Panic and desperation rose Saturday among thousands of Afghans struggling to flee the week-old Taliban takeover of Afghanistan, as gates to the Kabul airport were closed off and the U.S. embassy warned American citizens to stay away from the airport, citing “potential security threats outside the gates.”
The U.S. embassy’s warning that Americans should stay away from the airport added a new level of uncertainty to the volatile situation — which includes reports of growing hunger around the country — just a day after President Biden vowed to get all U.S. citizens to safety.
Assaulted by tear gas and by Taliban gunmen who have beaten people with clubs and whips, throngs of Afghans and their families continued to swarm the airport in hopes of getting aboard American military transport planes evacuating Americans and their Afghan allies. But the hopes of those who pressed against the airport blast walls faded as word spread that President Biden had warned that his effort to evacuate Afghans likely would not “be without risk or loss.”
The security alert instructed Americans still marooned in Kabul not to travel to the airport “unless you receive individual instructions from a U.S. government representative to do so.” U.S. officials said the most serious current threat was that Afghanistan’s Islamic State branch would attempt an attack that would both hurt the Americans and damage the Taliban’s sense of control.
Pentagon officials said airport gates had been temporarily closed but were open intermittently to allow Americans with proper credentials to enter. While the Taliban control Kabul and the area around the airport up to the entry gates, American and British troops control direct access through the gates.
Maj. Gen. William Taylor of the Pentagon’s Joint Staff told reporters on Saturday that military commanders at the airport were “metering” the flow of Americans, Afghan allies and other foreigners with proper credentials to ensure everyone was thoroughly screened and vetted.
General Taylor said that in the past 24 hours, 3,800 passengers, roughly half of them Americans, had been flown out. That figure was down from 6,000 evacuated two days ago. American officials had estimated Tuesday that there were 10,000 to 15,000 U.S. citizens in Afghanistan, but they have not provided updated numbers.
Scrambling to cope with the flood of people trying to leave the country, the Biden administration is making plans to enlist commercial airlines from outside Afghanistan to bring refugees to more bases. The effort could involve 20 airlines and would transport thousands of Afghan refugees arriving at U.S. bases in Qatar, Bahrain and the United Arab Emirates and fly them to other countries for resettlement, officials said.
John F. Kirby, the chief Pentagon spokesman, said on Saturday there had been no additional helicopter rescues of Americans in Kabul seeking to flee the Afghan capital since Thursday’s mission, but he did not rule out the possibility of similar operations in the future if local commanders believed they were warranted.
American security officials said they were concerned about the threat of an ISIS attempt to attack military or commercial aircraft.
The security alert came as a 2-year-old girl was trampled to death in a stampede outside an airport gate at about 10 a.m. Saturday, according to her mother, a former employee of an American organization in Kabul. The child was crushed when the crowd surged toward the gate, knocking over the woman and several members of her family, she said.
“My heart is bleeding,” the woman said. “It was like drowning and trying to hold your baby above the water.”
Nearby, several young Afghan men who tried to leap over a Taliban security barrier were savagely beaten by Taliban gunman, a witness said.
Haroun, 29, an Afghan who lives in France but arrived in Kabul to visit relatives before the Taliban takeover, watched the beating in horror. He had tried and failed to squeeze inside the airport to secure a flight for himself, his wife and two small children.
“How can I risk a beating like that?” Haroun said as he and his family gave up and rushed back to their temporary Kabul home.
A Taliban official said Saturday that the group’s co-founder, Mullah Abdul Ghani Baradar, had arrived in Kabul for talks aimed a forming a new government. On Tuesday, Mr. Baradar, who oversaw the signing of a troop withdrawal agreement with the United States in Qatar in February 2020, arrived to a hero’s welcome in Kandahar, the Taliban’s spiritual birthplace.
Mr. Baradar was expected to begin talks with former President Hamid Karzai and other politicians.
“The negotiations are going on right now,” said Ahmadullah Waseq, deputy of the Taliban’s cultural affairs committee, who confirmed Mr. Baradar’s arrival. For now, he said, Taliban officials are largely talking among themselves in preparation for the negotiations.
Taliban leaders have not provided details on the type of government they envision, beyond saying that it would adhere to Islamic values, a clear indication the militants intend to impose their strict interpretation of Shariah law.
The embassy alert underscored the deteriorating security situation in the capital amid reports that Taliban gunmen were going door-to-door, searching for Afghans who had worked for the U.S. government or military, or for the American-backed government. The militants are threatening to arrest or punish family members if they can’t find the people they are seeking, according to former members of the Afghan government, a confidential report prepared for the United Nations and American veterans who have been contacted by desperate Afghans who served alongside them.
A 31-year-old Afghan who worked for four years as an interpreter for the U.S. military said he had managed to get out of the country earlier this month. But he said the Taliban destroyed his home in Kabul and threatened his parents, who fled and were now living on the street in Kabul.
