Afghanistan: The Race to Leave
As the 31 August withdrawal deadline rapidly approaches, international evacuation efforts at Kabul’s Hamid Karzai International Airport (KBL) have become a race against time. The airport is currently managed by the US military, which agreed to withdraw all US forces by September in a landmark agreement with the Taliban last year. Without US troops on the ground, other allied forces will be unable to hold the airport or maintain a military presence in the country.
The race to evacuate the growing crowds at Kabul airport has reached a critical stage as it enters its final seven days. As the window of opportunity for evacuation efforts narrows, international pressure has been growing on the US to delay the withdrawal of remaining US forces past the deadline, with the UK, France, and Germany urging the US to push for an extension of the evacuation period during a virtual G7 leaders meeting on Tuesday. The Taliban, however, has called the deadline a ‘red line’, explicitly stating that any continued evacuations efforts past 31 August would be perceived as a violation of the Doha agreement. The US has indicated that it's not yet at a point to seek a change to the withdrawal agreement, although a final decision is expected to be announced by US President Joe Biden by Wednesday 25 August. France has already stated that French evacuation flights will stop on Thursday 26 August if the US forces go ahead with their planned withdrawal.
At the airport, the situation at the external gates remains tense, as thousands of people continue their desperate attempts to board evacuation flights. During the first few days of the Taliban takeover, reports emerged of international rescue planes having to depart from the airport after only 30 minutes on the tarmac, carrying barely 10 percent of their passenger lists. This was due to passengers who were entitled to board flights being unable to get into the airport compound amid the chaotic scenes unfolding both in and outside the airport. While evacuation efforts have been ramped up and crowd control measures improved, tensions remain incredibly high as the relentless stream of people descending on the airport gates has yet to abate.
It is believed that as many as 20 deaths have occurred amid the chaos at the airport over the last nine days, although it’s feared actual casualty figures could be much higher. At least seven people were killed when a stampede broke out at an entrance to the airport compound on Saturday 21 August. While the situation was calmer at the gates on Sunday, witnesses reported Taliban fighters firing gunshots into the air and using batons to keep people in line. On Monday, an Afghan security guard was shot dead, and three other military personnel were also injured during an exchange of fire at the north gate entrance on the military side of the airport. German military officials confirmed both US and German forces were involved in the crossfire, stating no German troops were injured.
Recent aerial images of areas surrounding the airport show roads full of people, stretching for several kilometres as thousands of people have begun to camp out on the streets. Scenes now resemble those of a refugee camp as crowds fill any available land near the airport gates. Control of the congested road leading to the north gate is divided between the Taliban and what little remains of the Afghan forces, while foreign troops guard the entrance gate. Reports have emerged of the Taliban allegedly harassing, beating, and blocking people attempting to reach the airport. The reports come despite the group issuing assurances that civilians would be allowed to travel safely to Kabul airport.
Inside the airport, it is thought that as many as 14,000 people are waiting to board flights. Many are understood to be those who fear being targeted by the Taliban for working with international governments or organisations, including professionals and graduates. As the days wear on and the crowds at the airport continue to grow, there are acute fears that countries will not be able to safely extract all foreign nationals and the Afghan citizens who worked alongside them before the end of the month. The European Union’s Foreign policy chief Josep Borrell recently warned it was “mathematically” impossible to evacuate so many people in the remaining timeframe. The UK, France, Norway, and Germany have all indicated they would need to carry out evacuations beyond the deadline in order to extract all personnel.
Meanwhile, US officials have insisted that all Americans who want to leave Afghanistan could be evacuated by the deadline. Biden is understood to be taking a “day-by-day” approach on whether the deadline will need to be extended but said commanders on the ground had indicated the situation wasn’t there yet, with the president adding that he understood the Taliban’s views on an extension. Recent reports indicate the US forces were expanding the perimeter around the airport; however, Pentagon spokesperson John Kirby stated that there were no plans at present to add to the 5,800 troops securing the airport and overseeing evacuation operations. US forces have also used helicopters on several occasions to bring people to the airport from other locations in Kabul. On Monday, almost 11,000 people were evacuated from the airport during a 12-hour operational period. Overall, it’s estimated that the US has evacuated, or facilitated the evacuation of, some 48,000 people since airlift efforts were launched on 14 August, when the Taliban’s lightning offensive saw them take the capital, leaving the Panjshir Valley – located just north-east of Kabul - the last area to hold out against the Taliban.
