Security threats and turmoil in Kabul continued to escalate Saturday, posing complications for the Biden administration as it attempts to continue rescue operations for thousands more Americans and Afghan allies amid the Taliban’s ongoing talks on forming a new government.
As of Saturday, the Pentagon said that the U.S. had evacuated about 17,000 people from Afghanistan within the past week, with a total of 22,000 having secured passage out of the country since the end of July, when the Taliban had been reporting rapid territorial gains amid the Biden administration’s withdrawal of U.S. troops.
With Taliban co-founder Abdul Ghani Baradar now in Kabul to participate in talks on the formation of a new government in Afghanistan, just days after the insurgent group took over the capital city, the pressure is even higher for President Biden and his security team to quickly evacuate the large numbers of U.S. citizens and Afghan civilians still attempting to flee the country.
While U.S., NATO and other allied security forces were able to clear the airport runways earlier this week of civilians who desperately crowded around evacuation planes, footage circulated on social media Saturday showed that large groups of people are continuing to gather outside Kabul’s Hamid Karzai International Airport.
The scene at Kabul airport several hours ago per source from an NGO who is trying to get people out. Main problem is that it's impossible to pass the gates and get to the planes even if you are on an evacuees list pic.twitter.com/b3bZn5B34Z
— Barak Ravid (@BarakRavid) August 21, 2021
The Biden administration is facing growing bipartisan calls to do more to evacuate people at risk of danger under the Taliban, which during its previous reign from 1996 to 2001 carried out a brutal regime of widespread executions and limited rights for citizens, especially women and girls.
Concerns on security threats have ramped up amid reports that Americans and Afghans attempting to flee have been attacked by Taliban militants, with Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin telling lawmakers on Friday that some attempting to reach Kabul’s airport “have been harassed or even beaten by the Taliban.”
The admission from one of Biden’s top security officials contrasted remarks the president gave from the White House earlier in the day, when he said that there was “no indication” that Americans “haven’t been able to get in Kabul through the airport,” claiming that officials were able to resolve any challenges.
The U.S. Embassy in Kabul on Saturday issued a security alert warning U.S. citizens still in Afghanistan to not travel to the airport until they are instructed by the embassy to do so, citing concerns about “potential security threats.”
The Associated Press reported later Saturday that a senior U.S. official said the military had been forced to alter its evacuation plans due to potential threats from the Islamic State.
The official, who spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss military operations, said that small groups of Americans and potentially Afghan civilians would be given specific instructions on where to go and what to do given the reported threats.
Pentagon press secretary John Kirby did not address the new potential security threats in a recent briefing, and the Defense Department did not immediately respond to The Hill’s request for comment on the AP’s report.
Concerns have grown regarding how dangerous the situation has become in Afghanistan as more people have evacuated, including CNN chief international correspondent Clarissa Ward, who tweeted an image of herself aboard an evacuation flight shortly after 2 a.m. local time Saturday morning.
On our flight and getting ready for takeoff pic.twitter.com/bGaYREsbxT
— Clarissa Ward (@clarissaward) August 20, 2021
Ward for days had been covering the Taliban as they took over Kabul, facing tense moments with members of the insurgent group, including one instance when a Taliban fighter almost pistol-whipped her producer.
The journalist said in an interview with The Hill this week, “People have been saying, ‘Oh this woman is fearless,’ and I’m really not.”
“I’m very fearful and I don’t like being in situations where bullets are flying. … I flinch every time I hear a gunshot,” she added.
Biden has continued to stand by his decision to evacuate U.S. troops from Afghanistan, a move that many Republicans have blamed for the Taliban’s rapid territorial advances and takeover of the country, 20 years after the U.S. first toppled the group.
Biden on Friday vowed to do everything in his power to evacuate Americans and Afghans who assisted the U.S. during its military operations in Afghanistan, though several Republicans have called for more direct action, with some going so far as to call on members of Biden’s security team to resign.
Via The Hill