Tens of thousands of people in Afghanistan are waiting nervously to see whether the US will deliver on Joe Biden’s pledge to evacuate all Americans and all Afghans who aided the war effort, as American helicopters plucked people from locations beyond the chaotic Kabul airport and its Taliban checkpoints.
Time is running out ahead of the US president’s August 31 deadline to withdraw most remaining US troops, and on Friday night he did not commit to extending it.
He faces growing criticism as videos depict chaos and occasional violence outside the airport, and vulnerable Afghans who fear the Taliban’s retaliation send desperate pleas not to be left behind.
In a new security warning, the US Embassy on Saturday told citizens not to travel to Kabul airport without “individual instructions from a US government representative”, citing potential security threats outside its gates.
The Gulf nation of Bahrain on Saturday announced it was allowing flights to use its transit facilities for the evacuation, an option that should ease pressure after the US faced issues on Friday with its facilities at Al-Udeid Air Base in Qatar rapidly filling up.
The backlog forced flights from Kabul’s international airport to stop for several hours.
The United Arab Emirates said on Saturday that it would host up to 5,000 Afghans “prior to their departure to other countries”.
Tens of thousands of Afghan translators and others, and their close family members, are seeking evacuation after the Taliban’s shockingly swift takeover of Afghanistan in a little over a week.
The fall of Kabul marked the final chapter of America’s longest war, which began after the September 11 terror attacks in 2001.
Taliban leader Mullah Abdul Ghani Baradar, who negotiated the religious movement’s 2020 peace deal with the US, is in Kabul for meetings with the group’s leadership, a Taliban official said.
The mullah’s presence is significant because he has often held talks with Afghan leaders like ex-president Hamid Karzai.
Afghan officials familiar with the many talks held in the capital say the Taliban have said they will not make announcements on their government until the August 31 deadline for the troop withdrawal passes.
On Friday, a defence official said about 5,700 people, including 250 Americans, were flown out of Kabul aboard 16 C-17 transport planes, guarded by a temporary US military deployment that is building to 6,000 troops.
On each of the previous two days, about 2,000 people were airlifted.
Officials also confirmed that US military helicopters flew beyond Kabul airport to scoop up 169 Americans. No one knows how many US citizens remain in Afghanistan, but estimates have ranged as high as 15,000.
So far, 13 countries have agreed to host at-risk Afghans at least temporarily, US secretary of state Antony Blinken said. Another 12 have agreed to serve as transit points for evacuees, including Americans and others.
Remaining in Afghanistan means adapting to life under the Taliban, who say they seek an “inclusive, Islamic” government, offer full amnesty to those who worked for the US and the Western-backed government and claim they have become more moderate since they last held power from 1996 to 2001.
They also say they will honour women’s rights within the norms of Islamic law.
But many Afghans fear a return to the Taliban’s harsh rule of the late 1990s, when the group barred women from attending school or working outside the home, banned television and music, chopped off the hands of suspected thieves and held public executions.