As of Tuesday 24 August, anti-Taliban resistance leaders continue to control the area, which has long been a stronghold of anti-Taliban opponents and resistance groups, and where numerous anti-Taliban demonstrations take place over the last week. The Taliban were recently reported to have deployed a contingent of representatives to Panjshir to resolve tensions through peaceful means. The anti-Taliban National Resistance Front of Afghanistan is a resistance group led by Ahmad Massoud – son of notorious anti-Taliban leader Ahmad Shah Massoud. A spokesperson for the group has called on the Taliban to engage in sincere peace negotiations, warning that thousands of resistance fighters were armed and prepared to fight the Taliban if talks failed. Meanwhile, the Taliban claims to have surrounded the resistance forces. Fighting has been reported in parts of the Panjshir province, with anti-Taliban resistance fighters claiming gains in two districts on Monday. The group of fighters have called themselves “Resistance 2” and are part of the anti-Taliban resistance movement in the region. Resistance 2 claimed to have retaken the Salah and Banu districts, allegedly killing dozens of Taliban insurgents. The claim comes just days after resistance fighters also claimed to have retaken the Pul-e-Hisar district.
As well as engaging in negotiations with resistance groups, Taliban leaders have also been meeting with former president Hamid Karzai and other key Afghan political figures in a bid to negotiate a peaceful transition. Details of what a Taliban-led government will look like have yet to be confirmed; however, initial reports all make one thing clear: the Taliban are keen to present a reformed and non-violent image by engaging in talks over an ‘inclusive’ government. While neighbouring Pakistan has backed an ‘inclusive’ deal with the Taliban, international observers have met the idea with scepticism and indicated a reluctance to trust the Taliban’s reassurances. The group has long been aware of its negative public image and has taken steps in recent years to attempt to distance itself from being perceived as a terrorist group. Politically, the group strives for legitimacy and as such, has re-written the narrative to force the international community to engage with them. All peace talks in recent years were hosted by Doha in Qatar, where the Taliban maintain a political office, for this very reason – to legitimise the group as a political alternative to the Afghan government. Now, the Taliban has effectively bottle-necked Kabul airport - forcing foreign governments to engage with them in order to safely extract foreign nationals and affected Afghan citizens. By entering into state-level discussions with the Taliban, the group is effectively getting valuable international recognition by using its newly acquired power as political leverage.
Reports have already emerged of Taliban executions – a worrying indicator of the group’s previous atrocities making a return. In Baghlan, a police chief was reportedly detained and executed last week. Top UN human rights chief Michelle Bachelet also claimed she had received credible reports of serious violations committed by the Taliban over the course of the last nine days, including executions of civilians and restrictions on women and anti-Taliban protests. The Taliban’s treatment of women and girls has also long been an area of concern, along with the group’s suppression of free speech and media. As a result, Bachelet has urged the UN Human Rights Council to set up a mechanism to closely monitor Taliban actions.
Meanwhile, the main point of debate at the G7 summit on Tuesday will be whether foreign troops will remain to oversee evacuations or if a civilian operation could continue to extract people safely. A civilian-run evacuation effort would avoid violating the Doha agreement in the Taliban’s eyes but would struggle logistically and be incredibly vulnerable to collapse within days – if not hours – under intense Taliban pressure following the withdrawal of foreign forces. Currently, the Taliban appear militarily and politically capable of neutralising the resistance movement in Panjshir and are in the process of installing an ‘inclusive’ government in Kabul. On Tuesday, the group announced the appointment of a new finance minister, a new intelligence chief, and an acting interior minister. A new governor and a new mayor of Kabul have also been appointed. Given the political developments, a US withdrawal on 31 August will all but spell the end of evacuation efforts from Kabul as the Taliban tightens its grip on the country.