Western nations race to complete Afghan evacuation before troops depart

People hoping to gain access, gather outside the international airport in Kabul, Afghanistan on Aug 25, 2021. PHOTO: NYTIMES

KABUL (REUTERS) - Western nations rushed to evacuate people from Afghanistan on Wednesday (Aug 25), with less than a week until foreign troops leave, acknowledging that many Afghans who helped during two decades of war would be left behind to an uncertain fate under the Taleban.

Although the airlift is due to last until Tuesday, the US military said it would shift its focus in the final two days to evacuating its own troops.

US President Joe Biden has ordered all troops out of the South Asian nation by the end of the month, spurning pleas from European allies for more time to get people who helped Nato countries during the conflict to safety.

In the 10 days since the Taleban swept into Kabul, the United States and its allies have mounted one of the biggest air evacuations ever, bringing out more than 88,000 people, including 19,000 in the past 24 hours. The US military says planes are taking off the equivalent of every 39 minutes.

Biden, implementing a withdrawal negotiated by his predecessor, Donald Trump, said US troops in Afghanistan faced mounting danger if they stayed.

The White House said Biden was briefed on Wednesday on contingency plans for the Afghanistan evacuation as well as the threat from the ISIS-K militant group.

Secretary of State Antony Blinken said at least 4,500 American citizens and their families had been evacuated from Afghanistan since mid-August, and the State Department was "aggressively" reaching out to about 1,000 who remained.

Blinken told a news conference there was no deadline for the effort to help people who want to leave Afghanistan, both Americans and others, and that it would continue for "as long as it takes."

The Taleban have said foreign troops must be out by the end of the month. They have encouraged Afghans to stay, while saying those with permission to leave will still be allowed to do so once commercial flights resume after the foreign troops go.

Several of Washington's European allies say they no longer have time to rescue all of the many thousands of Afghans who helped their forces and their diplomatic and aid efforts.

British foreign minister Dominic Raab said the deadline for evacuating people was up to the last minute of the month. France said it would push on with evacuations as long as possible but was likely to end them in the coming hours or days. Chancellor Angela Merkel said Germany would try to help Afghans even after the deadline expired.

The Netherlands said it was all but certain that many people eligible for asylum would not be taken out in time.

Seeking flights out

Tens of thousands of Afghans fearing persecution have thronged Kabul's airport seeking flights out since the takeover by the Islamist militants.

On Wednesday, many people milled about outside the airport - where soldiers from the United States, Britain and other nations were trying to maintain order amid the dust and heat.

They carried bags and suitcases stuffed with possessions, and waved documents at soldiers in the hope of gaining entry.

One man, standing knee-deep in a flooded ditch, passed a child to a man above.

"I learned from an email from London that the Americans are taking people out. That's why I've come, so I can go abroad,"said one man, Aizaz Ullah.

Men wait in hope of gaining access to the international airport in Kabul, Afghanistan on Aug 25, 2021. PHOTO: NYTIMES
A general view of daily life after the Taleban took control of Kabul, on Aug 25, 2021. PHOTO: EPA-EFE

While the focus is now on those trying to flee, the risk of starvation, disease and persecution is rising for the rest of the population, aid agencies say.

"There's a perfect storm coming because of several years of drought, conflict, economic deterioration, compounded by Covid-19," David Beasley, executive director of the UN World Food Programme, told Reuters in Doha, saying that about 14 million people were threatened with starvation.

The UN human rights chief said she had received credible reports of serious violations by the Taleban, including "summary executions" of civilians and Afghan security forces who had surrendered. The Taleban have said they will investigate reports of atrocities.

The United Nations itself leaves behind around 3,000 Afghan staff at its mission. A UN security document reviewed by Reuters described dozens of incidents of threats, the looting of UN offices and physical abuse of staff since Aug 10. Gunmen have come looking for some, while others have gone into hiding.

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The Taleban's 1996-2001 rule was marked by public executions, the curtailment of political rights and basic freedoms curtailed. Women were barred from school or work, and confined to their homes without male chaperones.

Afghanistan was also a hub for anti-Western militants, and Washington, London and others fear it might become so again. The Taleban have said they will respect human rights including those of women, and not allow terrorists to operate from the country.

'What will they do to us?'

"Every woman I know has the same fear as I do. What will now happen to our children if we are punished for our work? What will happen to our families? What will they do to us as women?" an Afghan woman who has worked for the United Nations for several years told Reuters on condition of anonymity.

The Taleban are seeking to persuade people at the airport to go home, saying they have nothing to fear.

"Foreign troops should withdraw by the deadline. It will pave the way for resumption of civilian flights," Taleban spokesman Suhail Shaheen said on Twitter. "People with legal documents can travel through commercial flights after Aug 31."

The Taleban have asked Turkey to provide help to keep the airport open after foreign troops leave, but have also said no Turkish troops will be permitted to stay. Turkey began evacuating its troops on Wednesday.

In Washington, Blinken said there were "very active" efforts under way on the part of countries in the region to see whether they could play a role in keeping the airport open or reopening it in the event it closed after foreign troops left.

The US-backed Afghan government collapsed swiftly after Biden withdrew the troops, two decades after they ousted the Taleban in the weeks after the Sept 11, 2001, attacks on the United States, planned from Afghan territory by Al-Qaeda.

The Taleban are switching focus to how to run a country in crisis. Key posts are expected to be filled by loyal veterans of their insurgency.

According to Afghanistan's Pajhwok news agency, the future finance minister will be Gul Agha, who is on international sanctions lists for acting as the insurgents' financial chief.

Al Jazeera news channel reported the new defence minister would be Mullah Abdul Qayyum Zakir, a former detainee at the US prison in Guantanamo Bay, Cuba.

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