At Kabul’s airport, the situation grows increasingly dire
By Dan Bilefsky
As the United States scrambled Sunday to control the mayhem at the Kabul airport, the situation was growing increasingly dire for the thousands of desperate Afghans trying to flee the Taliban, with surging crowds turning deadly and the potential threat of attacks looming.
The British Defense Ministry, which has troops at the airport, said Sunday that seven Afghan civilians had died in the crowds, where people have been trampled to death, including a toddler. “Conditions on the ground remain extremely challenging,” the ministry said, offering no details about the deaths.
The day before, the United States and Germany warned their citizens in Afghanistan to avoid the airport. American officials cited the possibility of another threat: an attack by the Taliban’s Islamic State group rivals.
Jake Sullivan, President Joe Biden’s national security adviser, said on CNN’s “State of the Union” Sunday, “The threat is real. It is acute. It is persistent. And it is something that we are focused on with every tool in our arsenal.”
With the risks rising, military commanders at the airport had been “metering” the flow of Americans, Afghan allies and other foreigners through the gates, according to Maj. Gen. William Taylor of the Pentagon’s Joint Staff.
Increasingly under pressure over the dangerous and chaotic process, Biden is set to discuss the evacuation effort at a news briefing Sunday as his administration grapples with the swelling crisis.
In a sign of the enormity of the task ahead, the Pentagon has ordered six U.S. commercial airlines to help move tens of thousands of refugees from U.S. bases in the Middle East that are the evacuees’ first stops after Afghanistan. The Pentagon has moved about 17,000 people out of Kabul since Aug. 14, and those bases are filling up rapidly.
In bringing the airlines into the evacuation, Defense Secretary Lloyd J. Austin III activated Stage 1 of the Civil Reserve Air Fleet, created in 1952 after the Berlin airlift. The latest effort will involve 18 passenger jets, John Kirby, the Pentagon spokesperson, said in a statement.
Several NATO countries have pressed to keep the airport open for evacuations beyond Aug. 31, the date that Biden had set for pulling out the last U.S. troops. Biden has committed to evacuating every American and every Afghan who worked for the U.S. government but has said the mission will not be open-ended.
The situation at the airport has grown increasingly dangerous in recent days, sometimes with lethal consequences.
On Saturday morning, a former interpreter for a U.S. company plunged into a mass of humanity outside an airport gate, her family in tow. As they were jostled and elbowed, she pushed ahead, intent on securing a flight for them all.
The crowd surged, and the family was slammed to the ground. People trampled them where they lay, the woman recalled hours later. She said someone kicked her in the head. She could not breathe.
As she struggled to her feet, she said, she searched for her 2-year-old daughter. The girl was dead, crushed by the mob.
Other Afghans have given up trying to escape. A 39-year-old former interpreter for the U.S. military and Western aid groups was hiding Saturday inside a home in Kabul with his wife and two children. He said the Taliban had telephoned, telling him, “Face the consequences — we will kill you.”
The interpreter, whose identity is being withheld for safety reasons, said he had given up trying to get a flight after a harrowing, futile attempt to force his way past Taliban gunmen and unruly mobs at the airport the day before. “I’m losing hope,” he said by telephone.
On Saturday, the U.S. Embassy cited “potential security threats outside the gates” in warning Americans to stay away from the airport. U.S. officials said the most serious threat was that Afghanistan’s branch of the Islamic State, a rival of the Taliban, would attempt an attack to hurt Americans and undermine the Taliban’s sense of control. It is unclear how capable the group is of such an attack, the officials said.
In formal settings elsewhere in Kabul, the Taliban have been in talks about forming a government. One of their leaders, Mullah Abdul Ghani Baradar, arrived in Kabul to begin discussions with former President Hamid Karzai and other politicians, whose participation in any government could help lend it legitimacy overseas.
But the Taliban face an uphill struggle to govern a war-weary nation with hollowed-out ministries and a lack of financial resources. Many Afghans are far from persuaded that the group’s repressive past, in which it deprived women of basic rights and encouraged floggings, amputations and mass executions, is truly behind it.