US forces press on with Kabul airlift under threat of further attacks

US Army soldiers check evacuees at Hamid Karzai International Airport in Kabul.
US Army soldiers check evacuees at Hamid Karzai International Airport in Kabul. © US Marines handout via REUTERS

Evacuation flights from Afghanistan resumed with new urgency on Friday, a day after a suicide bombing targeted the thousands of desperate people fleeing the Taliban takeover. The US says further attempted attacks are expected ahead of the Tuesday deadline for foreign troops to leave, ending America’s longest war.


As the call to prayer echoed Friday through Kabul, along with the roar of departing planes, the anxious crowds thronging the airport in hope of escaping Taliban rule appeared as large as ever, despite the scenes of victims lying closely packed together in the aftermath of the bombing. Afghans, American citizens and other foreigners were all acutely aware the window was closing to get out via the airlift.

Thursday’s bombing near Kabul’s international airport killed at least 79 Afghans and 13 US troops, Afghan and US officials said, in the deadliest day for US forces in Afghanistan since August 2011. In an emotional speech, President Joe Biden blamed the Islamic State group’s Afghanistan affiliate, far more radical than the Taliban militants who seized power less than two weeks ago.

“We will rescue the Americans; we will get our Afghan allies out, and our mission will go on,” Biden said. But despite intense pressure to extend Tuesday’s deadline, he has cited the threat of terrorist attacks as a reason to keep to his plan.

The Taliban, back in control of Afghanistan two decades after they were ousted in a US-led invasion following the 9/11 attacks, insist on the deadline. The Trump administration in February 2020 struck an agreement with the Taliban that called for it to halt attacks on Americans in exchange for the removal of all US troops and contractors by May; Biden announced in April he would have them out by September.

US to evacuate people 'until the last moment'

While the US says more than 100,000 people have been safely evacuated from Kabul, as many as 1,000 Americans and tens of thousands more Afghans are still hoping to leave in one of history’s largest airlifts. On Friday afternoon, General Hank Taylor told a Pentagon briefing that 5,400 people were inside Kabul airport awaiting evacuation from Afghanistan. The US will be able to airlift people out "until the last moment," Taylor told reporters.

Yet more were arriving. Thursday's attack led Jamshad, who gave just his one name, to come early Friday with his wife and three small children, clutching an invitation to a Western country he didn’t want to name. This was his first attempt to leave, he said: "After the explosion I decided I would try because I am afraid now there will be more attacks and I think now I have to leave.”

The scenes at the airport, with people standing knee-deep in sewage and families thrusting documents and even young children towards US troops behind razor wire, have horrified many around the world as far-flung efforts continue to help people escape.

But those chances are fading fast for many. Some US allies have said they are ending evacuation efforts, in part to give the US time to wrap up its evacuation work before getting 5,000 of its troops out by Tuesday.

Britain said Friday its evacuations from Afghanistan will end within hours, and the main British processing centre for eligible Afghans has been closed. Defence Secretary Ben Wallace told Sky News there would be “eight or nine” evacuation flights on Friday, and they will be the last. British troops will leave over the next few days.

Italy, Spain and Switerland said they had ended their evacuation operations. And the French European affairs minister, Clément Beaune, said on French radio that France would wound up its evacuations “soon” but may seek to extend them until after Friday night. A source at the French Foreign Ministry told Reuters that ministry officials were in "operational contact" with the Taliban in Kabul and Doha in order to facilitate the evacuations.

Taliban say Afghans will be free to travel

Untold thousands of Afghans, especially ones who had worked with the US and other Western countries, are now in hiding from the Taliban, fearing retaliation despite the group’s offer of full amnesty. The militant group has claimed it has become more moderate since its harsh rule from 1996 to 2001, when it largely confined women to their homes, banned television and music and held public executions.

But Afghans in Kabul and elsewhere have reported that some Taliban members are barring girls from attending school and going door to door in search of people who had worked with Western forces.

>> Afghan women’s groups eye uncertain future under vague ‘Islamic framework’

Seeking to allay fears of a crackdown on freedoms, a senior Taliban official said in a televised address on Friday that Afghans with valid documents will be able to travel in the future at any time. "The Afghan borders will be open and people will be able to travel at any time into and out of Afghanistan," said Sher Mohammad Abbas Stanikzai, deputy head of the movement's political commission.

His address came shortly after the Taliban issued a separate statement calling on female health staff to return to work. The messages underlined efforts by the Islamist militants to reassure wary Afghans and a deeply sceptical international community that they do not plan a return to their previous regime.

Hamid Karzai International Airport at the time of the August 26, 2021 attack
Hamid Karzai International Airport at the time of the August 26, 2021 attack © RFI/Creative Department, France Médias Monde

(FRANCE 24 with AP and REUTERS)

Daily newsletterReceive essential international news every morning

Take international news everywhere with you! Download the France 24 app