The good intentions and efforts of governments to evacuate as many people as possible through Kabul are coming face to face with the tragic situation in and around the Afghan airport. The only way out of a country already completely controlled by the Taliban has become a harrowing trap for all those who manage to reach its doors in the hope of escape.
The planes sent by the different countries to rescue their citizens and collaborators rarely take off from Kabul at maximum capacity. To be able to access any of the devices, you must be on the list of those evacuated by the government in question and first get around the numerous and dangerous checkpoints of the Taliban.
As several EU governments have denounced, it is increasingly difficult for Afghans trying to escape to get into the airport. The Taliban do not allow those without a foreign passport to pass. Witnesses cited by The New York Times They report that the insurgents do not hesitate to use force, hitting citizens with the butts of their rifles or even shooting.
But passing these controls is not enough. As reported by The Wall Street Journal, soldiers have fired tear gas at the crowd in an attempt to regain control of the place where the avalanches are taking place and thus try to speed up evacuations. This information does not clarify the nationality of these soldiers, who would also be firing into the air to try to make way for Afghans who are on the evacuation lists.
Defense Minister Margarita Robles recounted this Friday in RNE the difficulties that the Spanish military are trying to face in Kabul so that Afghan collaborators have access to a way out. “The situation is dramatic,” said Robles, who described a panorama of injuries, avalanches, crowds and days of waiting to leave the airport.
The images arriving from the Kabul airport give an idea of the situation. The most terrible, those of fathers and mothers who lift their babies over the barbed wire and they give them to American soldiers, trying to give their little ones a future while theirs fades.
NATO claims to be aware of the situation. Its secretary general, Jens Stoltenberg, has admitted that the “big challenge” right now is getting people who want to be evacuated from Afghanistan to the airport. “Several allies have offered to host Afghans and many allied countries send planes, but the challenge is to get people to the airport and to the plane,” he said. “Right now we have more planes available than passengers,” he acknowledged this Friday at the press conference after the meeting of foreign ministers of the Atlantic Alliance.
Against this background, with flights almost empty and crowds crowding trying to get to the runways, Human Rights Watch (HRW) has demanded that military evacuation planes be filled to remove the most vulnerable Afghans.
“No flight from Kabul should have empty seats,” said the director of HRW in Washington, Sarah Holewinski, in a telematic press conference on Friday.
“If there is space on the flights of any nation, Afghans at risk should be on a shared and unified list so they can go to different countries,” he said.
No flight from Kabul should have empty seats
The evacuation situation could get even more complicated in the next few hours. Qatar, which together with the Dubai airport has served as a base of operations and stopover for flights participating in these missions, could be on the brink of collapse and has asked not to accept any more flights, according to two journalists from Reuters and CNN.
“The United States plans to announce that its evacuation flights will land in Europe,” Reuters reporter Hümeyra Pamuk said on Twitter, adding that Qatar “is at full capacity.”
Clarissa Ward, a CNN correspondent, quotes soldiers present at the Kabul airport who inform her that there are 10,000 people ready to leave, but that Qatar “is refusing to accept more Afghans because they have reached their capacity limit.”
When will the US definitely leave?
The evacuation of people struggling to leave the country is an operation against the clock. At the moment, the United States, together with the United Kingdom and Turkey, still manages the airport, but until now, August 31 was the date set for the withdrawal of all US troops from Afghanistan.
The departure of the US from the airport would definitively sentence all those who until that day have not been able to access a flight leaving Kabul, since the Taliban control the rest of the country. Stoltenberg acknowledged that some countries suggested the possibility of “extending the schedule” for evacuations in order to “get more people out”, but at the moment the US has not announced that there will be an extension.
US President Joe Biden did admit on Wednesday that his country’s troops could stay in Afghanistan beyond the deadline he had set for withdrawal in order to complete the evacuation of all US citizens. At a press conference this Friday, the US president described the operation as “one of the largest and most difficult in history” and insisted that no American citizen will be left behind. “Let me be clear. Any American who wants to go home will come home,” he promised.
For now, Biden believes there is scope to finish the evacuations by Aug. 31. “I think we can do it by then, but we are going to make that decision on the fly,” he said.
The spokesman for the US Department of Defense, John Kirby, said on Thursday that if that deadline were postponed, talks would have to be held with the Taliban on the matter.
NATO has assured that it will maintain its cooperation through “military means” at the Kabul airport while the evacuations of its citizens and Afghans in danger last.
“While evacuation operations continue, we will maintain our close operational cooperation through allied military means at Hamid Karzai International Airport,” the Alliance’s foreign ministers said in a statement, after an emergency meeting by videoconference.
Asked about the possibility of sending more Spanish soldiers to facilitate the evacuation, Margarita Robles stated that several military personnel were traveling in the two planes that departed from Spain, who have joined the diplomats and GEOS who are working on the ground to complete the evacuation.
According to NATO, about 20,000 people have been evacuated from Afghanistan since Sunday. At the moment 237 people have arrived in Spain from four flights. The first, arrived in Torrejón de Ardoz with 53 people after stopping in Dubai. Another with 36 people arrived from Italy so that their passengers were distributed among the EU countries. This Friday, another EU plane with 38 passengers on board and another chartered by Spain with 110 Spaniards and Afghan collaborators landed in Madrid.
Those who stay
Meanwhile, the UN has asked this Friday that countries do not forget those who will not be able to escape from Afghanistan.
“These bilateral evacuations should not overshadow or replace the urgently needed international humanitarian response,” said the United Nations Refugee Agency (UNHCR).
He clarified that the fact that some countries are trying to remove from Afghanistan those who worked and provided their services during the last twenty years of foreign military presence, does not in any way exclude that Afghans can use their right to request asylum in other countries.
“All countries, within the region and outside it, must preserve the right of Afghans who arrive through regular channels or spontaneously to seek asylum,” according to the agency.
Despite the first statements to the international press in which the Taliban promised restraint and the agreement they have with the United States to allow evacuations until next day 31, the press present in Kabul has verified that the militiamen are preventing the passage of Afghans heading to the airport.
The Taliban, who assured that they did not plan to retaliate against those who had collaborated with international forces or entities, or were members of the army or police, have started house-to-house raids looking for these people and, if they cannot be found, they have threatened with killing their relatives if they do not turn themselves in, according to a UN report.