At least 1,500 American citizens remain in Afghanistan with just days left before the scheduled US withdrawal from the country, but officials on Wednesday acknowledged the reality that tens of thousands of Afghan allies and others at high risk of Taliban reprisals would be left behind.
The sound of gunfire, and clouds of tear gas and black smoke, filled the air around the international airport in Kabul, the capital, as thousands of Afghans massed at the gates on Wednesday, desperate to escape ahead of the American military’s final departure on August 31, after 20 years of war.
The US embassy warned Americans later in the day to stay away from the airport and told anyone outside the perimeter to “leave immediately”. The British and Australian governments issued similar warnings.
A senior US official, who spoke on the condition of anonymity to describe confidential assessments, confirmed that the US was tracking a “specific” and “credible” threat at the airport from the Islamic State affiliate in Afghanistan, which has carried out dozens of attacks in recent years and is a rival of the Taliban.
As military and government charter flights took off every 45 minutes as part of an airlift, Biden administration officials said they had evacuated about 82,300 people since August 14, the day before Kabul fell to the Taliban. Around 4,500 of them were American citizens, with 500 more expected to depart soon.
But secretary of state Antony J. Blinken said the government was trying to track down around 1,000 American citizens still believed to be in Afghanistan who had not responded to a frantic flurry of emails, phone calls or other messages offering to evacuate them.
“In this critical stretch, we’re focused on getting Americans and their families onto planes, out of Afghanistan, as quickly as possible,” Blinken said at the state department.
He also sought to assure Afghans who had worked with the US military or embassy, and potentially hundreds of thousands of people who challenged the Taliban’s extremist ideology, that “they will not be forgotten”.
Likening images and reports of Afghans being trampled at the Kabul airport in the crush to evacuate to “getting punched in the gut”, Blinken said it would be incumbent on the Taliban to guarantee their safe passage.
He signalled that such an arrangement could be reached with a mix of economic and diplomatic pressure, and the lure of aid, but he would not discuss his level of confidence in the Taliban to keep their word beyond vaguely citing what he called their public and private commitments to allow people to leave.
“Let me be crystal clear about this: There is no deadline on our work to help any remaining American citizens who decide they want to leave to do so, along with the many Afghans who have stood by us over these many years, and want to leave, and have been unable to do so,” Blinken said. “That effort will continue every day past August 31.”
A Taliban spokesman, Zabihullah Mujahid, said on Wednesday that Afghans with valid travel documents would not be prevented from entering the airport if they were allowed in by American and Afghan forces there.
In his first sit-down interview with a western media organisation since the Taliban’s arrival in Kabul, Mujahid disputed reports that the group would begin to keep Afghans away from the airport, which had been based on his statements during a news conference a day earlier.
“We said that people who don’t have proper documents aren’t allowed to go,” he said. “They need passports and visas for the countries they’re going to, and then they can leave by air. If their documents are valid, then we’re not going to ask what they were doing before.”
He also insisted that the Taliban would forgive those who fought against them, and that women would be allowed to attend school and work, within what he described as Islamic principles. Human rights officials have dismissed such assurances as disingenuous, and many Afghans have hidden in their homes, fearing harassment and violence.
Almost two dozen students and their parents from San Diego county in California are trapped in Afghanistan after they visited the country this summer, the authorities said.
The 20 students and 14 parents are stuck in Afghanistan and have requested government assistance to fly home, according to a statement from the Cajon Valley Union School district. The children range in age from pre-school to high school, said David Miyashiro, the district superintendent.
New York Times News Service