The International Rescue Committee estimates that more than 300,000 Afghan civilians have been affiliated with the United States since 2001, but only a minority qualify for evacuation.
President Biden said Friday that he would commit to airlifting Afghans who had helped the U.S. war effort, but that Americans were his priority.
“Any American who wants to come home, we will get you home,” he said.
The president said that he was unaware of any Americans who had been prevented by Taliban gunmen or other obstacles from reaching the airport. But two resettlement agencies in the United States reported that they had received panicked calls from Afghan-American clients holding American passports or green cards who had been unable to reach the airport.
In an interview Saturday morning, a 39-year-old Afghan, who said he worked as an interpreter for the U.S. military and the U.S. government, said an Afghan-American friend holding a green card was unable to penetrate the crowds outside the airport gates and went back home in frustration.
The Afghan, who asked to be identified as Mike — the name assigned to him by his U.S. military colleagues — said the green card holder was turned away at an airport gate manned by British soldiers even after presenting the document.
Biden administration officials have said they do not have an accurate count of the number of American citizens still stranded in Kabul and seeking to leave the country.
Mr. Biden has aimed to quell a global furor over the chaotic evacuation that has followed the Taliban’s return to power.
But with just 10 days until his deadline to withdraw all U.S. troops, Mr. Biden conceded that for many Afghans desperate to escape the Taliban and their history of brutality, “I cannot promise what the final outcome will be.”
The administration last week put out a call for volunteers across the government to help get visas processed for people from Afghanistan. The United States Citizenship and Immigration Services sent out an email describing the chance to help an “extraordinary initiative,” urging any employee in any position to apply.
Understand the Taliban Takeover in Afghanistan
Who are the Taliban? The Taliban arose in 1994 amid the turmoil that came after the withdrawal of Soviet forces from Afghanistan in 1989. They used brutal public punishments, including floggings, amputations and mass executions, to enforce their rules. Here’s more on their origin story and their record as rulers.
About 22,000 people have been evacuated by the United States since the end of July, the Pentagon said. Roughly 17,000 of those people have been taken out since Aug. 14, the day before the Taliban seized Kabul.
Life in Afghanistan has been thrown into turmoil by the Taliban’s swift and shocking takeover of the country. Taliban fighters swept into Kabul a week ago, toppling the American-backed government and there are signs they are reprising some of the same brutal elements of the Taliban government of the late 1990s.
Some women in Kabul have been beaten or threatened by Taliban gunmen for not properly covering themselves, according to residents of the capital. Afghan and international journalists have said they had been beaten or manhandled while trying to report or photograph in the capital, and demonstrators waving the black, red and green flag of Afghanistan have been assaulted by Taliban fighters.
On Saturday, the Taliban’s chief spokesman, Zabihullah Mujahid, wrote on Twitter that the Taliban had set up a three-member committee to “address media problems in Kabul.” He did not elaborate.
Witnesses at the airport described continued scenes of chaos and panic. Mike, the former translator, said he helped Taliban fighters carry two Afghan women who had fainted in the morning heat.
“The women and children were screaming to the Taliban, ‘We’re going to die!’” Mike said. “They brought us a water hose.”
One young family in Kabul said they were growing increasingly frightened after camping for three days outside an airport compound. The crush of people was so great that they had not been able to reach the gate to submit their names. They had been cleared for evacuation and told by British officials to come to the compound, they said, but had ended up sleeping in the open with small children — with no idea whether they would be admitted.
The airport bottleneck threatened to trigger another humanitarian crisis for the beleaguered country. Relief agencies are struggling to bring food, medicine and other urgently needed supplies into Afghanistan, according to officials.
Decades of war, an extended drought linked to climate change and the Covid-19 pandemic have contributed to widespread suffering. At least 14 million Afghans — a third of the country’s population — are going hungry, according to the United Nations food agency.
The World Food Program said this week that two million Afghan children were among the malnourished. Mary-Ellen McGroarty, the agency’s country director for Afghanistan, said this week that the second devastating drought in three years had destroyed crops and livestock. She said fighting this spring and summer had displaced thousands of Afghans and that a harsh winter could make things worse.
In northern Afghanistan, the Taliban faced the first armed challenge to their rule, as former Afghan soldiers, aided by villagers, drove the militants out of three districts in the mountains north of Kabul, according to former Afghan officials.
The fighting took place in remote valleys on Friday, and details of the clashes were still trickling out. But video posted on social media showed fighters and civilians tearing down the white flag of the Taliban and raising the red, green and black Afghan national flag. The former acting defense minister, Bismillah Khan Mohammadi, called the fighters “popular resistance forces,” in a tweet.
“The resistance” he wrote, “is still alive.”
Julian E. Barnes, Eric Schmitt and Matthew Rosenberg contributed reporting from Washington. Jim Huylebroek, Carlotta Gall and Sharif Hassan also contributed reporting.