Evacuation from Afghanistan falters as chaos at airport reigns

Afghan passengers walk toward the airport in Kabul on Aug 15, 2021. PHOTO: REUTERS

KABUL (NYTIMES) - The US Embassy warned Americans not to head to the airport in Kabul because of a situation that was "changing quickly" after the Taleban entered the city Sunday (Aug 15).

Witnesses at the civilian domestic terminal said they had heard occasional gunshots and said thousands of people had crammed into the terminal and filled the parking lots, desperately seeking flights out.

"The security situation in Kabul is changing quickly including at the airport," the embassy said in a statement. "There are reports of the airport taking fire; therefore we are instructing US citizens to shelter in place."

The Taleban entered Kabul on Sunday, completing the nearly total takeover of Afghanistan two decades after the US military drove them from power.

A frenzied evacuation of US diplomats and civilians kicked into high gear last week, while Afghans made a mad dash to banks, their homes and the airport. Crowds of people ran down the streets as the sound of gunfire echoed in downtown Kabul.

Helicopter after helicopter - including massive Chinooks with their twin engines, and speedy Black Hawks that had been the workhorse of the grinding war - touched down and then took off loaded with passengers. Some shot flares overhead.

Those being evacuated over the weekend included a core group of American diplomats who had planned to remain at the embassy in Kabul, according to a senior administration official.

They were being moved to a compound at the international airport, where they would stay for an unspecified amount of time, the official said.

The runway of the airport was filled with a constellation of uniforms from different nations. They joined contractors, diplomats and civilians all trying to catch a flight out of the city. Those who were eligible to fly were given special bracelets, denoting their status as non-combatants.

For millions of Afghans, including tens of thousands who assisted the US efforts in the country for years, there were no bracelets. They were stuck in the city.

Hundreds of people swarmed to the civilian side of the airport in the hopes of boarding planes out, but by evening, scores were still waiting inside the terminal and milling around on the apron amid the constant roar of planes taking off from the adjacent military air base.

A long line of people waited outside the check-in gate, unsure if the flights they had booked out of the country would arrive.

While President Joe Biden has defended his decision to hold firm and pull the last US troops out of Afghanistan by Sept 11, his administration has become increasingly worried about images that could evoke a foreign policy disaster of the past: the fall of Saigon at the end of the conflict in Vietnam in 1975.

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