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US scrambles to fix botched Afghanistan evacuation


US scrambles to fix botched Afghanistan evacuation

White House concedes it has made ‘adjustments’ after chaotic scenes at Kabul airport

Hundreds of people gather near a US Air Force C-17 transport plane at a perimeter of Kabul international airport on Monday © AP

The Biden administration scrambled to put a botched evacuation of Afghanistan back on track on Tuesday as it admitted its original plans needed to be changed following a day of chaos and violence at Kabul’s international airport.

In an attempt to reassert control over events on the ground after the Taliban swiftly took control of the country from a crumbling Afghan military, US officials said they had re-established security at the airport and would speed up the pace of evacuations in the days ahead.

Ned Price, state department spokesperson, said the US had finally completed its evacuation of US diplomats and only a “core diplomatic presence” remained in Kabul.

General Frank McKenzie, commander of all US troops in the region, said he had spoken to Taliban leaders to warn them “against interference in our evacuation”. US citizens still in the country were told to make their way to the airport, although they were warned the US government “cannot guarantee your security as you make this trip”.

The public disclosure about the resumption of the evacuation appeared part of a co-ordinated effort by the White House to project competence after its credibility was severely undermined by Monday’s upheaval in Kabul, which included the death of at least five Afghans at the airport.

“Yes, there were chaotic scenes [on Monday] but . . . even well-drawn plans don’t survive first contact with reality, and they require adjustments, and we’ve made those adjustments,” said Jake Sullivan, the national security adviser.

The US renewed effort came as the Taliban had demonstrated its control of the capital, holding a news conference before a throng of Afghan reporters and announcing that Abdul Ghani Baradar, one of its co-founders, had arrived in Kandahar, a stronghold of the Islamists, from Qatar.

Among those killed on Monday were Afghans who mobbed a US Air Force C-17 military cargo plane as it attempted to take off.

Videos on social media appeared to show two figures falling from the aircraft after it became airborne. Ann Stefanek, an air force spokesperson, said on Tuesday that “human remains” had been discovered in the plane’s wheel well after it landed at Al Udeid Air Base in Qatar.

Stefanek said the plane had landed in Kabul on Monday to deliver equipment to support the evacuation of Afghan and US civilians, but the flight’s personnel soon faced “a rapidly deteriorating security situation around the aircraft”. The crew decided to depart the airfield as quickly as possible. “Our hearts go out to the families of the deceased,” she said.

Sullivan said US officials were talking directly with the Taliban about ensuring the safety of civilians seeking to access the airport. He said the administration had “received reports of people being turned away” by the Taliban “or even beaten” and that the US was trying to resolve those issues via a back channel with the Islamist group.

“We are concerned about whether that will continue to unfold in the coming days,” Sullivan added, although he insisted that “as things stand right now, what we are finding is we are getting people through the gate”.

Josep Borrell, the EU’s foreign policy chief, said Brussels was also prepared to engage with the Taliban to prevent a humanitarian crisis in Afghanistan. “The Taliban have won the war,” he said. “So we will have to talk with them, in order to engage in a dialogue as soon as necessary to prevent a humanitarian and a potential migratory disaster but also a humanitarian crisis.”

At its Kabul news conference, the Taliban said it would not seek revenge against government officials or Afghan soldiers, and that the group would respect the rights of women “within the limits of Islamic law”.

Earlier on Tuesday, the Pentagon said there would be about 4,000 troops on the ground in Kabul by the end of the day, and that a US Air Force aircraft had brought about 1,000 extra soldiers to Hamid Karzai International Airport overnight.

The pace of evacuations would now pick up, Pentagon spokesperson John Kirby told reporters. Between 700 and 800 people were evacuated overnight, 165 of them US citizens, while the remainder was a combination of Afghan visa holders and other nationalities.

The scale of evacuation could reach between 5,000 and 9,000 people per day, he added. 

Kirby said there had been no hostile interactions with the Taliban at the airport, which remained secure. However, he declined to provide the number of casualties caused by US planes taking off with people clinging to them.

As Biden’s top advisers laid out their efforts to resume evacuations, the president remained at his retreat in Camp David. On Monday, the president returned briefly to the White House to deliver remarks on the unfolding crisis.

The White House said Biden on Tuesday made his first call to a foreign leader since the fall of Kabul, speaking to Boris Johnson, the UK prime minister, about developments on the ground. The two leaders agreed to hold a “virtual G-7 meeting” next week so that the allies could discuss a “common strategy and approach”.

Additional reporting by Stephanie Findlay in New Delhi and Javier Espinoza in Brussels

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