• The San Juan Daily Star

Violent clashes at Kabul’s airport reinforce fears over US withdrawal

By Dan Bilefsky

As the evacuation from Afghanistan plunged more deeply into chaos and violence, President Joe Biden is considering extending the deadline for U.S. troops to withdraw, amid a groundswell of pressure from global leaders and veterans concerned that a security vacuum could risk lethal consequences.

Violent clashes at Kabul’s airport Monday reinforced fears that the U.S. withdrawal will aggravate the already precarious security situation. The German military wrote on Twitter that a member of the Afghan security forces had died in a firefight with unidentified attackers in the early hours. It did not specify which group the Afghans were affiliated with.

Three other members of the Afghan forces were wounded in the skirmish outside the airport’s north gate, it said. U.S. and German soldiers were also drawn into the fight but were not harmed.

In recent days, the United States has scrambled to control the mayhem at the airport as thousands of Afghans try desperately to flee the Taliban, with surging crowds turning deadly. Britain’s 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.

Biden said Sunday that his administration might extend his Aug. 31 deadline, and he pledged that all evacuated Afghan allies would be given a home in the United States after they are screened and vetted at bases in other countries.

“We will welcome these Afghans who have helped us in the war effort over the last 20 years to their new home in the United States of America,” he said in remarks from White House. “Because that’s who we are. That’s what America is.”

But the Taliban have made it clear that an extension of the U.S. deadline for troop withdrawal would be unwelcome.

“They should finish the evacuation by Aug. 31 as they have promised,” Mohammad Naem, a Taliban spokesman in Qatar, said Monday.

Leaders of the Group of 7 nations will hold a virtual meeting Tuesday to discuss the increasingly dangerous situation. Prime Minister Boris Johnson of Britain, which holds the group presidency this year, is expected to broach the issue of the retrenchment as some inside Britain call for sanctions against the Taliban.

Beyond fears that the Taliban are regressing to their past behavior of violent repression, there are also worries among national security officials that the U.S. withdrawal could create a new and ongoing threat, including Islamic State terrorists regaining a foothold in the country.

“It is vital that the international community works together to ensure safe evacuations, prevent a humanitarian crisis and support the Afghan people to secure the gains of the last 20 years,” Johnson wrote on Twitter on Sunday.

U.S. military veterans have also pressed the White House not to abandon its resolve to provide a safe exit for American citizens and their Afghan allies. Dozens of organizations representing the military and veterans sent a letter to the White House on Monday requesting a meeting with Biden to discuss the issue.

With Afghanistan becoming a potent emblem of U.S. retrenchment in the world, Vice President Kamala Harris met with leaders Monday in Singapore, the first stop in a trip to Southeast Asia that is aimed at bolstering ties in the region.

The Biden administration has made Asia a centerpiece of its foreign policy, hoping to build stronger ties there to counter an increasingly assertive China. But Harris’ senior aides have faced questions about whether the haphazard withdrawal from Afghanistan could undermine the administration’s diplomatic efforts.

The timing and optics of Harris’ trip to Vietnam, where she will arrive Tuesday, are particularly awkward, with scenes of desperate Afghans at Kabul airport stirring memories of another fraught war.

In just over a week since the Taliban seized control of Afghanistan, the military has evacuated 28,000 people, Biden said, and he suggested that the military had expanded the secure perimeter around the airport.

Many fear for safety of those left behind, among them the roughly 3,400 Afghan U.N. staff members in Afghanistan, especially the women. Some have expressed worry that the Taliban and their extremist allies will target them because of their foreign affiliation.

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