Western nations scramble to complete evacuations from Afghanistan
More than 700,000 people have been airlifted to date with no sign that the Taliban will extend an Aug. 31 deadline
Western nations rushed to complete the evacuation of thousands of people from Afghanistan on Wednesday as the Aug. 31 deadline for the withdrawal of foreign troops drew closer with no sign that the country’s new Taliban rulers would allow an extension.
In one of the biggest such airlifts ever, the US and its allies have evacuated more than 70,000 people, including their citizens, Nato personnel and Afghans at risk, since August 14, the day before the Taliban swept into the capital, Kabul, to bring to an end a 20-year foreign military presence.
US President Joe Biden said US troops in Afghanistan faced mounting danger and aid agencies warned of an impending humanitarian crisis for the population left behind.
Biden said his administration was on pace to meet the deadline, set under an agreement struck with the Islamist group last year to end America’s longest war.
“The sooner we can finish, the better,” Biden said on Tuesday. “Each day of operations brings added risk to our troops.”
Two US officials, speaking on condition of anonymity, said there was growing concern about the risk of suicide bombings by Islamic State at the airport.
British foreign minister Dominic Raab said the deadline for evacuating people was up to the last minute of the month.
Tens of thousands of Afghans fearing persecution have thronged Kabul’s airport since the Taliban takeover, the fortunate ones securing seats on flights.
Many people milled about outside the airport hoping to get out as soldiers from the US, Britain and other nations were trying to maintain order amid the dust and heat.
They carried bags and suitcases stuffed with possessions, and waved documents at soldiers in the hope of gaining entry. One man, standing knee-deep in a flooded ditch, passed a child to man above him.
“I learnt from an email from London that the Americans are taking people out, that’s why I’ve come so I can go abroad,” said Aizaz Ullah.
While the focus is now on those trying to flee, the risk of starvation, disease and persecution is rising for the rest of the population, aid agencies say.
“There’s a perfect storm coming because of several years of drought, conflict, economic deterioration, compounded by Covid,” David Beasley, executive director of the UN World Food Programme, said in Doha.
He called for the international community to donate $200m in food aid. “The number of people marching towards starvation has spiked to now 14-million,” Beasley said.
The EU said this week it was planning to quadruple aid and was seeking co-ordination with the UN on delivery as well as safety guarantees.
The UN human rights chief said she had received credible reports of serious violations by the Taliban, including “summary executions” of civilians and Afghan security forces who had surrendered. The Taliban have said they will investigate reports of atrocities.
The Taliban’s 1996-2001 rule was marked by harsh Sharia law, with many political rights and basic freedoms curtailed and women severely oppressed. Afghanistan was also a hub for anti-Western militants, and Washington, London and others fear it might become so again.
A Nato diplomat in Kabul, who declined to be identified, said several international aid groups were desperate to get Afghan staff out and neighbouring countries should open their land borders to allow more people to leave.
“Iran, Pakistan and Tajikistan should be pulling out far more people using either air or land routes. It’s vital air and land routes are used at a very fast pace,” the diplomat said.
The Taliban have said all foreign evacuations must be completed by August 31, and asked the US to stop urging talented Afghans to leave, while also trying to persuade people at the airport to go home, saying they had nothing to fear.
“Foreign troops should withdraw by the deadline. It will pave the way for resumption of civilian flights,” Taliban spokesperson Suhail Shaheen said on Twitter. “People with legal documents can travel through commercial flights after August 31.”
The Dutch government said it was all but certain that many people eligible for asylum would not be taken out in time.
Dutch troops had managed to get more than 100 people to Kabul airport, foreign minister Sigrid Kaag said, but hundreds of others risked being left behind.
The US-backed government collapsed after the US and its allies withdrew troops two decades after they ousted the Taliban in the weeks after the September 11, 2001, attacks on America Al-Qaeda, whose leaders had found safe haven in Taliban-ruled Afghanistan.
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