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Desperation deepens in Afghanistan as evacuation operations falter

The flow of people trying to flee Taliban rule continues to overwhelm the international community.

Soldiers assist a child during an evacuation at Hamid Karzai International Airport in Kabul.
Soldiers assist a child during an evacuation at Hamid Karzai International Airport in Kabul.
Image: DPA/PA Images

Updated Aug 21st 2021, 2:23 PM

DESPERATION DEEPENED AROUND Kabul’s airport today with evacuation operations in chaos and US President Joe Biden warning he could not predict the outcome of one of the “most difficult airlifts in history”.

Six days after the Taliban took back power in Afghanistan, the flow of people trying to flee their feared hardline Islamist rule continued to overwhelm the international community.

Traffic, people and checkpoints choked roads to the airport, while families hoping for a miracle escape crowded between the barbed-wire surrounds of an unofficial no-man’s land separating the Taliban from US-troops and remnants of an Afghan special forces brigade helping them.

Video of a US soldier lifting a baby over a wall at Kabul’s airport offered the latest tragic imagery of the utter despair, following horror footage of people hanging onto the outside of departing planes.

“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 set up for people to share information on how to get out.

I have tried to get there (to the airport) for some days, but I cannot reach. Please save me.

Thousands of US soldiers are at the airport trying to shepherd foreigners and Afghans onto flights, but President Joe Biden admitted the troops’ presence offered no guarantees of safe passage.

evacuation-at-hamid-karzai-international-airport A US Marine provides fresh water to a child at Kabul airport. Source: DPA/PA Images

“This is one of the largest, most difficult airlifts in history,” Biden said in a televised address.

“I cannot promise what the final outcome will be.”

Evacuation deadline

US military helicopters were deployed to rescue more than 150 Americans unable to reach the airport yesterday morning, an official in Washington said.

It was the first report of US forces going beyond the airport to help people seeking evacuation.

A German civilian was also shot and wounded on his way to the airport, a government spokeswoman in Berlin said yesterday.

Biden had set a deadline of 31 August to completely withdraw all troops from Afghanistan, but he flagged this could be extended to continue the airlifts.

“We’re going to make that judgment as we go,” he said.

About 13,000 people have left on American military aircraft, the White House said. Thousands of others have fled on other foreign military flights.

US diminished

The crisis has cast another shadow over the United States’ status as a global superpower and its ability to help allies around the world.

The Taliban swept into the capital last week, ending two decades of war, after Biden pulled nearly all US troops out of the country.

Biden and other US allies admitted they were surprised at how quickly the Taliban were able to rout government forces, who mostly surrendered.

afghanistan-kabul-daily-life Afghan Taliban members at a security checkpoint in Kabul. Source: Xinhua News Agency/PA Images

The Taliban have promised a “positively different” form of rule from their 1996-2001 stint in power, which was infamous for an ultra-fundamentalist interpretation of Sharia law.

Women were excluded from public life, girls banned from school and people stoned to death for adultery.

They have also vowed not to seek revenge against their opponents, promising a general amnesty for anyone who worked with the US-backed government.

But an intelligence document for the United Nations said militants were going door-to-door hunting down former government officials and those who worked with US and NATO forces.

According to the confidential document by the UN’s threat assessment consultants seen by AFP, militants were also screening people on the way to Kabul airport.

The German public broadcaster Deutsche Welle reported that the Taliban had shot dead the relative of one of its journalists while searching for the editor.

Collective pride

At the first Friday prayers since the Taliban’s return to power, imams and guest speakers celebrated the defeat of the United States.

At one mosque in Kabul, gunmen flanked a scholar as he delivered a fiery speech in which he recounted how Afghans had beaten the British Empire, the Soviet Union and now the United States on the battlefield.

“Afghans have once again shown collective pride,” he said.

At another mosque, the imam referenced the tragic scenes at the airport, describing those trying to flee as not having strong enough religious convictions.

“Those with weak faith are running after or hanging from American planes,” he said.

“They should stay and build their country.”

Government talks

Taliban co-founder Mullah Abdul Ghani Baradar arrived in Kabul today for talks on establishing a new “inclusive” government in Afghanistan, a senior official said.

Other senior Taliban leaders seen in the capital in recent days include Khalil Haqqani – one of America’s most wanted terrorists with a $5 million bounty on his head.

Pro-Taliban social media feeds showed Haqqani meeting Gulbuddin Hekmatyar – a former bitter rival during the brutal civil war of the early 1990s, but still influential in Afghan politics.

A senior Taliban official told AFP that Baradar would meet “jihadi leaders and politicians for an inclusive government set-up”.

Baradar arrived in Afghanistan last Tuesday from Qatar, choosing to touch down in the country’s second-biggest city Kandahar – the Taliban’s spiritual birthplace.

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Within hours of his return, the group announced its rule would be “different” this time.

Government employees

Afghan government employees in Kabul were blocked by Taliban militants from returning to work today, the first day of the working week.

Since the group seized power six days ago, government buildings, banks, passport offices, schools and universities have remained largely closed.

Only a few private telecommunication companies have been operating in the past few days.

“I went to the office this morning, but the Taliban who were at the gate told us they have not received any orders to reopen government offices,” said Hamdullah, a government employee.

“They told us to watch TV or listen to the radio for an announcement about when to resume work.”

The Taliban have yet to form a government after sweeping to power at a speed that stunned the world.

In the chaos of a collapsed government, one concern among Afghans is continuing to earn an income.

Most roads in the capital were largely deserted save for Taliban checkpoints and patrolling militants.

Roads leading to the foreign ministry in central Kabul were also closed, an employee of the ministry told AFP.

“They aren’t allowing anyone to enter the ministry building,” he said on condition of anonymity.

“One of them even told me to wait until the new minister and directors are appointed.”

The foreign exchange market was also shut as it awaited instructions from the central bank, traders said.

Another employee at the Kabul municipality said he was disappointed that the Taliban were not reopening offices.

“I came with a lot of hope but left disappointed,” said an employee at the Kabul municipality, which also did not reopen offices.

Workers at the offices of the Ministry of Rural Rehabilitation in Kabul were, however, allowed to enter after showing their ID cards, an employee said.

© – AFP, 2021

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