ISIS threat forces US to change Kabul airport evacuations


KABUL, Afghanistan (AP) – Potential threats from ISIS to Americans in Afghanistan are forcing the US military to develop new ways to get evacuees to Kabul airport, a senior US official said on Saturday, adding yet another complication to the already chaotic efforts to get people out of the country after its rapid fall to the Taliban.

The official said small groups of Americans and possibly other civilians will be given specific instructions on what to do, including moving to transit points where they can be rounded up by the military. The official spoke on condition of anonymity to discuss the military operations.

The changes come as the U.S. Embassy issued a new security warning on Saturday telling citizens not to travel to Kabul airport without individual instruction from a U.S. government official. Officials declined to provide further details on the ISIS threat, but described it as significant. They said there had not yet been any confirmed attacks.

Time is running out before President Joe Biden’s August 31 deadline for withdrawing most of the remaining US troops. In his remarks on the situation on Friday, he did not pledge to prolong it, although he made a new pledge to evacuate not only all Americans in Afghanistan, but also the tens of thousands of Afghans who have contributed to the war effort since September 11. , 2001. This promise would dramatically increase the number of people evacuated from the United States.

Biden faces mounting criticism as videos depict pandemonium and occasional violence outside the airport, and vulnerable Afghans who fear Taliban retaliation send desperate appeals not to be left behind.

The Islamic State group – which has long said it wants to attack America and American interests abroad – has been active in Afghanistan for several years, leading waves of horrific attacks, mostly against the Shiite minority. The group has repeatedly been the target of US airstrikes in recent years, as well as attacks by the Taliban. But officials say fragments of the group are still active in Afghanistan, and the United States fears it could reconstitute itself more broadly as the country comes under Taliban rule.

Despite the warning from the US Embassy, ​​crowds remain outside the concrete barriers at Kabul airport, clutching documents and sometimes stunned-looking children prevented from flying by reels razor wire.

Meanwhile, the Taliban’s top political leader has arrived in Kabul for talks on forming a new government. The presence of Mullah Abdul Ghani Baradar, who returned to Kandahar earlier this week from Qatar, was confirmed by a Taliban official who requested anonymity because he was not authorized to speak to the media. Baradar negotiated the religious movement‘s 2020 peace deal with the United States, and he is now expected to play a key role in negotiations between the Taliban and Afghan government officials that the militant group toppled.

Afghan officials familiar with talks in the capital said the Taliban had said they would not make any announcements about their government until the Aug. 31 deadline for troop withdrawal.

Abdullah Abdullah, a senior official in the ousted government, tweeted that he and ex-President Hamid Karzai met with the Taliban’s acting governor for Kabul on Saturday, who “assured us that he would do everything possible for the safety of the population “of the city.

Evacuations continued, although some departing flights were far from complete due to the airport chaos. The German military said in a tweet that a plane left Kabul on Saturday with 205 evacuees, while a second plane carried only 20. Italy’s Defense Ministry announced on Saturday the evacuation of 211 Afghans, This brought the number of Afghan workers at Italian missions and their families who were safely evacuated to 2,100.

British Prime Minister Boris Johnson said on Friday around 1,000 people a day were being evacuated as part of “stabilization” at the airport. But on Saturday, a former director of a Royal Navy charity in Afghanistan said the situation was getting worse, not improving.

“We cannot leave the country because we cannot enter the airport without endangering our lives,” Paul Farthing told BBC radio.

Army Major General Hank Taylor, deputy director of the Joint Chiefs of Staff for regional operations, told Pentagon reporters on Saturday that the United States had evacuated 17,000 people via Kabul airport from the August 15th. About 2,500 were Americans, he said. US officials have estimated there are as many as 15,000 Americans in Afghanistan, but admit they don’t have reliable numbers. Over the past day, around 3,800 civilians were evacuated from Afghanistan using a combination of US military and charter flights, Taylor said. Three Afghan evacuee flights have arrived at Dulles International Airport outside of Washington, DC

Evacuations were hampered by screening and logistical constraints at intermediate stations such as al-Udeid Air Base in Qatar. U.S. officials said they had a limited number of controllers and struggled to resolve issues in the control systems.

Taylor said Kabul airport remains open and Americans continue to be treated if they get to the gates, but he and Pentagon spokesman John Kirby said the threat’s image is changing. hour by hour.

“We know we are fighting against time and space,” Kirby said. “This is the race we are in right now.”

So far, 13 countries have agreed to host Afghans at risk at least temporarily, US Secretary of State Antony Blinken said. Twelve others agreed to serve as transit points for evacuees, including Americans and others.

“We are tired. We are happy. We are now in a safe country,” said an Afghan on his arrival in Italy with 79 fellow citizens, speaking in a video released by the country’s defense ministry.

But the question that increasingly arises for many other Afghans is where will they eventually settle? Already, European leaders who fear a repeat of the 2015 migration crisis are signaling that fleeing Afghans who did not help Western forces during the war should instead stay in neighboring countries.

Staying in Afghanistan means adjusting to life under the Taliban, who say they seek an “inclusive and Islamic” government, will offer full amnesty to those who have worked for the United States and the Western-backed government and have become more moderate since their last power. from 1996 to 2001. They also declared – without further details – that they would respect the rights of women within the framework of the norms of Islamic law.

But many Afghans fear a return to harsh Taliban rule in the late 1990s, when the group banned women from going to school or working outside the home, banned television and music. , cut off the hands of suspected thieves and organized public executions.

“Today some of my friends went to work in court and the Taliban wouldn’t let them into their offices. They showed their guns and said: “You are not eligible to work in this government if you have worked in the past,” an activist from Kabul told The Associated Press on Saturday. She spoke on condition of anonymity for fear of reprisal.

With a Turkish visa but no way to reach the airport safely, the activist called the gap between the Taliban’s words and actions “very alarming”.

___

Faiez reported from Istanbul, Gannon from Islamabad and Baldor from Washington. Associated Press writer Jon Gambrell in Dubai, United Arab Emirates; Colleen Barry in Milan, Italy; Matt Lee in Washington; and Geir Moulson in Berlin contributed to this report.


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