounds.”
The former president said on Facebook that he left Afghanistan to promote peace: “In order to avoid a flood of blood, I thought it was best to get out.”
Back in Afghanistan, Defense Minister Bismillah Khan Mohammadi used his Twitter account to call on Interpol to arrest Ghani. He and other Afghans have used the hashtag #ArrestGhani.
The U.S. military has evacuated about 2,000 people from Kabul in the last 24 hours, Pentagon press secretary John Kirby said Wednesday. The evacuees include 325 U.S citizens, with the remainder Afghans and NATO personnel.
There are 4,500 U.S. troops at the airport, and a few hundred more will be flown in Wednesday. Kirby described the airport as open and secure for military and limited commercial flights.
The Pentagon anticipates evacuating about 2,000 people per day, he said.
U.S. troops fired warning shots near the entrance to the airport as crowd-control measures, Kirby said. There were no reported casualties or injuries.
Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin and Gen. Mark Milley, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, were at the White House on Wednesday morning, updating administration officials on the evacuation, Kirby said. Austin and Milley are expected to meet with reporters later Wednesday to describe the operation.
— Tom Vanden Brook
Days after taking over the Afghan government, the Taliban cracked down on a protest in Jalalabad, where a crowd was trying to put up the national flag.
Witnesses told Reuters that at least three people died when Taliban militants fired at a crowd in the eastern Afghanistan city. Over a dozen people were also injured, according to a police official and two witnesses.
Afghanistan has marked its 1919 independence from British rule on Aug. 19, and people were trying to raise the Afghan flag to commemorate that, according to reports.
The Taliban fired into the air and used batons to scatter a crowd of people, video footage showed, according to the Associated Press.
The United States joined with more than 20 other countries on Wednesday in calling on the Taliban to guarantee the rights of Afghan women and girls to work, go to school and to move about freely.
In a group statement released by the State Department, the nations said they will “monitor closely” how women will be treated by any future government.
“Any form of discrimination and abuse should be prevented,” the statement said. “We in the international community stand ready to assist (women) with humanitarian aid and support, to ensure that their voices can be heard.”
On Tuesday, National Security Adviser Jake Sullivan said the tools available to pressure the Taliban include sanctions, international condemnation and isolation. Sullivan said he didn’t want to get too specific, as his team wants to communicate directly to the Taliban the “costs and disincentives.”
“That is a conversation that we will intend to have, and I think many other countries, including like-minded allies and partners, will be having that as well,” he said.
Before the U.S.-led invasion of Afghanistan in 2001, women virtually had no rights under the fundamentalist Taliban’s oppressive rule. Most were forced to quit their jobs and stay at home, denied access to education and health care, enduring high rates of illiteracy and maternal mortality.
Zabihullah Mujahid, a spokesman for the Taliban, said at a Tuesday news conference the militant group is “committed to the rights of women under the system of sharia (Islamic) law,” but he emphasized they would work and study “within our frameworks.”
The European Union signed the joint statement of support for Afghan women as did a number of other countries, including Australia, Canada, Norway, Switzerland and the United Kingdom.
— Maureen Groppe
Congress is quickly launching investigations into how the Taliban so easily took over the government in Afghanistan.
Rep. Gregory W. Meeks, chairman of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, has asked Secretary of State Antony Blinken and Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin to testify on the situation.
“The situation in Afghanistan is rapidly changing, and it is imperative that the administration provide the American people and Congress transparency about its Afghanistan strategy,” Meeks, D-N.Y., said in a statement issued Tuesday. He wants Blinken and Austin to “tell Congress what the administration’s plan is to safely evacuate American citizens, SIVs, and other vulnerable Afghans from the country, and to understand our broader counter terrorism strategy in South Asia following the collapse of the Ghani government.”
Sen. Robert Menendez, D-N.J., chair of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, made a similar call on Tuesday, saying the panel will conduct a hearing on “U.S. policy towards Afghanistan, including the Trump administration’s flawed negotiations with Taliban, and the Biden administration’s flawed execution of the U.S. withdrawal.”
After being told the Afghan security forces were “up to the task” and ready to fight the Taliban, Menendez said, “To see this army dissolve so quickly after billions of dollars in U.S. support is astounding.”
Did intelligence fail? How did Afghanistan end this way? The finger-pointing begins.
The speed in which Taliban forces moved across Afghanistan surprised U.S. officials. President Joe Biden announced April 14 that all American troops would be withdrawn by Sept. 11. The drawdown began May 1. But this graphical look at the Taliban takeover shows just how quickly the Afghanistan government lost control.
That takeover led to tumult at the airport in Kabul as thousands tried to feel the country. Disturbingly vivid images from the airport showed dozens of desperate Afghans clinging to a U.S. Air Force C-17 jet as it took off from Hamid Karzai International Airport. At least seven people died in the chaos, USA TODAY reported. U.S. soldiers killed two armed people after being fired upon.
Karzai, Abdullah meet with Taliban leader whom US has labeled a terrorist
KABUL, Afghanistan – Afghanistan’s former president has met with a senior leader of a powerful Taliban faction who was once jailed and whose group has been listed by the U.S. as a terrorist network.
Former President Hamid Karzai and Abdullah Abdullah, a senior official in the ousted government, met with Anas Haqqani as part of preliminary meetings that a spokesman for Karzai said would facilitate eventual negotiations with Mullah Abdul Ghani Baradar, the top Taliban political leader.
The U.S. branded the Haqqani network a terrorist group in 2012, and its involvement in a future government could trigger international sanctions.
The Taliban have pledged to form an “inclusive, Islamic government,” although skeptics point to its past record of intolerance for those not adhering to its extreme interpretations of Islam.
— Associated Press
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