The Pentagon appears to be inching toward expanding its rescue mission in Afghanistan outside of the walls of Hamid Karzai International Airport, as the situation grows dire for US citizens now unable to reach the airport.
The US Embassy in Kabul on Saturday issued an alert warning citizens not to attempt to reach the airport on their own, where four were killed in a crushing stampede. It came as Taliban leader Abdul Ghani Baradar arrived in Kabul and fears grew of Islamic State cells operating freely in the country.
A senior US official said said that small groups of Americans and possibly other civilians will now be given specific instructions on what to do, including movement to extraction points where they can be gathered up by special operations teams.
America’s NATO allies UK, France and Germany are now planning or have already launched daring rescue missions to extract their civilians trapped elsewhere in Kabul, but US President Joe Biden has seemed reluctant to expand operations.
Pentagon spokesman John Kirby declined to discuss security problems in Kabul or contingency planning in any detail, but said the threat picture changes by the hour.
‘We know that we’re fighting against both time and space,’ Kirby said. ‘That’s the race we’re in right now.’
For a week, officials had been urging Americans to make their way to the airport, with Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin saying on Tuesday that US forces ‘don’t have the capability to go out and collect up large numbers of people.’
But pressure has been mounting to assist Americans trapped outside the airport, with some issuing desperate pleas and the gates of the airport now consumed in deadly chaos.
The situation at the Kabul airport grew more desperate on Saturday when a Sky News correspondent reported mayhem and then bodies covered in white sheets amid an evacuation scramble
US President Joe Biden (seen at church on Saturday) has seemed reluctant to expand operations beyond the airport, but pressure is mounting to launch rescue missions into Kabul with all routes to the airport now consumed with chaos
Taliban leader Abdul Ghani Baradar arrived in Kabul on Saturday for talks on forming a new government
One US citizen trapped in Afghanistan spoke out in an interview with Fox News on Saturday, saying she is in hiding with family members and fears she will never see her children again.
‘I really have given up hope, given up on the hope of going to the airport,’ said the woman, whose identity was withheld due to safety concerns. ‘It’s just not possible to make it through all those people.’
She said that there are more than 20 Taliban checkpoints between her position and the airport, and that on one attempt to get through, she was whipped by the militants. During another attempt, a man standing near her was shot in the head, she said.
‘We are devastated,’ she said. ‘We’re scared for our lives. Every moment that a car passes by, I feel like they are going to pull in and execute us. I don’t know if I’m going to see my children again.’
She said she is considering suicide in order to avoid falling into Taliban custody, and issued an urgent plea to Biden: ‘Please, Mr. President, please evacuate us. We need help.’
The Taliban has promised to grant US citizens passage to the airport, but its unclear whether the group’s fighters are respecting the pledge.
And with no uniforms on the Taliban militants, the risk remains that some checkpoints could be manned by cells of Islamic State or al Qaeda fanatics, who would jump at the chance to execute US citizens.
The Pentagon said Saturday the United States has evacuated just 17,000 people, including 2,500 Americans, from Kabul in the past week, including 3,800 in the past day.
It means the US has surged more American troops into the Kabul airport than the number of citizens it has extracted from the country since the Taliban swept into power on August 14.
Up to 15,000 Americans need to be evacuated and the administration hopes to get out a further 50-60,000 Afghan allies and their families.
A Taliban fighter keeps Afghans from crossing and explains the process of a checkpoint passage before the road that leads to the military entrance of the airport, in Kabul, Afghanistan on Thursday
Outside the Hamid Karzai International Airport Taliban fighters stand guard as Afghans gather to flee the country Saturday
Taliban fighters stand guard as Afghans gather outside the Hamid Karzai International Airport to flee the country, in Kabul, Afghanistan, on Saturday
On Saturday Biden spoke with his team at the White House Situation Room about the ongoing evacuation efforts, counterterrorism operations, and intensive diplomatic efforts to finalize agreements with a third-party country transit hub
The U.S. Embassy issued a stern warning to Americans on Saturday not to go to Kabul airport – which is the only way out of the country – because of ‘security threats’ outside its gates. There are fears Islamic State is planning to attack the airport
Potential Islamic State threats against Americans in Afghanistan are forcing the U.S. military to develop new ways to get evacuees to the airport in Kabul, a senior U.S. official said Saturday.
Officials declined to provide more specifics about the IS threat but described it as significant. They said there have been no confirmed attacks as yet.
The Islamic State group – which has long declared a desire to attack America and U.S. interests abroad – has been active in Afghanistan for a number of years, carrying out waves of horrific attacks, mostly on the Shiite minority.
The group has been repeatedly targeted by U.S. airstrikes in recent years, as well as Taliban attacks. But officials say fragments of the group are still active in Afghanistan, and the U.S. is concerned about it reconstituting in a larger way as the country comes under divisive Taliban rule.
Meanwhile, the Taliban’s top political leader arrived in Kabul for talks on forming a new government.
The presence of Mullah Abdul Ghani Baradar, who returned to Kandahar earlier this week from Qatar, was confirmed by a Taliban official who spoke on condition of anonymity.
