Published: 16:43, August 15, 2021 | Updated: 18:05, August 16, 2021
Chaotic scenes grip Afghan airport, with reports of deaths
By Reuters

Afghans crowd at the airport as they wait to leave from Kabul on August 16, 2021. (SHAKIB RAHMANI / AFP)

Desperate scenes played out at Kabul’s international airport on Monday as thousands rushed to exit Afghanistan after Taliban leaders took control of the capital, with reports saying three people were killed.

At least three people were killed by gunfire Monday morning at the passenger terminal of Hamid Karzai International Airport, the Wall Street Journal reported, citing witnesses. Reuters reported Monday that US forces fired in the air to prevent thousands of citizens from running onto the tarmac of the airport, the last remaining area under American control. Afghanistan’s aviation authority suspended flights out of the country.

At least three people were killed by gunfire Monday morning at the passenger terminal of Hamid Karzai International Airport, the Wall Street Journal reported, citing witnesses

The US announced late Sunday in Washington it was taking steps to secure the airport as it looked to evacuate thousands of American citizens, as well as locally employed staff and their families.

With all the land border crossing now under the control of the rebel group, the airport is the last remaining exit point out of the country. But as panicked visuals from the airport show, there are fears that option may also close soon. Videos circulating on social media showed hundreds of people swarming the tarmac in an attempt to get on planes.

Top Taliban leaders, meanwhile, declared victory. The militant group took over the presidential palace Sunday shortly after American-backed President Ashraf Ghani fled the country, and said it plans to soon declare a new “Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan.”

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“We have never expected to reach such a victory -- we should show humbleness in front of Allah,” the Taliban’s deputy leader, Mullah Abdul Ghani Baradar, said in a video message congratulating his fighters and the nation on Twitter Monday. “Now is the time when we will be tested on how we serve and secure our people, and ensure their good life and future to the best of our ability.”

The speed of the Afghan government’s collapse shocked NATO allies and prompted condemnation from both sides of the US political divide over how President Joe Biden’s administration appeared to be blindsided by the Taliban’s easy advance. Dozens of countries issued a joint statement Monday calling “those in positions of power and authority across Afghanistan” to allow Afghans and foreigners to depart safely if they wish, to keep borders open and maintain calm.

As the Al Jazeera network broadcast what it said were live images of armed Taliban fighters roaming the palace and posing at desks, Kabul’s airport became the staging ground for the planned exit of most US embassy personnel, symbolizing the end of a two-decade engagement sparked by the Sept 11, 2001 terrorist attacks.

The Taliban swept through Afghanistan in a matter of weeks, taking advantage of a vacuum left by departing US and NATO forces working against Biden’s Aug 31 deadline to end America’s longest war. US officials said they’re working for an orderly departure.

Afghans crowd at the tarmac of the Kabul airport on August 16, 2021, to flee the country as the Taliban were in control of Afghanistan after President Ashraf Ghani fled the country and conceded the insurgents had won the 20-year war. (PHOTO/ AFP)

In a joint statement Sunday, the Pentagon and State Department said the US will expand its presence over the next 48 hours at Kabul’s international airport to nearly 6,000 troops to evacuate thousands of American citizens, as well as locally employed staff and their families.

All Kabul embassy personnel have been safely evacuated to the airport and the US military has secured its perimeter, State Department spokesperson Ned Price said in a statement late Sunday.

In many cases, the militants encountered little or no resistance from Afghan’s US-trained military. Key provincial centers close to Kabul and in far-flung corners of the nation fell in quick succession.

Skies over Kabul buzzed on Sunday with US military helicopters ferrying passengers from the US embassy. The American flag at the embassy was lowered. Afghans lined up for cash and many headed to the airport, desperate to book a flight out of the country.

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“We’re relocating the men and women of our embassy to a location at the airport,” Blinken said on ABC. “That’s why the president sent in a number of forces to make sure that, as we continue to draw down our diplomatic presence, we do it in a safe and orderly fashion.”

CNN reported earlier that the US will pull out all embassy personnel by Tuesday, leaving a small core of staff to operate from the airport.

Top Biden administration officials briefed members of Congress, many of whom were furious about the visible chaos to end a campaign that’s cost the lives of about 2,400 American soldiers and close to US$1 trillion.

“A proud superpower has been reduced to hoping the Taliban will not interfere with our efforts to flee Afghanistan,” Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell said in a statement.

Many analysts agreed that a Taliban takeover was predictable once the US left, Senator Chris Murphy, a Connecticut Democrat, said in an interview. “And that’s been true for a decade,” he said. “Unfortunately, it likely means we will need to have a dialogue with the Taliban.”

The Taliban has sought to portray a moderate stance, with a spokesman telling the Associated Press the group wants to form an “open, inclusive Islamic government.” Over the weekend it said it would respect public property, provide a “safe” environment for business, redeploy bureaucrats and military officers, and provide amnesty for anyone who “helped the invaders.”

The group also denied reports that it had killed prisoners and forced villagers to hand over their daughters to marry Taliban soldiers. During Taliban rule from 1996 to 2001, women were prohibited from working, attending high school or appearing in public without a burqa, a garment that covers the wearer’s entire body, head, and face.

Yet that hasn’t eased concerns on the ground, where Taliban fighters have shown signs of resuming their old ways of oppressing women. Members of the Afghan government have expressed anger at Ghani for leaving the country. The country’s official embassy account in India called him a “traitor” but later deleted the tweet.

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Biden has said he was hemmed in by a now-tattered peace accord negotiated with the group by the Trump administration, which made the popular decision to bring US troops home from Afghanistan.

Trump’s deal imposed a May 1, 2021 deadline on US forces and “left the Taliban in the strongest position militarily since 2001,” Biden said in a statement on Saturday.

“I think it’s quite clear that the Taliban have won this war,” Katherine Zimmerman, a fellow in foreign and defense policy at the American Enterprise Institute, said in a Bloomberg Television interview. “They took 20 years to do it and they have proven that their strategy of patience will outlast the US.”