Baradar negotiated the religious movement’s 2020 peace deal with the U.S., and he is now expected to play a key role in negotiations between the Taliban and officials from the Afghan government that the militant group deposed
Australian citizens and visa holders are seen on board a Royal Australian Air Force C-17A Globemaster as Australian Army Infantry personnel provide security at Hamid Karzai International Airport in Kabul, Afghanistan on Friday
A family evacuated from Kabul, Afghanistan, walk through the terminal to board a bus after they arrived at Washington Dulles International Airport in Virginia on Saturday
Relative greeted a family evacuated from Kabul as they arrive after a four-day trip at Washington Dulles on Saturday
Baradar negotiated the religious movement’s 2020 peace deal with the U.S., and he is now expected to play a key role in negotiations between the Taliban and officials from the Afghan government that the militant group deposed.
Afghan officials familiar with talks held in the capital say the Taliban have said they will not make announcements on their government until Biden’s August 31 deadline for the troop withdrawal passes.
Abdullah Abdullah, a senior official in the ousted government, tweeted that he and ex-President Hamid Karzai met Saturday with Taliban’s acting governor for Kabul, who “assured us that he would do everything possible for the security of the people” of the city.
Despite the U.S. Embassy warning, crowds remain outside the Kabul airport’s concrete barriers, clutching documents and sometimes stunned-looking children, blocked from flight by coils of razor wire.
Evacuations continued, though some outgoing flights were far from full because of the airport chaos. The German military said in a tweet that one plane left Kabul on Saturday with 205 evacuees, while a second aircraft carried only 20.
A U.S. Navy Corpsman with Special Purpose Marine Air-Ground Task Force – Crisis Response – Central Command, hands out water to children during an evacuation at Hamid Karzai International Airport, in Kabul on Friday
Members of the British and US military engage in the evacuation of people out of Kabul, Afghanistan on Friday
At the Kabul airport, members of the British and US military engage in the evacuation of people on Friday
The Italian Defense Ministry announced the evacuation Saturday of 211 Afghans, which it said brought to 2,100 the number of Afghan workers at Italian missions and their families who have been safely evacuated.
On Friday, British Prime Minister Boris Johnson said around 1,000 people a day were being evacuated amid a ‘stabilization’ at the airport. But on Saturday, a former Royal Marine-turned charity director in Afghanistan said the situation was getting worse, not better.
‘We can’t leave the country because we can’t get into the airport without putting our lives at risk,’ Paul Farthing told BBC radio.
The situation at the airport was growing more chaotic and dangerous on Saturday, adding pressure on what has been dubbed one of the most difficult airlifts in history.
As desperate people, including children, wait for hours and days in the heat and crush outside the US-controlled Hamid Karzai International Airport, the delay has turned deadly for some.
Britain’s Sky News on Saturday aired footage of at least three dead bodies covered in white tarpaulins outside the airport. It was not clear how they had died.
Sky reporter Stuart Ramsay, who was at the airport, called the deaths ‘inevitable’ and said that people at the front of one part of the crowd were being ‘crushed’, while others were ‘dehydrated and terrified’.
The footage was the latest image of utter despair, after video of a baby being lifted over a wall at the airport and horror scenes of people hanging onto departing planes.
Families hoping for a miracle crowded between the barbed-wire that surrounds an unofficial no man’s land separating the Taliban from US troops. Roads to the airport were choked with traffic.
‘Please, please, please help me… where should I go, what should I do,’ one man, who said he worked for the US embassy in the mid-2000s, wrote on a WhatsApp group for people to share information on how to get out.
U.S. President Joe Biden and first lady Jill Biden wave as they arrive at Holy Trinity Catholic Church on Saturday
Time is running out ahead of Biden’s deadline to compete the rescue mission withdraw most remaining U.S. troops.
In his remarks on the situation Friday, he did not commit to extending the deadline, though he did issue a new pledge to evacuate not only all Americans in Afghanistan, but also the tens of thousands of Afghans who have aided the war effort since September 11, 2001. That promise would dramatically expand the number of people the U.S. evacuates.
On Saturday Biden spoke with his team at the White House Situation Room about the ongoing evacuation efforts, counterterrorism operations, and intensive diplomatic efforts to finalize agreements with a third-party country transit hub to help American, who were warned on Saturday not to travel to Kabul airport.
Biden discussed the matters with Secretary of State Antony Blinken, Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin, Joint Chiefs of Staff Chairman Gen. Mark Milley, National Security Adviser Jake Sullivan and National Intelligence Director Avril Haines.
Vice President Kamala Harris joined the meeting by video teleconference during her trip to Singapore.
The White House did not indicate whether the president still planned to travel to Delaware on Sunday. The trip would have been his 19th to his home state since taking office.
The Taliban takeover of Afghans last Sunday has consumed his administration, which was caught off-guard by the development and is scrambling to evacuate thousands of Americans, Afghans who assisted the U.S. during the war, and others.
‘Let me be clear, any American who wants to come home, we will get you home,’ Biden had pledged.